Vocabulary is Everything

When a person travels to a foreign country without having learnt the language, a handful of words together with body language is all they need to survive abroad. You may have already experienced this before and wished that you knew more words.

In your GCSE or A level exams you won’t be able to use your hands and facial expression to convince the examiner. However, the vocabulary itself can leave a lasting impression… Furthermore in any language exam, 11+, 13+ Common Entrance Exam, GCSE, IGCSE, A level or PreU, including end of term tests, one of the assessment criteria is always range of vocabulary. So, whatever your current level is, don’t waste time and start getting into the habit of memorising lists of words weekly. Unfortunately, many teachers do not set particular tasks on lexicon learning or do not emphasise this essential aspect of the studies as they assume you know how to do it. But I have encountered plenty of students who don’t know how to learn what makes the basis of a language – its vocabulary.

There are various ways to learn words. You may have been told at school or college to watch films in the language you are learning, to read books and the news in French. This method sounds interesting and natural but how many learners will remember the new phrases they have heard? Very, very few.

In the end it is not only time-consuming but can also be pretty useless if you are studying for GCSE or even A level. You may understand some words and expressions you come across in French films, articles or books but will you remember them when you need them? Will you need that word? Is the specific vocabulary you are required to know for your GCSE or A level found in the widespread slang that the French use in films? The answer is probably no! At school you are required to use a specific lexicon including specific phrases, so you’d better learn them.

How do you do that? No dreaming here… you need to plunge your head into the words and get them memorised. There is no way more efficient than the old-fashioned memorisation exercise. It is simple comme bonjour , i.e. very simple; every year I need to teach this basic method to numerous students who need help learning their vocabulary. Their own method, possibly repeatedly reading over the words, certainly doesn’t work because when I give them a vocabulary test they get very low marks until I teach them this basic method. No more time wasting and no despair: the old-fashioned method costs nothing and will do wonders for your GCSE, A level etc. for your knowledge of French. Don’t forget that you need to know a lot of vocabulary not only for your writing and speaking but also for your reading and listening.

The way to draw your lists:

  • Get used to recording your words on a page that you have divided into 2 columns – draw a clear line in the middle:

On one side you will write the French words and on the other side the exact English translation.

Even if at school it is not presented like this, write everything again in your new special vocabulary notebook or sheet of paper that you keep in a folder. This will take you on the winning path.vocab1


  • I would also recommend that you always write masculine nouns with one colour and the feminine nouns with a different colour. You know how important the gender is in French and when you learn a noun, you must always learn it with an article that tells you whether it is masculine or feminine, e.g. une fille = a girl; un ordinateur. The colours will serve as a visual memorisation aid. But it is essential that you don’t change the colours you will have assigned from the start, otherwise your brain will be confused and the trick will not work.
  • As for verbs and expressions it is important that you know their structure from the start to make a correct sentence, e.g. don’t just write je m’intéresse = I am interested, instead write je m’intéresse à = I am interested in. Not only will you have learnt a verb but also how to use it. Therefore, you will cash in accuracy.

The way to memorise your French vocabulary:

  1. Take your first list. Read the French word carefully and then the English one. Go through the list or half the list.
  2. Hide the English column, keep the French column visible. Read the French word and say what it means. Then check if it was right.
  3. Continue this way down.vocab2
  4. Go through the same procedure and you should know more words now.
  5. If you understand at least 90% of the words of your list, now hide the French column and keep the English column visible. Read the English word and say what its equivalent is in French. It will be harder to remember it but you are already memorising. Then check if it was right.
  6. Continue this way down.vocab3
  7. Go through the same procedure again and you should know many more French words now.
  8. If you are able to say at least 90% of the words, then hide the French column again and write the French words on a piece of paper; once you have finished with your list, check all the words and the spelling. If there are many mistakes, do the same exercise again immediately – it will help you memorise.
  • Do the same exercise a few times a week for 10-15 minutes.

In fact after a few days you may need to only check whether you remember the French words. Thus you would not have to go through points 1-4 but start with point 5 straight away.

This is a memorisation exercise that seems painful at the beginning but is highly rewarding. With regular practice, i.e. a few times a week, you will find it easier and easier. Besides, you will soon notice that your vocabulary will have increased tremendously and words that you did not know before are suddenly there in your brain ready to be used. After a few weeks you will notice that the language you are learning is much easier. You will understand it so much more and you will be able to make sentences effortlessly. The words are your tools! They will come to your brain like a button you press.

Some good apps for when you want to test yourself in the public transport or just to have fun while learning:





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