The lazy way to remember English vocabulary

There are so many ways to memory vocabulary – repetition, making sentences using the vocabulary you want to remember, using spaced repetition software, using a memory technique, etc.

I don’t deny that these methods can help you remember vocabulary. But what if you don’t want to use (or can’t use) any of these methods for some reason? Maybe you’re reading a book that is so entertaining, so much so that after you look up a word in the dictionary, you just want to continue reading ASAP. It’s not the time to take out a pen and start making sentences with that word. It’s not the time to take out your smartphone and enter the word into your vocabulary software.

This is a serious problem. If you’re like me, you probably have this experience all the time. In a situation like this, many people choose not to put any effort to remember the word altogether. But there’s still hope…

Introducing the lazy way to memorize English vocabulary

This method is based on the levels-of-processing effect, which basically states that words that are processed more deeply are remembered better. (Click here to read a summary of a research study that illustrates this effect.)

Most people don’t put any effort in remembering a word. When looking up a word in the dictionary, they just simply read the definition once. It is called shallow processing and it’s a bad way to remember anything.

So let’s use this simple method instead. I’m going to show you how it works. Suppose I want to remember the word forfeit, which means lose or be deprived of (property or a right or privilege) as a penalty for wrongdoing. Here’s what I will do:

First, I’ll analyze the visual appearance of the word by asking myself these questions:

  • How many syllables does this word have? (Two)
  • Does the word have any repeated letters? (Yes, “f” is the only repeated letter)

Second, I’ll try to process the meaning of the word deeply by:

  • Categorize the word as good, bad, or neutral. This word means “to lose something.” So I categorize it as bad. (It doesn’t really matter whether I think it’s good or bad. What matters is that this forces me to process the meaning more deeply.
  • Quickly create an unusual image (or a story) that encompasses the meaning of this word. Maybe I can imagine myself losing a lot of money because I’ve done something against the laws.

Don’t get caught up with the details. I’m telling you how I personally do it to help you get the general idea. You don’t need to follow every single step of course. You can simply come up with you own steps as long as they force you to process words deeply. Here are some more examples:

  • See whether the word share the same letters with your name
  • Come up with other words that have similar meanings to the word you want to remember

Whatever your own steps are, don’t forget to analyze both the visual appearance and the meaning of the word. Don’t analyze only the meaning. Pay attention to the visual appearance as well. We need to process them at the same them so that the brain will from an association between them.

This method is backed by scientific research

There was an experiment conducted in 1975 where the researchers asked participants to memorize a list of words. While memorizing the words, participants had to answer questions about each word’s properties. For some words, they were asked to say whether it was in uppercase or lowercase (for example, forfeit versus FORFEIT). Answering this question required a very shallow level of processing. For a second set of words, they were asked to make rhyme judgments (for example, does cat rhyme with bat?) This required a deeper level of processing. For a third set of words, they were asked to make judgement based on the words’ meaning – for example, would the word pen fit into the sentence “Can I borrow your ___”? Answering this question required the deepest level of processing.

Once all the words had been presented, the researchers gave participants a recognition test. The results were as expected. The participants were able to recognize 17% of the words in the case condition, 37% in the rhyme condition, and 65% in the sentence condition. The more deeply a word was processed, the better it was remembered.

Craik, F. I. M., and Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268–294.

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