The Power of Context to Learn Vocabulary Faster!

What is the most effective way to learn new vocabulary and grammatical structures?

Let’s start with what does not, in many cases, work very well: learning new vocabulary from a list. Many of our students remember moments from their learning past when they tried to learn phrasal verbs from a list (e.g. get in, get off, get on, get off, get over, get to, etc.). If there’s one thing they agree on, it’s that that was an extremely difficult process, and they doubt they remember very much today.

So arduous and ineffective can this method of learning language be that some teaching experts have reminded us “if you want to forget something, put it in a list”.


Fortunately, there are other ways.

One is grouping new words (including phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions) into concepts, such as time, schedules, cooperation, power, etc. This helps us remember better.

The most effective way is learning from contexts, such as a dialogue or a story. The more realistic the dialogue, the better, with the best being authentic dialogues, stories or situations, such as from a movie or TV clip, a book or article, or even a song. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, but they can be included at least in part. For example, we often use short movie clips to teach short grammar points!

Another important element is recycling. It is critical for you to see new vocabulary in different contexts, and then get ample practice using it…… and then see it again in the future!

95% of our courses use a context to present new language, and provide a glossary with a second example of all new key vocabulary. One exception to this is our new course called TOEIC vocabulary, in which the vocabulary presented is specifically designed to help you with this international exam.

A Case in Point

A popular course of ours for upper-intermediate learners is “Putting Idioms to Use”. This course uses several techniques described above: it groups idiomatic expressions into concepts, presents the new expressions in a context, and gives many opportunities to see and use the new expressions. We’ve even added some authentic video clips from movies and TV that use these expressions – as an additional tool! It’s our way of saying, “These are high-frequency expressions, and here you can see it in use!”

It’s Natural

One of the biggest reasons learning by context is so powerful is because it mimics the way we all learned our first languages. We learned by being in different situations (i.e. contexts), such as eating or playing a specific game or communicating in order to do or get something. All of us learned to speak and understand our first language before we learned any grammar rules.

So we use the idea of context to help us learn our second (or third) language. However, we need to keep in mind that if you are older than 12 years old, learning will never be as easy or natural as when we were younger, because our brains have finished forming those areas.

What we can do is use the power of context to facilitate learning at any stage.

Points to keep in Mind

Your English program will be more effective if:

-it uses contexts to help facilitate your learning of listening comprehension, vocabulary and structures.

-the contexts are authentic or at least realistic.

-you take a moment to understand and absorb the contexts. Imagine the scenes. Put yourself in their shoes.

-there is some way to review and recycle language learned in previous units. Take a few minutes to do this regularly.

Happy learning!

Scott Frost