A Game for Learning New Words

A method for learning and retaining new vocabulary that you can use, or teach to your students. It has worked very well for me in moving quickly from exposure to a new word or chunk to using it well.


  • To learn new vocabulary
  • To increase learner autonomy by giving students skills to learn and retain vocabulary on their own
  • To help students notice differences between the meaning and use, denotation and connotation of new vocab
  • To give students in-depth exposure to new vocab including listening, writing, defining, and speaking


  • Dictionary or Internet access
  • Exposure to English through fellow students, films, music, TV and/or books, magazines, and newspapers

Some people ask me how I learned Russian so fast. First, of course I had great teachers and second, since I am immersed in a Russian (and Kazakh) speaking region, I don’t have much choice–either I learn Russian or I don’t eat! But there are some tricks to learning language that can be very helpful and I’ll share with you here a little game I play with myself. I’m sure I was influenced by someone somewhere, so if anyone knows where I got this idea, I’d love to know.

Incidentally, thinking of this as a game or teaching it to students as something fun can be more motivational than making it a strict methodology. Have you ever learned a new word, or found about a new celebrity, and then suddenly it seems like everyone in the whole world is saying this word or talking about this person? Or you’ve had a conversation about some topic and for the next few days you notice that everyone else is talking about that very same topic? This is a cool and eerie, but very natural, side-effect of noticing. If students can tap into that feeling of wonder and strangeness while they use this method, it will make it a lot more fun and interesting for them.

The Method

  1. Pick a word or expression that you hear or read a lot but don’t understand.
  2. Look it up in the dictionary (or ask a teacher or friend) to get an idea of what it means.
  3. Write this word or phrase down in your vocab journal (or you might put it on your daily to-do list or jot it down in the book you’re reading). Just make sure you write it so it gets locked in and so that you remember to listen for it.
  4. Now, make it your mission for a week to listen and read for this expression. Every time you hear it or see it written down, pay attention to the meaning (not only the dictionary meaning, but any nuances or connotations you can infer), the context, any words or phrases that seem to go with it. If possible, write down (to the best of your ability) the sentences you hear this word or phrase it so that you have some authentic examples to work with.

    Some questions you might ask yourself: Is it used in formal or informal contexts? Is it used regularly with other words and phrases i.e. does it seem to collocate with other words (the dictionary might help you with this, of course)? Is it always used in one form i.e. a verb that is only used in the past tense or mainly used with negative sentences? What about mood? Is it used in funny contexts? Serious contexts? When someone is angry? Does its meaning change in different contexts?

  5. After you feel comfortable, try using the word or expression. See how people react when you use it, pay attention if they repeat what you said back to you. Did they change something? Don’t be afraid to ask teachers and friends to correct you or help you either.
  6. After a week, you should feel comfortable with this new expression and ready to learn a new one.
    One word or phrase a week might seem like very slow going and there is no reason why you couldn’t have a few vocab words in mind in one week. However, this method aims to give you very deep understanding of a word or phrase and notice that it is best used with commonly encountered words. If you tried to learn, “For sooth” like this, you would probably be out of luck because we don’t use, “For sooth”, very often.

    As a quick example, I applied this method to try to learn the Russian expression, “Vryad li”. I had noticed people saying it, but I couldn’t get the meaning at all! So I looked it up in the dictionary (which took some doing since I wasn’t sure how to spell it). I discovered it meant, “unlikely” “probably not”. I also noticed from the dictionary definition that it was idiomatic, in other words no point parsing the grammar (which would be the verb ‘to lie’ and a questioning particle).

    Then I started to actively listen for it. I noticed that it was always used to begin sentences. Sometimes it was used on its own. I started to understand that it meant something like, “It is unlikely that…” I further noticed it was only used in the present tense. It seemed like expressing that idea in the past tense needed a different form.

    Then I began to test myself by using the expression and watching how people reacted. If they corrected me, I paid attention. If they looked confused I tried to figure out how I had used it wrong. I probably played this game for 5 days, and now I feel that I understand “вряд ли (vryd li)” very well. Vyrad li I can use it like a native speaker but I feel comfortable with it.

    Hope this method works well for you and your students. As always, comments are greatly appreciated.
    Also for a more hardcore way to memorize and retain vocabulary, check out Jason Renshaw’s Word Wise approach.

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