How (con)texts Help Us Remember Words


As ESL/EFL learners, you read articles and stories to improve reading comprehension. Taking new words and expressions out of the context of an article is actually one of the best ways to memorize vocabulary because you can use the word list as a memory aid to reconstruct the text. The separate words are part of the bigger story, and we all find it easier to remember stories than word lists.

In addition to marking words and scribbling notes on your textbooks or work sheets, you can also buy inexpensive paperback versions of famous novels (such as Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations”), so as to be able to circle new words or mark interesting phrases while reading. Refer to your dictionary only after finishing a full chapter so as not to disturb the reading flow.

Moving on, as you read a text, mark new or interesting words and expressions with a highlighter (the best for this is yellow) and continue reading, while guessing the meanings from the context. For understanding a paragraph’s main idea you do not have to know every word. However, if you want to increase your vocabulary, simply go back to what you have marked in yellow and look for translations suitable to the context you have, as there may be many meanings to one word. Prefer to ransack your dictionary after you have read a whole section at least once, to get the general idea.

In your two-way, bi-lingual dictionary, choose the correct definitions and translations that suit the context of the original text. You may consider scanning the other definitions and expressions for your target word. When you find another definition for your word or some expressions you may find useful in the future, add them to the lists in your vocabulary notebook, even if they have nothing to do with your context. However, consider not going overboard with this “lexical enthusiasm” as you may still not be able to use more advanced vocabulary items you find in the dictionary. Try to get a feel for the vocabulary level and register you are currently at and devote more time for actively using the words you already have in your English writing.

Remember that words are never alone!

1. As words have different meanings in different contexts, do not just copy words in isolation but use the full phrases as used in the source, when creating your notebook word lists. Words are always used as parts of phrases. Some of these appear more frequently in usage and become “fixed chunks” or collocations. For example, the verb take has numerous meanings that go beyond its basic denotation of “obtaining something”. Therefore, you should add the whole phrases with take as they come along in your course of study, such as:

phrase    meaning in a sentence using an underlined synonym
take off                              The plane soared to the sky.
take a nap                         She slept for a couple of hours.
take into consideration       Her boss thought about it carefully.
take on a new employee    The company hired new workers.
take turns playing the gameThey alternated while playing.

2. Collocations (words often appearing together as a set phrase) will help you use vocabulary correctly, as in:
"He was stung by a swarm of bees,” rather than "He was stung by a large group of bees.”

3. The following are examples of collocations representing various parts of speech combinations:
Combined Parts of Speech    Examples
verb + noun    throw a party, accept responsibility
adjective + noun     armed forces, grim determination
verb + adjective + noun     make new friends, take preventive measures
adverb + verb    strongly believe, hardly hear
adverb + adjective    definitely worthwhile, completely useless
adverb + adjective + noun    a fully air-conditioned car
adjective + preposition     (be) aware of, (be) talented at, (be) anxious about
noun + noun    television set, alarm clock

Even with simple words such as fruit, you can create your own phrases to aid memory, such as

a yellow banana, a red apple, a green pear

4. Always write the words together with their prepositions within a “word formula.” Getting those prepositions right is one of the trickiest challenges in learning a language, so always add them to your vocabulary lists where needed.

  • take care of somebody/ something (or sb/sth respectively)
  • be patient of with sb/sth
  • be interested in sb/sth