Moving Vocabulary from Short-Term to Long-Term Memory

in Second Language Learning


How do YOU study vocabulary?  We know learning new words is difficult, and words are easily forgotten. in order to remember a word, it must be stored in our long-term memory, but did you know this is a very involved process? To improve the chances of long-term retention, research shows there are many strategies to follow when studying vocabulary  (Thornbury, 2002). Here are a few (and in my opinion, the most effective) strategies to follow:

You need to encounter and then use a word multiple times (research suggests around 40 times) before you will remember it. 

Timing your study
You are more likely to remember a word if you study it on several different occasions. Additionally, you should study the word frequently at first (let’s say every day for a week) and then slowly increase the amount of time between study sessions (once a week, then once every other week, then once a month).

When you use a word, your brain is engaged.  You have to think about many things, such as spelling, context, and word forms.  The more you think about a word and the more times you use a word, the more likely you are to remember it. 

I find creating vocabulary flashcards is one successful way to utilize these strategies.  You can make your own or use an online tool such as quizlet. Do you have other suggestions for vocabulary retention?

For other ideas on learning vocabulary, take a look at 4 Engaging Class Activities for Practicing Vocabulary.

Thornbury, Scott (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Harlow: Longman.


Brittney Peake teaches content-based courses in Academic English Studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Courses include developing English skills for professional advancement and university preparation.