September 26, 2018

How to learn vocabulary by grouping words together

In this blog post, we look at a useful way to help us remember vocabulary – putting words into groups.  We find out how to harness our brain’s natural tendency to understand the world through association (this object is green and has leaves – it must be a plant!) to help us create groups of related words that will help us learn and remember them.  We can create groups based on different things: themes, verbs/nouns and adjectives, synonyms, prefixes – these are just a few that we explore here.

I know what you’re thinking, another post on learning vocabulary! But this technique is different from the visualisation technique or the recognising cognates technique we explored in other blog posts.  And remember, everyone is different and so everyone learns a language differently – and once you have worked out which type of language learner you are and which techniques work for you, you will have a recipe for success!

Grouping By Theme/Context

You will have heard it before, context is key to language learning.  Children learn that “hello” means “hello” because people say it to them when they see them for the first time and not when they are going away (that’s “bye bye”).  They learn that “yummy” is an adjective to describe food but not, say books.  We are no different from children in the way we learn.  When we associate words with a context, we learn and remember them more quickly.  I can assure you that you will remember that “cucchiaio” means “spoon” in Italian much more readily if you are using it to eat soup with than if you ask, “how do you say ‘spoon’?” in a car trip across the Alps and then try to remember it after a fun day’s skiing.

So, how do you group words by theme?  Try drawing and labelling a picture.  Draw a picture of the kitchen in your house and label all the things in there, draw a picture of the human body and label the parts, draw a picture of a car and label that.  If you are learning words that go together or make up a whole, you will remember them more easily.  Learn words about the weather together, learn how to say whether you are well/ill/have a headache/have a toothache together.  Learn words you will use in the classroom together.  Learn words and phrases you will need to use in a restaurant (“I’ll have a…”, “the bill, please!”).  You will remember them better than if you are learning random clusters of words.

Making Nouns and Adjectives out of Verbs

I remember when I learnt this technique to learn three words for the price of one – I was literally excited because it opened my eyes to a new, efficient way of learning!

Think of a verb in the language you are learning.  Let’s take “éclairer” (to brighten/become clear/clarify) in French.  If we look in a dictionary near “éclairer”, we will see “éclaircie” – a clear patch in a cloudy sky (which metaphorically means an improvement in a difficult situation), and “éclaircissement”, clarification.  We will also see the adjective “éclairé”, informed/enlightened.  With this exercise, we have just learnt four words instead of just one.  Try this with verbs you can think of.  You can combine this grouping technique with tools such as tables and diagrams if this will help you.

Learning Synonyms

Another way to learn several words instead of just one word at a time is to learn synonyms.  It is a good idea to use a thesaurus for this exercise.  Think of the word “hungry” in English.  How many synonyms can you think of? “Famished”? “Starving”? “Ravenous”? “Peckish”?  Try looking up  synonyms in the language you are learning and use them in conversation instead of the standard word.  This will help you remember them because you are using them and may impress your friends!

Grouping Words by Prefix

It is likely that the language you are learning will use prefixes (beginnings of words) that have a specific meaning.  Let’s look at Spanish.  If we know that “des-“ means “un-“ or “not”, we can work out that “desconocido” (des-conocido) means “unknown” and “desbloquear” means “to unblock”.  “Descubrir”, literally “to uncover”, means “to find out/discover” (it’s similar in English).  This amazing word is similar in a lot of languages – “scoprire” in Italian is “to uncover” or “discover”, “ontdekken” in Dutch is the same and “odkrywać” in Polish is similar.  These words all have prefixes (s-, ont-, od-) which also mean “un-”, “away” or “from” in the respective languages.  If we identify these little parts of words, we can understand the gist if not the meaning of new words and remember them because of their theme (such as “un-“ meanings).

Can you think of other ways to group vocabulary together?  Share them with us in the comments!

Suzannah Young

September 19, 2018

Italy: Practical notes from my travels

Today I’d like to share with you some practical notes from my travels in Italy.


We stayed on a campsite and rented a summer chalet. The chalet was very comfortable, clean and nicely presented. The staff members were very nice, but if you wanted something on time and right now, you still needed to wait. For example, one day the Internet stopped working and they were very relaxed about it and said they would call the technician the next day (if the problem still persists). On the other hand, we’re on holiday, right? Do we need to hurry somewhere?

Trains & bikes

The trains were very reliable while we travelled around in Italy (late only once) and the prices were relatively fine. I found it very convenient that you could buy tickets from the ticket machines available at the train stations. The trains were modern and quite a few Italians commuted by them!

Bikes are everywhere in Italy and I loved it! I was especially fond of those old-fashioned bikes which were rusty & simple (e.g. without brakes). You can meet bike riders cycling beautifully and those who at a super fast pace cut your way (I guess all styles & manners allowed!).


Oh, Italian food, I think we could write poems about it. The taste, the quality, the look… OMG, it’s scrumptious. I enjoyed shopping in Italy, even though my Italian is limited to a few greetings, I would still go and buy fresh products from the local deli, bakery or grocery store. The smiling shop assistants would always make the effort to understand me and were very nice, so the whole shopping experience was fantastic. BTW, do you know that there are no supermarkets (e.g. big chains) in Italy, the slow food movement is doing a very good job there. I’m very impressed!


Prices are not always fixed, you can literally pay a different price every day. It may annoy you, but if the price is going down then it may not be too bad at all. Seriously speaking, I found that some items were so over-priced but, on the other hand, others were very under-priced. Be prepared to be often surprised when it comes to prices.

Final tip

The smaller the town the better. We stayed in a small sea-side town and we really enjoyed it. No crowds, super fresh food, lots of personal contact with the locals, slow-life experience.

If you’ve travelled to Italy before, let me know in the comments what practical tips you can share.

Kinga Macalla

September 12, 2018

On teaching: Visual media in modern textbooks

In modern times, as a consequence of advertising and the invention of the Internet, we are often exposed to visual media, such as images, videos, infographic designs, emoji, colours or fonts.

If we compare two textbooks, one published in 1978 and one in 2010, the difference will be visible immediately, the latter is colourful, with photos, drawings, various tables and colour-coded grammar points, and it has CDs attached to it. The same will happen when we compare historical and modern dictionaries, magazines or newspapers.

When working with textbooks or newspapers, it’s becoming important to analyse (when preparing for lessons and with students) not only words, but also other modes, images, info-graphs and designs. Why is it so important? All those modes can have various functions and each mode can be significant, even if its presentation is marginal. The multimodal (= all different modes) approach can lead to questioning the status quo, to discussions on ideologies, gender inequalities, difficult historical events or globalisation and, consequently to improving students’ critical thinking and analytical skills. Multimodal analysis can also influence teachers’ choice of learning material for their students and language tutors can be more aware of the hidden meaning within the multimodal texts. Multimodality can also be a tool to inspire students to create or engage in multimodal activities that can potentially allow students to question their linguistic identities.

The above gives us some indication as to the importance of interpreting not only the verbal discourse, but also the visual. This can be applied to all teaching material, textbooks, online resources, as well as paper magazines or newspapers.

What’s your experience in conducing multimodal analysis of your teaching material? Let me know in the comments below.

Kinga Macalla

September 5, 2018

What are the main benefits of a bilingual upbringing? (3)

Two months ago, we introduced a new series of video interviews and online interviews which are devoted to the subject of bilingualism. We find the topic of bilingualism fascinating and we want to discuss some of the issues and benefits linked with being bilingual, as well as many other bilingualism-related topics. If you have any ideas or questions related to bilingualism, let us know in the comments below.

Today, in our third YT video, we attempt to answer  the question “What are the main benefits of a bilingual upbringing?”. Our special guest is Łucja Miniewska, an expert on bilingualism both academically (she holds an MSc in Bilingualism) and practically (she’s a mum of two bilingual children). Please click the link to watch our YT video.

Kinga Macalla