A Technique For Remembering New Words


“Ointment? Ointment? What does ointment mean?”

“Ointment? Ointment? What does ointment mean?”

It’s 8:30 in the morning, and my students and I are working our way through a section of the TOEIC test, trying to understand some of the questions they got wrong. From time to time we will come across a word which my students have never seen—I let them know if each new word might be useful to know for the TOEIC or if it’s just a word they may never see again.

Then we come to ‘ointment’.

This is a word with limited usefulness—unless you work in a pharmacy, in which case it can be incredibly useful! It is likely that my students will not really need this word in their life—there are other words which are more common and which they could use instead.

I write the word ‘ointment’ on the board, and then stand next to it, a smile growing on my face.

This is ‘ointment’”.

I hold up my arm, then begin to scratch it heavily, wincing in pain. At this point, my TOEIC students are looking at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

Reaching out into the empty air next to me I grab an invisible bottle and hold it over the arm I was scratching. I squeeze the imaginary bottle and make a ‘squishing’ noise; it sounds like the last bit of shampoo coming out of a plastic bottle. I then begin to rub my arm and make soothing, contented noises and close my eyes in relief.

Opening my eyes, I look at my students. They are smiling, almost laughing.

“Now,” I say, “who can tell me what ‘ointment’ means?”

Several raise their hands. I pick one student, who says, “Ointment is cream that you use when you have pain on your skin.”

That’s a pretty good definition!

What did I use to help teach this word to my students?

  1. Sound
  2. Movement
  3. Emotion
  4. Humor

All of these things will help my students remember ‘ointment’ for a long, long time…

A week after I first taught them ointment, I just pretended to squeeze the bottle over my arm and make the ‘squishing’ noise—everyone in class calls out, “Ointment!”

This technique, of using sounds, movement, feeling and humor, can help you remember vocabulary words. It sometimes doesn’t matter if the physical action is much connected to the definition of the word; merely connecting an action to a word in your mind is enough to help you remember that word–after reviewing the word a few times for a few weeks, it stays in your mind forever!