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Words are magic. Say a few words at a restaurant, and you get dinner! Say a few strong words like, “Hey stupid!” and you might get in a fight. Say the words, “I’m sorry,” and you might escape a fight. Say the words, “I love you,” and you might change your life forever.
Growing up, we learn words through communication. We communicate with family and friends. We communicate with teachers and neighbors. We tell stories to each other, and we talk about them. This communication grows our word power.
We also learn many words through reading stories and books. According to language experts Paul Nation and Stephen Krashen, English learners can learn the top 9,000 English words just by reading. You can communicate very well in English by knowing just the top 2,000 to 3,000 words, but the top 9,000 words will give you an advanced level of English.
You need to read millions of words if you want to learn the top 9,000 words by reading alone. To learn more about how to learn the top 9,000 words through reading, check out the story “Word Power is Life” at ReadOasis.com.
Besides communication and reading, we can learn words with word cards. Communication and reading are better than word cards because, with communication and reading, we use words in real life. But simple word cards are still a great way to learn new vocabulary.
Word cards can help you grow your word power quickly and successfully. If you are going to study words directly, word cards are excellent. Word cards are better than word lists or word books because you can change the order of a set of word cards. You can also put words in groups, like “words I got right” and “words I got wrong.”
When you use word cards, follow the 16 steps of advice below. This advice comes from vocabulary scientist Paul Nation and other experts.
- *Study the top words first. They are most common. They give you the biggest benefit for your time, and you need them first. How do you know the top words to study?
- Take a levels test. This will help you find the top words that you do not know. For example, try the Levels Quizzes at ReadOasis.com. Then you can take Word Quizzes in your level to find the words you don’t know.
- Write new words on word cards. On one side of the card, write down the word you want to learn.
- Write word translations in your language on the other side of the card.
- Try to recall the words. You can practice recall by using two sides of the card, so, don’t turn your card over too soon. Keep trying to recall the word. You want to recall the word before looking at the translation. Practicing recall or “retrieval” is the key.
- Put the card in the back of the group of cards if you get the answer right.
- Put the card in the middle of the group of cards if you get the answer wrong. This will make you see this word sooner.
- Look through the cards one or two times in one review session.
- Don’t study word cards for a long time in one session. This is not the best way to study. This is called massed-practice, and you’ll forget words sooner if you do this.
- Study for short sessions with spaces between them. This is called space-learning. You learn better if you do spaced learning. When you put a card in the middle or at the back of the group of cards, this helps you do spaced learning.
- Put the cards in your pocket. Carry word cards with you so you can review anytime. Review your words every few hours — even for a few minutes.
- Say words out loud when you use your word cards. As you improve, say the word out loud in a phrase or a sentence.
- Shuffle the order of the cards. This will challenge you to remember the words — not the order of the word cards.
- Use memory tricks. For example, think of a word in your language that sounds like the word you want to learn. For example, the Japanese word for cat is “NEKO.” To remember it, you might make up the sentence, “The NEKO is on my NECK.
- Make groups of 20-50 cards. Practice one group of cards one time. Then practice another group of cards. Then go back to the first group. This “mixing” challenges your memory, and over time, it helps you remember better.
- Believe that you can succeed. Tell yourself, “I can do this!” You need to review a new word 5-16 times to remember it. The average is about 10 times, so keep trying!
We learn new words through communication. We learn many new words by reading a lot. We can also give our word power a quick boost by using word cards. And when we learn many new words, we also get a lot of magic for communication.
*ReadOasis uses the words from the New General Service List published by Browne, Culligan and Phillips, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.