How To Memorize Vocabulary

Another Twitter discussion inspired me to share what I’ve found to be a most effective vocabulary memory technique.

Let me begin by saying that this technique is not for everyone. Some students excel at visual memory; many of them prefer flash cards. However, in my experience, 85 percent of my students have benefited from the technique I’m about to describe.

Let me cut right to it: use your word in a “high imagery” sentence – one which is as silly as possible, and which plays on the sound or root of the word you’re trying to memorize.

The point is that, not only will you have an effective mnemonic, but you will enjoy greater retention, because you went through the creative process yourself. That works better than just reading a vocabulary guide, no matter how cute the memory tricks are.

If you follow Scorebusters on Twitter, you know that we post an “SAT word of the day” (usually in the morning). I’m going to demonstrate the imaging technique with the most recent 5 words we posted on Twitter.

1) *facilitate* definition: to make easier

As I looked at this word, the first thing I thought of was “face.” Then I saw “tate” and thought of “tater,” as in potato. I thought of Mr. Potato Head’s face from Toy Story next. So I wrote:

“Mrs. Potato Head can facilitate making Mr. Potato Head’s face.”

Great! If you have difficulty making these sentences at first, don’t despair. I’ve found that my students get good at it after just a few tries.

Important! – your work isn’t done here. Once you’ve made your sentences for a handful of words, you should go back and read them again. Then make an active effort to insert the words into your conversations. You’ll be amazed how many more words you retain, compared with when you just cram word lists for exams.

English: Mr. Potato Head and Friends

2) *exonerate* definition: to free from guilt or blame

For this one, I went by sound. “Ex” sounds like “eggs,” and “oner” sounds like “honor.”

“I was exonerated when I proved I didn’t throw the eggs dishonorably.”

3) *languid* definition: sluggish

Note that there is also a verb form: languish. You can use an alternate part-of-speech if you find it easier (and you’re more likely to notice that your word has multiple forms if you do – e.g. facilitate, facile).

To be honest, the first thing I thought of was the filmmaker Fritz Lang, but I’m going to let that thought go, since most of my students won’t have heard of him.

“Languid” also sounds like “language,” so I’ll just say:

“Languid turtles speak their language slowly.”

I was originally going to write “Languid people,” but I realized that turtles are sillier and would help me remember the sluggish thing.

Photo of a Florida Box Turtle (Terrapene carol...


4)  *sanguine* definition: confident

I immediately recognized that “sang” means blood in French (that’s also where the word came from), but many of you may not know a foreign word for blood (Spanish and Italian use the same root), so I’ll go with the obvious: the past tense of “sing.” And “uine” sounds like “win” here.

“The sanguine cheerleader sang for the win, for she knew our team would kick butt.”

5) *equivocal* definition: uncertain or undecided

This one practically plays itself: “equi” means and sounds like “equal,” and we can just use the word “vocal.”

“Since both idols sang their vocals equally well, the outcome was equivocal.”

Now it’s your turn. Use this technique for your vocabulary words in school, as well as your SATs.


4 comments on “How To Memorize Vocabulary

  1. gulrotkake says:

    gulrotkake i langpanne Hrm, Not the best post unfortunately. Sorry to be so blunt! You should try some Norwegian carrot cake ( gulrotkake lavkarbo ) to cheer you up instead.

  2. Normally, I filter out spam comments without a second thought. But this one gave me a chuckle, so go ahead and try some gulrotkake lavkarbo.

  3. Harry Lorayne wrote books on this mnemonic technique starting in the 1940’s and he teamed with Jerry Lucas in the mid 70’s with the book aptly named “The Memory Book”. It can still be found in book stores and on the Internet and visual techniques for numbers, words and general information are well explained.

  4. Thank you, Lawrence. I wasn’t aware of Lorayne or Lucas. I took a quick look at _The Memory Book_ on Amazon, and I see it also has many other mnemonic techniques. It should be a good read.

    Edit – I bought a copy of “The Memory Book” by Lorayne and Lucas. I didn’t know you meant THAT Jerry Lucas (I grew up watching him play basketball).

    There are many interesting techniques in this book, some of which are similar to the one I gave here. None are identical, however.

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