Learning Vocab Long-Term


If you’re like most students, you probably have little trouble memorizing vocab words for quizzes and tests.  The night before the quiz—be honest, sometimes the period before— you cram the words into your brain and you do just fine.  But three days later, they’ve somehow vanished from your memory, leaving you with that uncomfortable feeling the next time you encounter one of them (say, on the SATs) that you should know the word but it’s gone.  D’oh!

So the question is, how do you learn words and NOT forget them?  Fortunately, there are several good tricks to this trade.

First, while you’re in training for standardized tests and acing high school in general, become a vocab sponge.  Look up and write down (or word process) any word you encounter that you do not know.  Make it a matter of pride: NOBODY uses words you don’t know, and when someone does, it gets to you and you won’t let it happen again. 😉  If you want to work out of a great vocab book, the best high school/SAT prep book on the market is Princeton Review’s Word Smart (see our CPE Bookstore page).

One of the oldest and most reliable pedagogical technique is repetition (do you know the word pedagogical/pedagogy? If not, write it down!).  Reviewing a little bit every day is THE KEY to long-term retention.   That is, rather than cramming for an hour once in a blue moon, you review your word list for just a few minutes once or twice a day.

To make this process more interesting and enjoyable, why not try using virtual flash cards? That’s right, virtual flash cards.  If you Google “flash cards Mac” or “flash cards Windows,” you’ll find a bunch of free software choices. There are a whole bunch of mobile apps, too. If you’re not so into computers and smartphones, or prefer real flash cards, they’ve worked just fine for students for many years.

Whether you use flash cards or simple vocab lists, another key is to group them not alphabetically (as most books do), but by synonym.   You know how your brain works: sometimes you remember exactly where on the page you read something (e.g., the lower left-hand side) or which words are above and below the word you’re trying to remember.  So if the words above and below the word you’re trying to remember all mean roughly the same thing, you’re golden!  CollegePrepExpress students know that’s how all the word lists on our private Download section work, and they know this technique is highly effective.

One of the benefits of using flash cards (whether virtual or real) is that in creating them, you’re already studying the words.  Research has clearly shown that a MULTI-SENSORY approach provides a more effective means to learn material than that of a single mode. In other words, SEEING the words is a start.  HEARING them—i.e., reading them out load to yourself (make sure no one’s around so you don’t feel like a total geek) makes use of a second sense.  Writing or typing them, a third (taps your kinesthetic intelligence).

Finally, if you want to own a word as part of your long-term vocabulary, USE IT in a real-world context.  As soon as you drop an “SAT bomb” in your daily life, you’ve won the war on long-term vocab memory loss.  So try dropping the words you’re learning in conversations with your parents, siblings, and friends.  Sure, you run the risk of being labeled a “geek,” but then you can laugh all the way to Harvard. 😉

In sum, here’s how to go about learning vocab for the LONG HAUL:

• Become a vocab sponge—add any new word you encounter to your growing vocab collection

• Make flash cards, virtual flash cards, or old fashioned lists

• Organize your cards/lists by synonyms not alphabet

• Use a multi-sensory approach: read, hear, speak, write, type them

• Repetition & regular review: 5-min twice a day crushes a single one- or two-hour study session

• USE them in your daily life to OWN THEM


About CollegePrepExpress

The primary purpose of CollegePrepExpress, LLC is to help students get into their top secondary schools, colleges, and graduate schools and to reduce stress surrounding the entire admissions process.

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