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How to learn vocabulary? Part 3. Active Recall

So, you’ve come across a new word/ phrase and found many associations for it. You’ve also noticed in which context it was used and how it fits in with other words. That’s great! That helps to better store it in your memory.

Now it’s time to practise retrieving the word/ phrase from your memoryThis is called “active recall”. It’s a very efficient technique highly recommended by university students. But with languages, I think, it gets even more interesting.

Because mastering vocab is not about exams or giving the right answer. It’s about having easy access to words when you need them in real life: to make yourself clear, to get your message across, to engage with others, to influence them, etc.

I’d say we can practise recall at three levels with languages:

1) with separate words/ phrases:

— just say/ write them several times. Make sure you know the pronunciation (and spelling). Try saying the new word/ phrase in different tones or styles (shouting, whispering, with different emotions);

— tell somebody about this word/ phrase, explain your associations;

— test yourself with word lists in two columns (one for the word/ phrase, the second for the translation or definition);

— create flashcards (the same principle but can be optimised with an app);

— make crosswords;

— play guessing games with your teacher, friends or study buddies OR create questions to test yourself, e.g. “what do you call it when there’s wind and trees make noise?” (rustle), “What verb can you use with a kettle?” (put on);

— prepare gapped sentenced or recordings, e.g. “It was a wonderfully warm evening. Everything was quiet, only the trees … in the wind” (rustled). Test yourself later.

2) with words/ phrases of the same category, e.g. of one topic or with the same grammatical feature:

— create a mind map or a word list. Then study the same topic with a different resource (e.g. another book or video) and recreate the map or list adding new information;

— do online tests organised by topic (e.g. “food” or “adjectives with prepositions”);

— play games – choose a topic and compete who can say more words on it (like saying words that start with the same letter);

— choose a topic, make a list of words you know in your first language and then check if you can translate them all;

— write a vocabulary story. Choose several words/ phrases and try to put them all into one logical story that makes sense.

3) with your passive vocab:

— do extensive reading (e.g. books) and listening (e.g. long podcasts, talks or lectures) or binge watch series. This way you’ll get more opportunities to see/ hear more words in context, especially those of low frequency. The context will activate their meaning and usage. Maybe it’s more passive recall, but it works;

— do more writing – diaries, articles, stories, descriptions, comments – and try to be very exact to recall words with nuanced meaning;

— try giving talks or engage in discussions on the topics you know/ like. The audience will make you choose words better (not to sound boring and repetitive), so you’ll have to recall synonyms and other ways to explain the same;

— practise retelling articles, stories, book or film/series plots in as much detail as possible. Preferably several times to different people trying to retell it better and better with each time;

— try translating and interpreting, especially of the topics you know well in your first language;

— learn by heart and then recite poems, speeches or other text.

The list of techniques is not exhaustive and I’m going to go deeper in many of them later.

For now, is there any technique that’s new to you? Is there a technique you love and use frequently?

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