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Learning Vocabulary Effectively – The 3 P’s

Category: Vocabulary | 2017-03-08

Recently, a student of mine asked me about learning vocabulary. In all honesty, this is not something I spend much time on in my lessons. There are a few reasons, but most importantly, I think student’s time in the classroom can be better spent. That being said, I don’t think vocabulary building should be avoided or left aside. It is a necessary part of the language. Clearly, without words, communication is a much more difficult task!

Finding solutions for clients and students is what we do at MLI. So, today, we are going to take a look at how to effectively learn English vocabulary. This system will work for any other language as well, but we’ll focus on English here. The basic principle of this system is simple. However, the challenge comes when we are asked to put it into practice. Without further ado, let’s dive into The 3 P’s of Learning Vocabulary!

The 3 P’s of Learning Vocabulary

So, what are the 3 P’s and how do I use them? Well, simply put, the 3 P’s are Presence, Practice and Perform. To use them is to work through the steps. This means consciously making the effort to build your vocabulary on a daily basis. If you follow these steps, learning vocabulary on your own can be easy and fun. Let’s get started!

The 3 P's of Learning Vocabulary, MacPherson Language Institute


Of the three parts of this system, presence is by far the most important. As with any system, without a solid foundation, nothing of any value can be built. So, we have to be present in the language we want to learn. This means you have to dive into the language and engulf yourself in it as much as possible. No, you don’t have to move to London for 3 months and take an intensive course. Although, both of these methods have merit. What you need to do is to add English to your life.

There are several ways to do this. Watch TV or movies. I recommend watching things you are already familiar with in your own language first. This takes the pressure off a bit, because you don’t have to figure out the story. You will have a better idea of what is going on and soak up more passive vocabulary. Read a book. Again, I urge you to start with a book you know. Or, use children’s books! This can be a hard one for adults. We feel embarrassed about reading kid’s books. However, when learning vocabulary, many of us are still at a child’s level. If you find more than two new words per page, it’s too hard. Sure, you may still get what is happening, but we want to learn. One key to learning vocabulary is fun. If we constantly struggle over new words, we miss out on that enjoyment!

Other ways of adding English to your life can be as simple as writing your to-do list in English. Or your grocery list. Sing along with the radio when you are in the car. Let it howl and have some fun! Of course, being around English speakers is also a great idea. But, for most of us, we like to build up to that! The fact is, any English exposure is a benefit to you. Take whatever chances you can get and make the most of them!

The single most effective way of maximizing the principle of presence is to think in English. Now, you may say that you can’t do that. And, I would answer that you can’t do that…YET! We want to change our internal dialogue to English, but it’s ok to start slow. When you cook supper, talk to yourself about the food. When you go to the store, talk about the items you see. “Boy, those peppers look great!” The idea is to become comfortable thinking in English. This process won’t happen overnight, but if you stick with it, it will come. Soon, you’ll be talking to yourself all day in English!


In the last step, we exposed ourselves to as much English as possible. Our passive knowledge may be strong and we might understand a lot of words. But, getting those words out and across our lips can be really tough. How often have you said, “Oh, what’s that word?” There it was right on the tip of your tongue, but just out of reach! Don’t worry, you are not alone. This is normal.

When learning vocabulary, it takes 7 meaningful interactions to bring a word into active use. So, now we have to give these words meaning. We have to create an experience around a word. This is one reason why speaking with people is such a great way to increase vocabulary. We remember events and the language used at the time because it means something to us.

At home, what you can do is keep a list of words you want to add to your active vocabulary. These can come from the TV shows, movies, books or conversations. Or they can just be words or phrases in your own tongue that you would like to figure out. My general rule of thumb is to learn no more than 5 words per day. The method may vary, but what I recommend is a two-fold approach. Start a vocabulary book and make some flash cards.

For the book, one side of the page should be English and the other your native tongue. Write the word, a short definition and a sentence that is personal. This is the key, it has to be personal! The sentence, “Cucumbers are green.” means nothing to me. So, what do I write? I write something that I can remember. For me, cucumbers belong in a gin and tonic, so that’s what I write. “When I drink a gin and tonic, I like to add a cucumber.” And now I can remember it. Write the same in your native tongue on the other side of the page. Now you can test yourself by covering one half of the book. Do the same with your flash cards. Take these cards or your book with you on the bus or train. This is a great time to practice and build that active vocabulary!


Now we have built our passive vocabulary and practiced it enough to make it active. The next step is to get out there and perform it. This is the easiest and most difficult step there is. It’s easy because all you have to do is leave your house and talk to someone. It’s difficult because for a lot of you live in a non-English speaking country. The options can be few and far between, but where there is a will there is a way!

Find an English pub, or an expat group to meet up with native speakers. There is a great group called Internations with regular meetings in most major cities. They are a group of expats and locals with an interest in meeting new people from around the world. No surprise, the most common language is English.

Another option is to book a holiday where only English is spoken. As a Canadian, I can highly recommend my home country. You will find that most native speakers are very welcoming to people who try to speak the local language. Get out there and do it. Not only will you create memories around the vocabulary you use, but travelling is fun!

Next Steps

Where do I go from here? Well, there are a lot of options out there to increase your exposure to, practice and perform your English. As I said, travel is great, but it can be expensive. Another choice is to join a weekly lesson. This has a few benefits over travelling or an app. A proper lesson will have a trained native speaker guiding your discussion, correcting your mistakes and setting a good example. In a class, the teacher can also target the topics directly to the students and their needs. If you would like to hear more about the options out there for language courses, please visit our site here. We would love to help find the right solution for you!

Let’s Hear From You

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Now I want to hear from you. What method do you use when learning vocabulary? Do you join a regular class? How about TV, do you watch it with subtitles? Comment below to let me know what you think and what you want to hear about next. To find out more, join our newsletter and get articles, tips and exclusive deals.


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