How to learn new words

Posted by on Dec 16, 2012 in Articles | 2 comments

Do you regularly look up definitions of words only to forget them immediately?

Do you subscribe to’s “word of the day” only to find as soon as you try to remember one word the previous day’s has disappeared from your mind?

Do you want to trick easily-impressed people into respecting you by increasing your vocabulary?

The following technique might be for you.

The problem with trying to remember new words:

Rote memorization is a terrible way to learn things. Anybody who has ever crammed for an exam will tell you that once it’s over the majority of the information you ‘learnt’ goes with it. The problem is that if you don’t use what you’re learning in a practical way the brain can’t integrate it into its model of the universe and so it evaporates from the mind like steam.

When you look at a new word and its definition for a while your brain is going to have a hard time remembering it because it hasn’t seen how the word is used in practice; in real conversation.

Bi-linguists will tell you that the fastest way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself amongst native speakers. By actually using the language and getting instant feedback the words will ‘stick’. They are being used in the real world for real reasons and this is how the brain ‘locks in’ knowledge for the long-haul.

If you ever doubt this just look at how a baby learns new words. They are constantly pointing to things and identifying them. Constantly solidifying their knowledge by using words in practical ways.

With this in mind I will explain my system for learning new words:

Davy’s incredible system to improve your vocabulary incredibly.

STEP 1: The first thing you want to do if you’re making a commitment to increase your vocabulary is to start noting down words that you don’t know the meaning of so you can study them later. I have a notebook where I jot them down. If I’m at the computer when I come across the word I want to learn then I might just go straight to step 2 immediately. I live my life by nobody else’s rules! Here is an example of a page from my  notebook:

List of words to learn

STEP 2: Identify a word from your list that you’d like to learn (and actually remember) and look up it’s definition. For the sake of this example we’ll use the word ‘Reprove’. Pro-Tip: Google has a built in dictionary. Just type “Definition: Reprove” into their search box and you’ll get the goods without having to click through to another site:

definition of reprove
Soak in the meaning for a moment or two and then move onto step 3, the most important step of all

STEP 3: So far nothing new, right? Well step 3 is the part you’re probably not currently doing and if you start doing it your retention rate for new words is going to go through the roof. As we discussed before, the best way to retain knowledge is to use it in some practical way. Because of this most people intuitively realize they should try to use their new word in actual speech or writing to better cement it into their memory. The problem is that this is often hard to do in a natural way and a lot of the time you won’t be quite sure how the word even should be used in the first place.

What I’ve found to be the best way to really “get” a new word is to see the word used in lots of different contexts by people who already know the word.

How do we do this? Well the method I use is as follows:

Go to an extremely popular forum with a database of millions of posts. I like to play Poker so I use the forums at 2+2, but you can use whichever ones you prefer, so long as they have a large post count.

Go to their advanced search feature.

Type in the word you want to see used in context and make sure to choose the ‘show results as posts’ option (circled):


You’ll now be taken to the search results which will be a series of posts which all incorporate the word ‘reprove’ in normal writing. For this search 2+2 had 30 posts to read to see the word in context. My technique is to ctrl+click on each post which opens it in a new tab. I then quickly go over each tab reading how it has been used in a variety of contexts. Once this is done it’s almost impossible to forget the meaning of the word and you will be highly likely to remember to use it at the appropriate time because it now feels real. You’ve actually seen it in real discussion rather than in the theoretical confines of a dictionary.

STEP 4: At this point, if you really want to cement the word into your brainskull then by all means get on Facebook and start showing off. Why not go to your friend’s favourite profile picture and let them know “I’m reproving you for making FB uglier.”* This final step will help to spread intellectual excellence and ensure you give yourself the absolute best chance of adding a +1 to your internal dictionary.

Thanks for reading and I hope this technique is useful to you guys. Feedback in the comments is appreciated and if anybody has a different technique for learning new words with a high retention rate, I’d really love to hear it.

Since writing this article I have seen two books recommended more than once which might serve to improve your vocabulary even further if you want to invest a few sheckles:


  1. If using Google Chrome as a browser, the Google Dictionary extension is especially useful. Double-click (this is even configurable!) on any word and within a moment–boom–its definition is there to be absorbed.

  2. You can save a couple characters and type “define reprove.” Same result. :)


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