What is the best way to learn vocabulary?

What is the best way to learn vocabulary?


Vocabulary is the body of words used in a particular language. There are many strategies and exercises you can use to teach vocabulary including definition, translation, synonyms and antonyms, word formation, lexical fields, lists of words and collocations. However, there are many particular methods that have been developed to try and learn vocabulary in the most efficient way.

One of the most commonly used though least effective methods to learn a language is The Grammar Translation Method. This method is taught in the native language of the students and the majority of the vocabulary is taught in the form of a list. There is very little use of the language trying to be learned and limited or no interaction with the students. Students are simply expected to memorise the translation. This is ineffective because it means the student may have a wide range of vocabulary or knowledge of the grammar rules but they are not articulate in that language.

Another method is The Direct Method which was created in 1986. Classes taught using The Direct Method must be conducted in the target language. The lessons of these small, intensive classes were based around everyday situations in order to be more relatable and useful. There is much question and answer interaction between students and teacher, and vocabulary was not taught in the form of a list, but rather by using demonstration, objects and pictures for concrete vocabulary, and abstract vocabulary was used in association with ideas. This way, the vocabulary is acquired more naturally as it is used in full sentences and in context. However, this method is only effective with a small number of students and requires a native teacher, so is difficult to apply in public learning environments.


Similar to this is The Natural Approach. Formulated by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in 1982, the Natural Approach is based on the way children learn language. Techniques such as communication and visual aids are used rather than grammar rules or syntactic structures. The students are given material that is slightly above their level, so they could understand the majority but still pick up new words and phrases. This method aims to be creative and mentally stimulating rather than being lectured, using tools such as games, dialogues, role-plays, debates and group work. Error correction is kept to a minimum to encourage fluidity.

Some language learning methods are created from necessity. For example, during WWII US army intelligence were required to learn several different languages in order to communicate with allies and enemies. The US military therefore funded special, intensive language courses focused on oral skills. These courses were known as the Army Specialised Training Program (ASTP) or the ‘Army Method’. After proving successful, this method was adapted for the public in the 1950’s and was renamed The Audio-lingual Method (ALM).

This method uses mimicry, memorisation of set phrases, over-learning and repetitive drills to learn the language, and new material is presented in dialogue form. Similar to the Direct Method, the mother tongue is heavily limited and vocabulary is learned in context. Pronunciation is of high importance, and there is little margin for errors whereas successful responses are immediately reinforced.

Though the ALM had its successes it sometimes proves insufficient. Some criticised the method for its inability to stimulate long term communicative proficiency, as it was too strict on inhibiting errors and placed too much emphasis on oral drills and not enough on the grammatical foundations or the reading and writing skills of a language.

Being both a teacher and a student of foreign languages, I believe all of these methods have their pros and cons, however, I think that an extensive knowledge of vocabulary is not useful if you are not also taught how to communicate, so a more immersive and context based way of learning is far more effective.