Creative Ways to Learn Vocabulary Words 

Robert Harris
Version Date: February 5, 2014

Learning vocabulary words for a foreign language or for personal improvement in English can be a challenge simply because of the effort needed to convert short term memory into  long term memory. Running through a list over and over is actually highly effective, though not the most interesting way to learn. Flash cards are an excellent way to learn vocabulary words. When I was in college, I learned a lot of German vocabulary by repeating the words and their definitions over and over while I took a shower. (I  had a page of vocabulay taped to the wall under the shower head. Yes, that worked, but there are more fun, more exciting ways to learn.

Active Learning

Simple rote memorization is pretty passive on the learning scale. Learning is faster and more sticky if the learner engages in active learning techniques--doing something with the material while learning it. Remember that active learning does not need to be physically active. Mentally active learning that makes use of creativity and humor can be a powerful learning method. Let’s look at a few ways to learn vocabulary words while having fun at it.

Tom Swifties

In their original form, Tom Swifties involve a statement by Tom followed by an adverb or a verb that puns on the statement:

To use  Tom Swifties  for vocabulary development, simply include the word's definition in the statement and the word itself as the adverb. Here are some examples:

Ultimate Vocabulary Some variety is also possible, of course:

Reverse Swifties

A reverse Swifty puts the vocabulary word in the sentence and the definition in the attribution:

Dog Pile

A dog pile is a sentence made up of several words using the same root word, prefix, or suffix. Creating dog piles is a good way to learn roots and the meaning of several words at once. Examples:

Root Canal

A root canal is made by including the meaning of the word's prefix, root, and suffix (if any) in brackets in a sentence. This is a good game to play with flash cards. The sentence goes on one side and the vocabulary word goes on the other. Here are a few examples;


A neologism is a [neo + logos] new word, a word you make up yourself. If you make up a word on your own that is unrelated to the classical word roots, prefixes, and suffixes, your hearer or reader will likely not know what you are talking about. For example, if you say, "I have a blint at home," you won't convey much information because no one else knows what you mean by a blint until you tell them. But if you say, "I have an omnispect," then your  hearer or reader (if they know word roots and prefixes) can understand something about your meaning. A few examples:

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at