Memorizing Vocab

Make It Personal

Whether it's a weekly list for your Language Arts class, or a set of several hundred to prepare for the SATs, vocabulary words can be difficult to memorize.  If you really want vocab to stick, you have to use study techniques that build the words into your long-term memory.  Here are four tips for making the most of your vocabulary study time.

1. It's All About You

For every new word you want to learn, create an example sentence that relates to you, your life, or your interests.  When I think of the SAT word "effusive", I invariably think of my grandmother on my father's side, lovingly nicknamed Grandma Frimmet. She lived in New York, so when I was growing up we saw her only about once every two years.  During our visits, she would pinch my cheeks, hug me tight, and tell me excitedly how much I had grown.  Then, she would kiss me all over my face while saying, in her heavy New York accent, "Oy, I love it!" With such overflowing behavior, I never had any doubts as to how she felt.  This image transforms the word "effusive" from some abstraction to an experience I can connect with, and thus, remember.

2. Embrace the Bad

Sometimes you have a personal connection to a word that is negative.  This is actually a good thing -- for your memory!  Studies show that we remember what has had an emotional impact on us.  This means we remember the day we finally passed our driving test, and also the day our dog died.  

Almost everyone I know has a story about remembering a piece of information for life after being humiliated for not knowing it or for using it incorrectly.  Go ahead, turn your mortification into a memory booster!  I will never forget how to spell "epitome" after a humiliating experience in 7th grade.  I had heard the word before, but I had no idea how it was spelled, and when I read it in a book for the first time I asked the school librarian what "epi-tome" meant.  D'oh! Pat the Librarian replied cooly, "That's not how we pronounce it".  My face turned about six different shades of red, and I wanted to melt right into the carpet, but boy, do I spell (and pronounce) that one correctly every time!

3. Story Time

What if you have never had an experience -- positive or negative -- with the word's meaning or the word itself?  You can still make words personal by making their example sentences about knowledge you already have.  Connect to a story you know well.  When I think of "usurp", I call to mind the many stories in which one man steals his brother's crown, and sometimes also his family: Claudius in Hamlet or Creon in Antigone. Macbeth usurps the throne in the play named after him, and Saruman usurps the power of King Theoden through his servant Wormtongue in The Two Towers.  Literature, history, and even current events can be excellent sources of behavior and characteristics that match difficult vocabulary words.

4. And If All Else Fails, Make It Funny!

Remember what I said about memory, that we remember what we connect with emotionally?  We also tend to have better brain storage for information that is goofy, weird, or just generally funny.  If you are having difficulty connecting to a word, try making an example sentence or story for it that is hilarious, or at least strange.  

"Litigious" means prone to engage in lawsuits.  What is the most bizarre scenario you can imagine for one person suing another?  Would it be the owner of a prize Shih Tzu suing the doggie pedicurist (or is that pet-icurist, ba dum ching!) for filing the pooch's nails to the wrong length, which then resulted in the little doggie not winning at the dog show?

How good is your imagination?  Don't censor your sense of humor!  If you think of something really weird or slightly inappropriate or even down-right gross that helps you remember a word's definition, good for you!  (Just don't feel like you have to share your memory trick with me, please!)

Keep 'em!

Whichever of these strategies you use, don't forget to write down your mnemonics (memory tricks).  Make notes on your flash cards or your vocab lists, and use them as hints when you are studying.  Try to associate the word with its memory, story, or goofy idea so that every time you think of one, you think of the other. This is how you will embed the words deeply into your brain.  After all, even though you want to memorize these words so that you can ace your test or be an SAT ninja, the real point of vocabulary study is to increase your spoken and written word arsenal.  Use your new words as much as you can so that they actually become part of your vocabulary.  At that point, you won't have to work to remember them, and all of that memory space will be cleared up for much better purposes, like memorizing all your friends' phone numbers in preparation for that inevitable day when your cell phone mysteriously ends up in the washing machine...