By Colm Boyd

31 Jan 2020 - 15:03

6 ideas to revise your English vocabulary

“Ah, it’s on the tip of my tongue” ... “what was it?”… “oh, and I knew it by heart” ... These are the sounds that surround language teachers day after day. As a teacher, it’s great to watch students learning new words and then incorporating them into speaking and writing activities. It’s gratifying to teacher and student alike.

What’s not so rewarding is that class, maybe four weeks later, when you come back to talking about a similar topic again. You remind students of a particular word that they saw and you’re met either with the above reactions of exasperation, or - worse yet - vacant expressions of obliviousness. As satisfying as it is for students to pick up new words and expressions, it’s really just a short-term hit. If you really want to improve your level, you’re going to need some techniques to really make that vocab stick. These are a few suggestions to help you along.

1. Brainstorming.
Thinking of vocabulary in categories may not be the most organic way to find new words but for the purposes of revision, it can be hugely beneficial. Students usually find it much easier to answer a question like “What words do I know related to Finance?” rather than “What new words did I learn last month?”. The premise is simple: choose a category, then take 90 seconds to brainstorm words and expressions related to this topic. So, the category of Computers will give me: save, delete, file, spreadsheet, etc. This activity can be done alone or competing against a friend. For my higher-level students, I usually suggest awarding bonus points for particularly impressive words. Need ideas for vocabulary categories? You’ll find a host of topics at the englishclub

2. Mindmaps.
This is a way to go further than simple brainstorming and think of the different layers of each vocabulary category. All you need to do is choose a topic, write it in a central circle and simply let your mind run wild, breaking ideas into branches and sub-branches. For example, in the category Human Body, I can first divide it into the basic elements of head, legs, arms, torso. I can then subdivide each element and then further subdivide these new elements (see diagram). You might well surprise yourself with how much vocabulary you have in your head on certain topics. Do it with a pen and paper or use the SmartArt function on your laptop’s Word program. Alternatively, you could use one of the many free mindmap apps and websites.

3. Language-learning apps.
There are so many apps out there, all with their own specific strengths. Anki, Memrise and Quizlet have really helped some of my students, especially at lower levels. In terms of revision however, most teachers would probably agree that Kahoot is simply in a league of its own. Use your laptop to log on to the website and access the “Kahoot” that you wish to revise. Questions with various answer options will appear on the screen of your laptop. These options simultaneously appear on the screen of your mobile, allowing you to select the correct one. The fact that answers are selected via mobile means that students can compete with friends as part of a really fun, interactive mobile game. Alternatively, you could also play it by yourself and compete against your previous scores. If you wish to revise certain vocabulary, you can create your own “Kahoot” by writing your own questions. Or if that seems too time-consuming, just search for a vocabulary category and you’ll find ready-prepared series of questions. Warning: highly addictive for kids and adults alike.

4. Puzzles.
Whether or not you’re the type of person to do the daily crossword at the back of the newspaper, there’s no denying that puzzles are an excellent way to jog the memory. Again, they make you think about vocabulary in categories. For exam preparation, Cambridge offer an excellent PDF of puzzles related to topics from the Arts to Sport and everything in between. Print it out and it’ll keep you busy for weeks.

If print-outs aren’t for you, there are endless numbers of online wordsearches, usually organised by vocabulary themes (just try not to look at the target words before you do the task!). 

You could also try British Council drag and drop games to really make sure you know the exact meaning of words that you’ve studied.

5. Translation.
Higher-level students can revise and test their knowledge in particular areas by translating online talks and songs. has a “Topics” page linking to talks dealing with a huge variety of issues. Let’s imagine I want to review vocabulary related to Technology. I click on this topic and perhaps select Pranav Mistry’s amazing presentation “The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology”. I click on the “Transcript” option and find the script translated into Portuguese (either variety!). I select various paragraphs and set about translating them back into their original English form. When I’ve finished a paragraph, I then listen to the talk to check whether my translation was more or less accurate. 

TED talks not your thing?  Try doing the same with pop songs. Simply choose a song related to the language area that you want to revise, and then find the lyrics on one of many sites dedicated to translating English-language songs into Portuguese. Then get translating and finally listen to the song on YouTube to see if you were right. It is a fun, guaranteed way to make language stick in your mind for years to come.

6. Draw.
If you’re even the tiniest bit artistic, illustrating words and idiomatic expressions with simple cartoons can be a really great way to revise them. A quick search on Google Images for “illustrated idioms” will give you plenty of examples as an inspiration

Rather than sitting down to memorise lists of words and expressions, choose the ones you really want to remember and draw a simple sketch. Don’t write the word/expression on your picture, leave it blank so that the next time you come back and look at it, you need to try to remember the vocabulary that corresponds. Better yet, use a simple online sketch tool to create your picture so that you can save it and come back to it in future study sessions.

Whichever way you choose to revise vocabulary, try to choose a technique which is enjoyable for you. Some experts suggest that we need to see or hear a word forty times (yes, forty!) before we learn it. And who’s got time for that? So whether you revise with a song, an app or an illustration, make your revision as fun and engaging as possible and you’ll find that language sticks much faster.