Learning vocabulary

I was teaching a class the other day, and we came across the idiom “I’ve got a memory like a sieve”. I explained that we often say this when we want to tell someone we are very bad at remembering things. Most of the students then recorded this in their vocabulary notebooks. However, I saw a couple of people with their smartphone rested on the table, quickly trying to translate a word. I guessed it was “sieve”.

“What are you doing Elena? Are you translating using Google?”

She looked sheepish, “Yes”, she replied, “I want to know what ‘sieve’ means”.

I felt disappointed for two reasons. Firstly, I do not allow translation of single words in my class; it is highly unproductive and not always accurate. If you are a google translate/multi-tran addict, I suggest you kick the habit! Secondly, because I realized that my student is not thinking in terms of chunks of language. Does it really matter what sieve is?


It is a completely different word; many words in English are used in a completely different way.

So what can you, as a student, do? Don’t underline single words. Look at the words that are around them. Ask your teacher about a whole phrase. Compare phrases in your own language and in English with your teachers help if you need to.

Secondly, think about which words are useful for you! If a word isn’t useful, then don’t worry about learning it, or at least learning it yet. When you’ve finished a class, go to an online corpus like fraze.it and do a search for the phrase, have a look how it is used, alternatively, look the phrase up in a good dictionary. Record the phrases and collocations in a book especially for vocabulary and give your page a title.

Here’s a few pictures of how I am learning Russian.

dictionary 3


dictionary 2

Forgive the mistakes!

There are a range of good resources online nowadays, most of which are free. To learn the collocations of a word, you can use a good collocations dictionary or an online tool like ozdic.com.

Matt Vesty.


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