How to Learn Vocabulary

Let me say right from the start, that there are really only two ways of learning vocabulary that I can ever keep up in the long run. I’ve tried many different things over the years, from flashcards, mnemonics, reviewing, and in my opinion two ways stand out far above the rest: Goldlisting and reading.

Of the two, reading is far and away my favourite activity. It’s almost like I’m not even studying, and yet I learn so much! It’s varied, and I can read whatever interests me. You’ve probably noticed my emphasis on reading before, so I’m not really going to say much about that here.

Instead, I’m going to talk about another way of learning vocabulary, which is incredibly effective, and incredibly simple: Goldlisting. I particularly like it because, like my reading approach, it removes any attempt to memorise, and yet the material is stored directly into your long-term memory - which is, after all, where we want all our Latin-learning to go!

Okay, so how does it work? Well, it’s really quite simple:

  1. Get a pretty notebook (why write in something you don’t like looking at?)

  2. Open to its first double-page spread.

  3. On the left page write 1 (that’s your list number), and the date you’re writing it (thiS is important, as you’ll see).

  4. Write 20 words or phrases in Latin on one side of the page and their English translation on the other (keep it all on the left-hand page though). You can write the Latin first or the English first, it’s up to you.

  5. Once you’ve finished writing the list (called a ‘headlist’), go through and read each phrase with its translation out loud, once only. Then close the book and forget about it.

  6. Repeat steps 2-5 as often as you like (most people do it once a day, though I like to have my weekends free).

  7. NO LESS THAN TWO WEEKS after the date of the first list (that’s why writing the date is important), go back to that list and cover up the second column with your hand or something that stops you from seeing it.

  8. Test yourself to see if you can remember the translations. Even though you didn’t memorise, you’ll find on average that you remember about 30% (about 6)! No joking!! What’s even better, is all the ones you’ve remembered are now in your long-term memory, which is the goal in all learning. Pretty cool, right?

  9. The ones you didn’t remember, you write like an entirely new headlist on the right page of the same spread, and then leave it for two weeks again.

  10. Repeat steps 7-9 with all your headlists.

  11. NO LESS THAN TWO WEEKS after you’ve written your list on the right page, come back and repeat steps 7 and 8. Again, you’ll find you remember about 30% (about 4). Then write the remaining in a new list on the bottom of the right page.

  12. After another two weeks, come back and do it one last time, writing the last ones you didn’t get on the bottom of the left page.

Here’s an example of a headlist by one of my students (mine is a LOT messier…):


The brilliance of this method is that everything you remember is stored in your long-term memory. This means that if you use phrases and sentences (see the example above) then not only is the vocabulary learnt, but so too are the essential grammatical structures. This is a HUGE bonus.

Another thing I like about Goldlisting is the tranquility of it; you’re not ‘studying’, you’re not trying to learn anything in particular, or push through any boundaries or make any sort of specific accomplishment. Instead, you’re just writing things down and moving on - simple as that!

In fact, you could learn a whole language that way if you wanted (the inventor of the method does just that). If you wanted to try that, my suggestion would be to read through a book that way, but personally I don’t use it like that. What I do is I use sentences from bools designed for self-learners and just copy the sentences and the answers - since those sentences are usually designed to show either a) the most common constructions or b) a particular grammatical point, I can assimilate a lot that way. It’s also a great way to learn the 300 most common words I talked about in my last post!

If you’re interested in this method, I highly recommend checking out the free video course by the Slovakian polyglot Lydia Machova, who explains it quite nicely (just to be clear, I do NOT get any affiliate commission from this link).

I like this method, and I use it on and off - nothing against it, I genuinely love it, but for me reading remains paramount! Remember, the key is not to stress, so if you do it every day for a week, and then only two days the next week, who cares? The benefit’s still there! Just remember to keep reading as well! Whatever you decide, I hope this helps :-)

Alexander Westenberg