A Complete Approach to Learning Vocabulary

The I.F.M.O. Approach

My personal approach, and advice to students, is this model:

  • 1st INPUT: Experiencing the Language in an Enjoyable Way.
  • 2nd FILTER: Choosing what parts of the language you want to 'learn' next.
  • 3rd MEMORIZATION: Fix this language as Active or Passive Knowledge.
  • 4th OUTPUT: Use the Language in a Meaningful Way.

FIRST: Input

What is INPUT? Input is ANYTHING of the language. From textbooks to t.v., from apps to advertising, from music to magazines. It is all 'arriving into your brain' - but how should we think about it?

For me, if you imagine language learning is like a funnel, then at the top - ready to go down into the funnel and into your brain is all the INPUT that you are experiencing. But be careful that there SHOULDN'T just be a big block of language being forced into you. A big elephant of a mess trying to stampede your brain! There is no way your Brain can structure that much disorder.

a funnel: looks like an inverted triangle and a tube, that we use to transfer one liquid from a bottle to another bottle for example.

Yes, there has to be a lot of input BUT the input should be understandable. And IDEALLY the student should be active in choosing what input there is. It is no use just observing the language passively, and hoping things just stick!

to stick :(here) to stay, remain, as if 'glued'

Ideally, a student should be thinking, be interested, be motivated to interact with this input language in some way. It is so important for students to ENJOY this phase, and that is why I always say to change your activities if you get bored and to choose topics and styles of input that you like.

For now here is a list of important factors that the IDEAL input might include.

  • It should be comprehensible to some degree.
  • Enjoyable.
  • Relevant to you and your language objectives.
  • Language to model yourself on. Language that you would like to produce.
  • High quantity
  • It could be about Language Learning! Why not understand the dragon you are fighting better!
  • Keep the input varied, different types, different creators/ authors/ sources.
  • As well as Listening and Reading, Input can include interactive content like games, quizzes etc, or more serious things like Grammar/Vocab exercises!
  • Input could also be those boring reference books and rules - if that's your cup of tea.
  • Choose input that can be naturally recycled through your available output (so in class, in emails etc - if you feel you can reuse it in the immediate future you will naturally remember it much easier).
  • your cup of tea :(here) something you like

Basically INPUT is anything and everything. But what happens between INPUT and MEMORIZATION is vital!

INPUT is a major activity in learning a language. It should be fun and interesting, the language aspect should be a side issue, even 'learning' could be secondary here.

What's just as important is to enjoy the activity.

The thinking is that since learning a language is indeed a long process then the only way to keep learning a language for a long time is to enjoy it. Otherwise you are simply battling against the language every day. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Get value from it at every step.

Making it your enemy will only mean it stays your enemy.

SECOND: Filter

The second phase is possibly the most difficult, the most taxing. But once you have a firm idea about the direction you are taking your English towards, then it also becomes the easiest.

to be taxing :(here) to be difficult, to consume energy/resources

The second phase is FILTERING.

While you are enjoying all this wonderful INPUT in English, the back of your mind is wondering...

"What should I be doing with all of this lovely English? I should be learning it!".

FILTERING is the step between INPUT and MEMORIZATION.

While INPUT 'should' be fun and interesting, MEMORIZATION is a little painful, a little boring, a little long.

Memorization is the necessary step in fixing some information in your memory so that you can retrieve it easily. And it is not realistic to try and memorize all of English in one go. You should try and memorize what you need for your next goal(s).

This is where FILTERING steps in.

FILTERING is the conscious choice to take some of the INPUT and put it into your MEMORIZATION process.

So, what do you need to memorize next?

  • Take advice from teachers and other leaners and speakers about what they think you might need.
  • Think about what problems you feel, experience or have.
  • Think about the gap between your English now, and the next level you would like, possibly even your future and final levels of English.
  • Think about what is motivating you now.
  • What things are of interest to you now.

But remember that MEMORIZATION is big drain of energy so don't try and learn everything at once!

One positive side effect of thinking about the FILTERING process is that it will really help you to also decide what type of activities to definitely include in your INPUT phase.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, your Business English, phrasal verbs, whatever... where will you find the information and examples that you will want to COPY, IMITATE and MEMORIZE?

A final thought on FILTERING is the simple idea (which is valid for all parts of your English learning) and that is - you can change your mind, change your focus in the future: what you focus on this month can change next month, don't feel it is a single long boring slog. You can always change things to make learning more varied and more stimulating!

a slog :(here) a never-ending job, requiring lots of energy and leaves you tired/ exhausted.

Maybe you will be all about idioms this week, then 3 months doing listening practice, then 2 weeks with some grammar issue, etc etc, it's fine to change interests, what is important is to keep studying and the trick is to KEEP YOURSELF INTERESTED AND MOTIVATED!

THIRD: Memorization

So what is MEMORIZATION? Why is it so important? Is it necessary?

An analogy that I like about language learning is that we have a 'little library' for EACH of our languages!

Let's just consider your native language or languages...

Here this library is full of books. Each book is a word or a phrase or an alternative meaning for a word or phrase - possibly even many books for the same word!

And this room has THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of books on many many shelves, and you are sitting in the middle of this room.

And when you speak your long arms reach out and grab these books and use the words written there. Sometimes you make a joke and you go for one word but then you grab a different one and people laugh.

Sometimes you are doing a crossword and you just can't find a word, a word that you know is somewhere in the room.

Other times some words are passive, you know what they mean, but you aren't so good at reaching out and finding them. Perhaps the words are technical, like medical words or legal words. You have a good understanding what they mean, but you just don't grab them when you talk. Perhaps you do when you are writing, perhaps when you are writing and you can stop for a moment and you can find those words.

To me this is what language and memory are like.

You are in the middle of massive room with thousands of pieces of resources and your brain is sending electrical impulses to grab things for you to say or write, or to find things that others have said or written.

It is happening hundreds of times a second perhaps!

And I think the fundamental idea here is that the more you reach for these books - either to say them or to understand them - then the stronger that 'connection' between you and that word, that phrase, that 'book' becomes!

Like an 'Electrical Muscle'!

Before we even think about a new language, consider this analogy for when you started a new subject at school or university.

Or when there was some new project or software at work.

Or a new hobby.

Or even a new TV show that used strange language. And of course in TV shows and films we have to learn new character names, and in life we have to learn names for real people, and of course we often forget... until with all these things, over time and repeated use they become memorized.

So we begin by putting the new book onto a shelf in the library. Ideally near things that are related.

And then we grab that book again and again, eventually grabbing that technical term, that person's name etc etc until it becomes second nature.

Interestingly with this analogy, is how if we do NOT continue to use that word, phrase or information, it makes it harder and harder to find in the future. How many times have you forgotten an old classmate's name, or an ex-colleague's name - but that person was part of your daily life for years and years a long time ago!

As they say about Muscles, and the Brain... USE IT OR LOSE IT!!!

So what about new languages?

Well it is the same process.

However, we start with quite an empty room! We need to put books on the shelves, we need to put LOTS of books on the shelves - this is the INPUT stage...

This analogy shows why students often feel that they 'understand' when others speak but can't say the same words when they speak!

The books are on their 'shelf' but it needs the other speaker (or INPUT/MEMORIZATION) to keep showing you where it is!


This is why the fundamental problem a language learner faces is often, HOW DO I ACCELERATE MY ABILITY TO GRAB 'BOOKS'??

Yes, it would be great to go and live in a place where people only speak that language.

Yes, it would be great to spend hours and hours on 'fun' INPUT, absorbing the language naturally as children do with their mother tongue.

But the reality here is that those are very expensive and slow methods. Children take a dozen years of school of many many hours everyday to achieve what would be considered a good vocabulary range.


So how do we memorize stuff? Well there are some factors such as:

  • Repetition: helps strengthen the connection and keeps it fresh.
  • Spaced Repetition (where things are repeated with increasing gaps in time) cement the information into long term memory.
  • Visual Format: it is thought that we are five times better at remembering if the information was in a visual format.
  • Interesting: if something is interesting it becomes easier to remember
  • Emotional Attachment: if something resonates with us, if it feels connected to us we can find it easier to remember.
  • Association: if something is connected to something that we are fairly sure of this can help.
  • Understanding and Build around it: if you understand something that helps to remember it, however if you also build something around it it can really help. See ideas below!
  • If it SHOCKS us! Shocking ideas, words really grab our attention and can help to be remembered... although I don't think I am saying that you should have new words slapped in your face when you walk into the classroom!

One way to think about increasing the initial impact is to build around it, work with it, use it, add to it. Students often associate the idea of 'saying' it in class as a fundamental tool, but this is just one of the possibilities. Some more ideas are:

  • Make sentences with the word in your notebook or just say them to yourself.
  • Search for the word on the internet and see more examples of it.
  • Make up a short (silly) story where the word is very prominent/important.
  • Draw the word, or an example of it, or an abstraction of it.
  • Make a crazy picture with the letters of the word.
  • Imagine how the word might be communicated with just your hands.
  • What is the opposite of this word? (Antonyms)
  • What are synonyms of this word?
  • What other words can be associated with it?
  • What words rhyme with it?
  • What words can be built from it? Building a word-builder...
  • Can an A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. help to remember it?
  • What about 'Mind Palaces'?
  • ...endless possibilities!

Aiming to do all these activities with every single word or phrase would be IMPOSSIBLE.


I think these very Time Intensive activities are ONLY Realistically usable for Language that you really want as ACTIVE and not just Passive.


Once you know what you want to learn, then there are lots of activities you can use.

In my personal and professional opinion I would recommend...

Yes, do AIM to give the word an INITIAL IMPACT and then look to do some REPETITION. But...the second part, Repetition, for me is THE KEY ACTIVITY.

Repetition is going to increase its longevity of the memory in your brain. However a strong initial impact will accelerate the initial memorization!

EnglishAdam.com is exactly about that repetition process. It aims to offer a trustworthy and friendly repetition tool.

I do not think a student has to use only one system.

Why not use more, Quizlet, Duolingo, Anki... etc etc? Keep them all going, small collections in each one, aim to go through each one for 5-10 minutes a day.

  • With your morning coffee.
  • While your computer starts up.
  • On the toilet!
  • 5 minutes on the couch before you go to bed.
  • In the adverts while you are watching TV
  • Leave it open all day on your desk at work and do a few every time you pass by the browser tab.
  • While you are hanging on the phone.
  • ...Whatever! Whenever!

Personally I use a few systems. I make my own cards, too. I use it for all kinds of things, for quotes, for personal ideas, jobs to do, personal mantras, new things I am trying to learn in Italian, cooking, design whatever... IT CAN BE A GREAT APPROACH to all of the useful info that life throws at you!!

I think a MAJOR EXTRA ADVANTAGE is that it allows you to 'feel' that it has been organized, that you do not need to worry about it disappearing or being forgotten, it is in one of your systems and even if you skip a few days it'll come back, BREATHE IN and RELAX - everything is in hand!

FOURTH: Output

OUTPUT is primarily SPEAKING and WRITING, it is fundamental because it will give you a sense of accomplishment about what you have learnt - the fact that it acts as ONE TYPE of Memorization is probably less important - and hopefully it will be FUN!

It allows the fundamental purpose of language : self expression!

It allows your language to get feedback which can loop back into the INPUT and FILTER and MEMORIZATION steps in a continual loop.

I think it is also VITAL that the output is actually meaningful. Nothing bores students more than meaningless conversations, or artificial writing exercises.

I do not consider many classroom or homework exercises as OUTPUT. Exercises, or drills, where students repeat sentences or structures are, to me, part of MEMORIZATION.

Output for me would include a spontaneous and free choice of internally grabbing the language in a meaningful, useful and ideally interesting context!

    So for example, some exercises might include:
  • Conversation classes
  • Internet forums
  • Socializing in English
  • Keeping a diary
  • Writing down your thoughts but in English
  • ...even talking to yourself!
  • Just aim to express yourself and discover what things are difficult for you to find words for!

Here are some links that could be of interest!

Check out: How Native Speakers Really Use The Tenses