How to learn new words, and make them stick!

Throughout my time teaching, nothing has frustrated students more than “I don’t know the word for…” or “I forgot the word for…” This gap in knowledge is simultaneously infuriating and humiliating to students. Many students to whom I teach and with whom I speak correlate their poor English speaking skills to a lack of vocabulary. A quick Google search of “Improving vocabulary” will garner over 63,000,000 results. It’s a goal for many, many people! Whilst I’m not claiming to have reinvented the wheel, here are some of the most helpful tips and tricks I have found for not only how to learn new words, but, more importantly, how to make them stick.

Be a carnivore of language 

This subheading might conjure up images of a T-Rex devouring a dictionary, and in some sense it’s appropriate. The more exposure you have to native language through listening, reading, podcasts, videos, Ted talks, YouTube, Netflix, the Bible, video games (the list does go on), the more vocabulary you are ultimately being exposed to. This is your starting point. From here write down or record on your phone or write down words or phrases that are new for you. Try to figure out their meanings from the context and Google Translate them if needed. 


As mentioned earlier, try to figure out the meaning of the word from context before you Google it. This will help make the word more meaningful, and it also create a stronger pathway and make recalling the word easier (you can learn more about this at, which outlines many studies and research related to this).

Context is also important when recording the new word or phrase. Too often I see students write down single words on a page — no translation and no context of how to use the word. As we all know, English is a wonderfully complex language. If we take the word “get”, for example, as in “I get up at 9 am” or “I got a degree in English” or “ I am getting cold” — you can see that that one word can have many different meanings, all depending on the context of the situation. This may seem overwhelming at first. I always like to adhere to the KISS method: Keep It Simple Stupid.

Whenever you are taking note of a new word, be sure to write it in a sentence, that way you can see how it is used in a sentence as well as context. 

Example: Empirical 

It’s important to have empirical research when starting a claim. 

Family is important 

Now that you have your freshly minted word and sentence in context, it’s time to give it a baby, or maybe a brother or sister. When learning a new word, learning singular words is good, but learning multiple is even better. So how is it done? Once you feel like you understand the word, start to think about synonyms and antonyms for it. This way it’s like having insurance: if you forget your original word, you’ll be able to think of a similar word, which will either trigger you to remember the word you wanted to say, or at the very least you’ll still be understood.

Word families is a technique I like to use with my students. It’s kind of like a cheat sheet to increasing vocabulary. You take your original word, and then find the verb, noun, adjective and adverb forms of the word. 

Example: Comfort 

Verb Noun Positive adjectiveNegative adjective Positive adverb Negative adverb 
Comfort Comfort Comfortable UncomfortableComfortably Uncomfortably 

Bam! You now have six new words. Now imagine you pick four words to do this with: 6×4=24 words! This method always helps you to understand patterns, too, such as most adverbs of manner end with -ly, a common negative prefix is -un, and a common positive adjective suffix is -able. We all know that English sometimes is a language of more exceptions than rules, but if you can start to notice some common vocabulary patterns, you are more likely to have success at “guessing” the right rule. 

Imperfect practice makes perfect

Honestly, I can’t stress this next tip enough, and I realise it’s easier said than done: PRACTICE.

Students are often too afraid of the mistakes. Learning is all about embracing the mistakes. One of the first things I tell my students is that I want them to make mistakes, and (after their looks of utter confusion) I explain to them that if they aren’t making mistakes, they are not trying something different. If students stick with what they know and never venture out, they will never learn. I am not suggesting to drop them into the deep end, perhaps just a dip of the toe.

They are going to be bad, terrible, a complete and utter mess. Good! How are they supposed to take this passive knowledge and turn it into active usable vocabulary? By falling flat on their faces, my job as the teacher is to pick them up, dust ‘em off, and push them back out there. The reality is, there is no such thing as “perfect English”. The quicker students learn this, the faster and more eager they will be to try all the fun new words they have arduously learnt. 

Final thoughts

Learning a new language can be maddening, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. Remembering why you are learning and making it relatable to your life are important keys to successful learning. There’s an old joke I once heard (forgive me if I butcher it, it went something like) Polish is a forever language: it takes forever to learn. I think this can be true to all languages, because it’s almost like a living thing, always changing and adapting to culture, news, events and societies. Enjoy the journey because, in reality, there isn’t really a destination. 

If you are interested in some teaching activities related to learning new vocabulary for classroom or self-study use, click the button below:

I am an energetic English teacher with a specialized education (Master’s degree in education from Durham University). Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, I later studied in the USA and England, so I am very familiar with both American and British English. I have worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Malta, and I know how to find an approach to students of different ages and temperaments, from shy teenagers to demanding company directors. I enjoy coaching and playing basketball and spending time with my (new) family!

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  1. Pingback: Rule breaking: Why memorizing vocabulary lists is a waste of time | Sword Word Creative

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