Your Vocabulary-learning Methods May Be Confusing You

As English learners, you have probably been told of many different ways to study English:

  • Memorize 20 words a day
  • Focus on only 10 words a week
  • Read books to highlight words you do not know
  • Memorize the dictionary in order
  • Learn 1000 words a day by studying roots, prefixes, and suffixes
  • Memorize dialogue phrases
  • And the list goes on and on…

But wouldn’t it be more efficient to study English vocabulary along with grammar? Yes, grammar is essential to study, but it is only equally as important as acquiring vocabulary and mastering paralanguage.

To reach English fluency, you must gain skills in all three areas. But efficiently recalling how to say the right terms in the right order and with the right paralanguage takes considerable practice. And you need to focus on layers of memory hooks strategically built into your study.

So, what vocabulary-learning methods could confuse you, and what are a few more efficient strategies?

What Are Some Helpful Vocabulary-learning Strategies?

The most straightforward vocabulary-learning strategy is to associate a noun with a verb or an adjective that often goes with it. Essentially, you should learn new terms in pairs rather than as a list of terms in the same category or part of speech. 

For instance, learning “yellow banana” is better for long-term memory than learning “yellow” with other colors and “banana” with other fruit. This is one way you can work with your brain rather than against it.

3 Vocabulary-learning Mistakes English Learners Often Make

In the beginning, memorizing vocabulary is crucial for starting your language-learning journey. However, rote memorization techniques don’t work very well in the high-intermediate and advanced English learning levels because memorized words have no depth.

In fact, the three language learner vocabulary-learning habits that tend to confuse the language learner’s brain in the long run include:

  1. Learning a lot of topic vocabulary in the same part of speech in a weekly lesson.
  2. Focusing on grammar patterns before learning much vocabulary.
  3. Memorizing dozens of English vocabulary every week.

You see, when you learn a lot of words from the same category (like colors), it is difficult for your brain to distinguish the color names apart. “Oh, it’s that color word I learned last week with the other color words”…that’s ridiculous! Trust me, I’ve done that before, and it was rather inefficient.

A Better Vocabulary-learning Strategy

It is so much easier to recall a word from one category that you learned along with another word from another category. For example, a sensory word + noun (fluffy cat) is a better word picture in your mind that helps you visualize and name the thing you are describing.

The power of visualization in the mind is that you can apply those two terms to other things that match their picture. For “fluffy cat,” we know that “fluffy” could be used with other fluffy things, and “cat” can be used with other felines.

Learning Phrasal Verbs

This method is particularly useful in learning those devilish English phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are generally a verb + preposition for specific situations. These are famously difficult in English because prepositions are flexible in meaning, and one phrasal verb is not always acceptable in other contexts.

For prepositions, you “get into a car,” but you “get on the bus.” Why? Well, it’s complicated. A car is a smaller enclosed space, so you “get into” it, but a bus is enormous, so you “get onto” it. 

Phrasal verbs and prepositions are relative to individuals, languages, and cultures, so these take time to observe and mimic in context.

You could memorize all the general rules for these things, but there are so many exceptions and changes in English that it is much better to learn the phrases themselves than the “formula.”

Should You Study Grammar Along with Vocabulary?

Speaking of formulas, avoid focusing on grammar patterns before learning several English vocabulary pairs and phrases. After all, language came first, not grammar. Grammar is just the visual formula we use to note the general patterns of language.

The most basic sentence pattern in English is subject + verb + object. But that does not mean you can use any noun/verb combination and achieve communication. 

If that were the case, then I could say, “James gives gifts” or “Bananas paint tacos” with equal logic. So, it is necessary to learn English patterns and word combinations that are commonly used together.

How Much Should I Focus on Vocabulary When Studying English?

Honestly, the key to being fluent is to have a firm grasp of the basics. Unless you need more complex words or want to write English poetry, you shouldn’t invest your time in learning tons of words. 

In fact, the average 20-year-old American recognizes about 42,000 words but uses less than half for everyday life in America (source). This does not mean a typical American can correctly use all those words; it just means they know those words exist.

6 Ways to Study English Vocabulary Efficiently

Now that we’ve covered the three ways English learners tend to work against their brain’s long-term vocabulary retention, let’s discuss five ways to study vocabulary more efficiently.

We’ve personally used these methods to build vocabulary in our own language studies and with our students at various English levels. Let us know if you try any of these strategies; we’d love to hear from you!

1. Make Flashcards with Word Pairs

You can make flashcards of verbs and noun objects together (close the door, hit the ball, mow the lawn), adjectives and noun pairs (pretty lady, carnivorous plant, existential crisis), and common adverb-verb pairs (working hard, walking briskly, gently handle).

This is a superb method for learning collocations (words we put together or say in a certain way habitually).

2. Make Phrasal Verb + Object Flashcards

Another helpful flashcard deck to make is to match phrasal verbs with an object they are often used with (pick up the kids from school, drop off a package at the post office, calm a crying child down) (source).

Studying phrasal verbs this way will help you pick up on phrasal verbs that we tend to split with a noun from phrasal verbs we keep together. For example, here is a list of phrasal verb phrases with the actual phrasal verb highlighted:

  • cut it out
  • turn the TV off
  • plug in my phone
  • log in to Fluency Fast Track
  • wipe the table off

Though some phrasal verbs can be either split or placed together before the object (as in “pick up the kids” and “pick the kids up,” English speakers tend to prefer one over the other in specific contexts.

3. Make Simple Adjective Sentence Flashcards

Likewise, you can expand your adjective vocabulary by making simple sentence cards: subject + linking verb + subject complement.

  • He is pretentious.
  • My boss is distracted.
  • Her son is mischievous.

This is a deceptively helpful method because it allows you to use those advanced adjectives right away by giving you a mind picture (who you would describe as [adjective]) and an applicable context.

4. Go Deep

A fourth way to learn vocabulary well is by going deep: learning a word’s history, origin, and how it has changed over time. This is obviously a lot more work, but it is by far one of the best ways to learn an intangible term because it builds the most memory hooks in your mind (source).

Through such deep study, you will learn a word’s pronunciation, spelling, and semantic range, which you would learn separately otherwise.

5. Work with Your Senses

Learning new terms by engaging your senses helps you remember them long-term. As a beginner, using taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing to learn vocabulary makes sense. However, language learners should continue using their senses in intermediate and advanced English, too!

Use as many senses as possible by doing something with the term: acting it out in the mirror, incorporating it in your journal, using it in conversation, or employing it as you talk to yourself out loud about what you are doing (source). 

For intangible terms, try conversing with yourself or someone else about it. Use your paralanguage: tone, body language, and facial expressions. If you hear the term in a TV show or movie, mimic that line. Of course, if there is anything you can do to use new terms within the day or week, do it!

6. Learn Vocabulary Through Synonyms

Are you struggling to express your feelings, beliefs, and opinions to varying degrees? Learn more complex vocabulary through synonyms! Create flashcards with a few synonyms for the words you overuse and figure out any nuances or particular contexts you need to know before using a term.

You may have to work with a native speaker, tutor, or teacher to catch the shades of meaning that determine why you should use “exasperate” instead of “annoy,” “irk,” “irritate,” or “ruffle.”

Need inspiration for which words to choose? Read a book! Write a list of unfamiliar words from the text, look them up, find synonyms, and discuss them with a native speaker to ask questions and ensure you are on the right track. This method takes so much time, but it is worth the effort!

If you try these vocabulary methods out for a few weeks and still feel stuck, you may need to adjust your entire language-learning strategy to something more natural. Read Feeling Stuck in English? Break Through and Improve Your English with This 3-Step Process.

Wrap Up

The more you know about your brain and how it builds memory (both short and long-term memory), the more likely you are to retain English vocabulary and actually use it effectively. Remember, we are aiming to study smarter, not harder!



I am the wife of the man I adore, the mother of two brilliant kids, an English teacher to many wonderful students, and a writer of helpful content for the world. On any given day, you can find me outside working with my hands or sitting in a comfy chair with coffee and my Bible. I love learning languages, creating handmade items, and teaching my kids.

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