5 Secrets to Permanently Learn TOEFL Vocabulary

Jaime Miller TOEFL: Advice for Studying 0 Comments

Have you started studying for TOEFL yet?

Have you already taken TOEFL?

Are you NEVER going to take TOEFL?

Actually, your answer doesn’t matter. You’re learning English, so you already know that you need to remember new words. But have you ever learned a new word, and then forgotten the word after a few days — or even a few minutes? If you’re normal, the answer is yes.

Unfortunately, it can be really difficult and frustrating to learn new vocabulary — especially all those academic words for the TOEFL iBT. Often in school, teachers tell their students to remember lists but they don’t help their students with study techniques. Or students memorize words, but they can’t use the words, or pronounce them correctly. The result: Students of English can be frustrated, feel stupid and think that learning words is extremely difficult. It’s not!

I’ve learned alot from my professional experience (I’ve taught 3000+ hours), from my personal experience (I’ve studied French and Turkish), and from books and resources about learning and memorizing things. I want to share some of my discoveries with you!

[spoiler name=”Secret 1: set a realistic goal”]

You need to study a realistic amount of new vocabulary. If you try to learn too much at the same time, you can actually decrease the amount that you remember.

Let’s imagine that you have a word list with 30 new words and you want to learn them. Great, but…

How much free time do you actually have?

You have to sleep, take showers, get dressed and take care of yourself, eat, spend time in a bus or car, go to school, classes or work… Then there’s Facebook, family, friends, sports, television. Then there’s homework. And you need to sit and “do nothing” for a bit.

Probably just 1 hour.

You’re busy. You have a life. I imagine that you probably, really only have 1 extra hour a week to learn new words ( 60 minutes ÷ 30 words = 2 minutes a word).

Eventually, you sit down, you find your list of new words and you start looking at these new words. Ok, 2 minutes. Go! Spell it, pronounce it, memorize it, use it correctly in a sentence. Go! Go! You only have 2 minutes for each word!!!

What do you think? Does that seem realistic or possible to you? It doesn’t seem realistic to me. I know I couldn’t learn 30 new Turkish words in 60 minutes. Most students need 4 or 5 minutes to learn a new word, pronounce and spell it correctly, learn it in a sentence, and start to think with it.

Think about your normal life.

How much free time to study vocabulary do you actually have? Is this free time on Monday afternoon? Thursday night? Saturday? When?

Can you study vocabulary on the bus? Before school? Between classes? After school?

Find your free time and divide (÷) it by 5 minutes. That’s the number of new words you should study each week.

If you’re unrealistic, you will be disappointed. Learning vocabulary (and thinking fast enough to use it!) takes time, patience and devotion. Most normal humans can’t learn that much that quickly. Your eyes are not cameras. Your brain is not a bookshelf.
[/spoiler] [spoiler name=”Secret 2: make flashcards”]


You find a list of 30 words. All the words are in alphabetic order (example: all the words start with “a”, like in the photo on the right). Next to the words are either English definitions or the translation in your language. This. Is. Horrible.

Do not study from an alphabetic list!

Studying from an alphabetic list can many different create problems. Here are 2 of them:

  • You can easily confuse similar words in English (example: “Hmm… Is this English word abase or abate? Ohh! “S” or “T”?! Aggghhh!”)
  • You study in a lazy way, not in an active way (example: At the same time, you see “increase / زيادة” or “increase / aumento” or “increase / meningkatkan.” If you can see both words at the same time, you are getting LOOKING practice, not THINKING / STUDYING practice.)

Make flashcards!

If you use your alphabetic list and make flashcards, you can learn much more effectively! How? It’s easy and takes about 3 minutes for each word.

Let me show you how to make great TOEFL flashcards in this video:

Study 15 minutes a day!

Put the flashcards in your pocket. When you leave the house in the morning, take them with you. Do NOT leave your flashcards at home. Your flashcards must live in your pocket — this way, you’re always ready to study. When you’re on the bus, study flashcards for 5 minutes. Between classes, study for 3 minutes. While you’re waiting for your friend at a cafe, study for 8 minutes. Total time: 15 minutes per day.

If you can find 15 minutes every day for vocabulary, you can increase your Weekly Vocabulary Study Time to 105 minutes. That’s almost 2 hours — and much better than just 1 hour!!!
[/spoiler] [spoiler name=”Secret 3: practice pronunciation”]

There are a lot of really horrible words in English where the sound and the spelling (writing) of the word are completely different. For example: “draught” or “rough” or “through” or … The list goes on and on.

Thankfully, if you use an online dictionary, you can find the answer in seconds.

The Internet has all the answers

Click here to go to Cambridge’s online dictionary.

Then… (1) type your word; (2) select “American English”; (3) click “Look it up”

Next I see the definition and some example sentences — and if I click on the little blue “US” icon, I will hear American pronunciation! Fabulous!

On your flashcard, write a note.

I don’t want you to forget the word’s pronunciation. I always recommend that students use their own language’s alphabet (Turkish, Arabic, Cyrillic, Indonesian…) to write the English sound in their language.


English: rough

Turkish: ruf

This uses the Turkish alphabet to write an English word. It’s not a perfect method but it is better than nothing!

If you scroll/go further down Cambridge’s dictionary website, you can find alternatives for the same word…

[/spoiler] [spoiler name=”Secret 4: write the word again and again”]

It’s important to be a good speller. On TOEFL iBT, your spelling has an impact on your writing score. Sloppy [bad] spelling and stupid typos [example: My nmae si Jaime”] lower your score.

Look, I really know that English spelling is horrible. I grew up in America, I went to school and I had to learn English spelling just like you. Every week on Monday, American students are given a new list of 10 to 15 words. On Friday there’s a spelling test. Next week, there’s another list and another test. And the next week, a new list, a new test. And on, and on, and on and on. Every week: more lists, more spelling.

Fun?! Trust me, your pain was my pain. Lots of Americans are horrible spellers. The invention of Microsoft Word’s “spell check” was like a gift from god.

HOWEVER, at the TOEFL iBT exam, there will only be one spell checker: you.

Your body might remember better than your eyes

My students often ask me, “Jaime, how do you spell blah-blah-blah?” Sometimes, I can’t remember how to speak out the letters of the answer. However, if I write the word, I know immediately. My hand remembers the word’s letters. It feels right to write the right word.

Make your body remember

On some old, unimportant paper, practice writing difficult English words.

Write the word correctly 3 or 4 (or 7) times. While you write, say the word. Practice the pronunciation. Then, write the word INCORRECTLY. Yes — make a mistake! Change some letters. Spell the word incorrectly. Then cross out (draw a line through) the word and write the word correctly again.






agracaltur <-- wrong!!

[/spoiler] [spoiler name=”Secret 5: review. regularly”]

Do you remember that I told you, “Your eyes are not cameras. Your brain is not a bookshelf”? It was then, it’s true now, and it will be true six months from now.

How many of my students have been angry because they studied something one time, a few weeks (or even a few days) ago, but they can’t remember it right now? Ohhh!!! So many of my students experience this!

So… if your brain isn’t a bookshelf, then what IS your brain?

It is a muscle — you must train your brain, exercise it, ask it to remember, remember, remember. Review is the most important thing you can do.


This month, you decide that you will learn 15 new words every week for four weeks. You make your 15 flashcards, you carry around your flashcards, you study them everyday.

At the end of the first week, you put your 15 flashcards on your desk and you learn 15 more flashcards.

At the end of the second week, you review all 30 flashcards for five or ten minutes. Then you put them on your desk and you learn 15 more flashcards.

At the end of the third week, you review all 45 flashcards for five or ten minutes. Then you put them on your desk and you learn 15 more flashcards.

At the end of the month, you review all 60 flashcards.

Every week you study “old” information for a short period of time. Don’t wait weeks and weeks to remember the words. If you wait, your brain will become lazy. You must ask your brain to exercise, work, think, perform. If you study weekly it’s not stressful, and it shouldn’t be too difficult.