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We had a really good question about how to remember and use new vocabulary in one of our English Exlpored & Explained sessions recently.  We looked at the meaning of a phrase, thought about how the phrase can be adapted, then practised it a little.  All good, but how do you deal with new vocabulary when you are away from your teacher in the big, bad world of real life English?  

Paul Nation is a renowned linguist  famous for a “rule of 7” around learning vocabulary.  He states it takes 7 “meetings” of a word for it to become “deeply learnt” and for language learners to be able to freely use the word in the right context.

You might notice the first meeting of a word in class, when you are browsing social media, in a meeting at work, on social media, or many other ways.  If you meet a word, then you might notice it again, then look at the context it’s used in. 

Nation also suggests that it’s a good idea to leave some time  between the repetitions for the vocabulary to stick.  I can remember telling a class of mine about the “rule of 7” once and a student just repeated the word 7 times and said “I’ve learnt it!”  If only learning a second language were that easy… 

A good teacher will reuse vocabulary in class increasing the possibility of you meeting vocabulary at least seven times and actually ‘acquiring’ it. . But maybe you  are self taught, or practising  English by yourself without a teacher, so how can you apply this to vocabulary yourself?  As a language learner, you could look out for words you have recently learnt, perhaps you could write a list to refer to?  (That’s if you like writing lists, like I do!)  If you have a friend or colleague who is also working on their English skills, would you be able to test each other?  Retrieval is an important part of the 7 meetings, it could help if you tested yourself? But if you can’t remember a word, do not worry – the process of trying to remember will create a meaningful context for you which again helps the process of a word becoming “deeply learnt”.

Another “rule” of vocabulary you could try is the “rule of three” when reading.  Have you ever read a page with your trusty dictionary in your hand, only to find it takes forever; you look up each word you don’t understand, you lose track of what you’re reading, so you give up?  Why don’t you give the rule of three a try when you are reading, 

  • The first two times you see a word you don’t understand, don’t use a dictionary.  Try to work out the meaning from the sentence and the context.  If you can’t and you understand the general meaning, move on.  
  • The third time you see that word, try again to figure out the meaning from the sentence and if you can’t again, this is when you should use a dictionary. 

This makes reading a more useful and, importantly, a more enjoyable way to pick up new vocabulary. 

There are enough rules when it comes to grammar and vocabulary In English, so we don’t want to give you any more, but which of the two strategies do you think would be more useful when you are learning vocabulary?  If you are taking English classes at the moment – can you notice your teacher using the vocabulary from previous lessons in class? If you have learnt a word or two today, look out for them, it will help that word to become deeply learnt. 

Let us know in the comments which rule you are going to apply or try! Don’t forget you can sign up to our English Explored & Explained sessions for free – the sign ups for are at

I hope that you practised the rule of three while reading this blog.  If you do need help with some words, here are some useful ones for you.  

Figure (sth) out  – to think about something until you understand it 

They figured out the meaning without asking their teacher. 

Work (sth) out – to find the answer or meaning to something. 

I have to use a calculator to work out even simple calculations. 

When it comes to sth  – in relation to a specific topic 

When it comes to IT, Julia really knows what to do. 

Lose track of sth – to no longer be aware of what is happening 

I was on Instagram while watching TV  last night – I completely lost track so had to go back to the beginning!

Pick (sth) up – to learn something through practice rather than being taught it 

I picked up a little Spanish when I was on holiday in Barcelona. 


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