My 7 step process for vocabulary that sticks

Rob Ashby
The Spanish Obsessive

In this post I’ll show you a seven-step process that I’ve been using to accelerate my vocabulary acquisition. It combines a variety of skills, is interesting, and (most importantly) ensures that vocabulary is learned from its original context.

Give it a try if you’re bored with scanning through word-lists, or don’t have any system for vocabulary retention.

As part of my drive towards C2 this year, I’m once again actively studying Spanish.

During three long, pleasant weeks in Colombia (that counts as Spanish study, right?!), I picked up a few books that caught my eye.

Reading widely and frequently is one of the most important things we can do for our vocabulary, but it can be a very passive process. I wanted to be more active in my vocabulary retention, and have started playing around with the following process:

1. Read, every day.

Make sure that you really enjoy what you are reading, and that it is the right level for you. What does this mean? It should stretch you, but you should be able to get through it without having to reach for a dictionary to understand the basic gist.

Do what you can to build a daily reading habit – even if you get no further in this 7 step process, this is what will help you the most, as this is where most vocabulary acquisition takes place.

2. Highlight new words

As you read, keep a pencil (or highlighter) in your hand. Get in the habit of highlighting passages and words that you don’t know, or that seem particularly interesting to you. They may be unknown, or perhaps contain interesting means of expression that you hadn’t thought to use before.

Highlight as you go, and don’t let it interrupt your reading flow. Don’t look up any words or phrases yet.

3. Collate

Bring together your highlights periodically (this doesn’t have to be every day). Being a tech geek, I like to use an Excel spreadsheet. Make sure that you record the word as well as its context. You’ll need that later, and this is the key to bringing that word alive in your vocabulary.

This is the “busy” work. It can take a while, but I find it useful as a chance to review vocabulary, and the actual act of writing out phrases and vocabulary is also very helpful for me.

My Excel spreadsheet. This enables me to filter out words I’m not interested in learning, and makes it easier to import into other tools. It takes a while, but I enjoy the process…!

4. Translate (or define)

I have absolutely no problem with translation into English. Many language teachers claim that your native language (L1) shouldn’t be used, which may be true in classrooms and conversations, but as an efficient way of remembering vocabulary it works fine for me.

If you really have a problem using your native language, you can also use the Spanish definition of that word.

Update your spreadsheet (or notebook, or whatever you’re using) with the translation or definition.

5. Prioritise

You now have a long list of personalised vocabulary, complete with context and definitions. However, not all of these words will be worth memorising.

I like to prioritise my list, by marking an “X” in a column next to the words and phrases which jump out at me.

How do I know what to prioritise?

Some words jump out as obvious gaps in my knowledge. These tend to be nouns, and occasional verbs.

I’m also looking for words which keep cropping up. I might have recorded them multiple times in my spreadsheet, or they might be words which I vaguely recognise.

6. Transfer

I now want to commit these words to my long term memory. Part of this process is active memorisation, and for me, flashcards are the way to go.

Years ago, I spent hours creating flashcards (English one side, Spanish on the other), and had a shoe-box full.

Fortunately, that’s no longer necessary.

I started using Quizlet recently, and this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. It’s free, and it is extremely easy to create flashcards and test yourself. It has an SRS (spaced repetition system) built in, and also works on mobile.

Importantly, importing our vocabulary is extremely easy.

My preferred method is to include the Spanish on one side, and English on the other (or Spanish definition).

Make sure that you include the original phrase on the Spanish side of the card – no word should sit in isolation.

One of the reasons I like Quizlet is because it’s so easy to import from Excel.

7. Learn (but take it easy)

To recap, we now have a deck of flashcards, containing our personalised vocabulary, complete with original context.

Take a few minutes every day to review these flashcards. If you are using Quizlet, use the “Learn” function.

Make sure you test yourself by looking at the English, and recalling the Spanish. Yes, this is harder, but otherwise you are simply practising recognition.

However, don’t worry about it too much. Over time, our brains will sort the “important” words that we are missing, and as we continue to read we’ll notice those words more and more.

I use Quizlet to help me in my active memorisation. Other people use Anki, or simply create their own flashcards (or just use lists).

Try the process out, and let us know how it goes!

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