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Sticky Note Word Learning

To remember new words we have to increase our exposure to them. Find out here how sticky notes can help you to learn new vocabulary.

Sticky note word learning
"My parents were not best pleased at seeing bits of fluorescent paper stuck to their posh wallpaper and on their kitchen cupboards but they were pleased when I got my A Level results."

When I was doing my A Levels when I was 18 I memorised hundreds of Shakespeare quotations as well as German and French phrases by sticking sticky notes all over my house. My parents were not best pleased at seeing bits of fluorescent paper stuck to their posh wallpaper and on their kitchen cupboards but they were pleased when I got my A Level results. The sticky-note-covered house had been worth it. The method involves associating words or phrases with things or places in the house. For example, on the fridge, which was full of food, I stuck a quotation that talked about food and hunger from Othello's Emilia:

'Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all but stomachs, and we all but food: They eat us hungerly, and when they are full They belch us. (Emilia, Act 3 Scene 4)

I learned a German phrase 'Es springt ins Auge' (literally it springs in the eyes but meaning it is obvious) by placing it close to where I kept my contact lens solution. I learnt key French verbs by putting six at a time on the bathroom wall and I would read them in the shower. When I was confident I knew them, I would replace them for six more. To increase my Spanish vocabulary, I placed household vocabulary on the items around the house - 'la cocina' above the cooker, 'la cama' on the bed, 'la puerta' on the door. The idea is to increase our exposure to the vocabulary items so that our eyes are seeing them as often as we can.

The science

There are those who argue that our knowledge about any one topic is only as good as our vocabulary of that topic (Marzano & Pickering, 2005). In other words, the more words we know regarding a certain subject, the greater our knowledge will be of it. Vocabulary is hugely important to our success in learning a language and research has shown how vocabulary can be the key to becoming a competent communicator in a second language (Schmitt, 2000). According to researchers in the field of vocabulary acquisition, we need to be exposed to a new item of vocabulary at least 17 times before we are able to produce it (Bennett, 2018). That means we have to hear or see a word 17 times before it will enter our long-term memory and we can write it or say it ourselves. It makes sense when we think about the importance of reading in our first language and how well-established the belief is that those kids who spend more time reading will generally score higher in literacy tests and do better in their education in general. They have exposed themselves to more vocabulary on a more frequent basis and therefore become more competent in the language. The same applies in our second language. Simply put, more exposure to vocabulary means more mastery of the language.

What's in a word?

Learning a new word can be quite easy if we help ourselves by using learning strategies such as the sticky notes. However, when we think deeply about what is involved in truly knowing a word, there is actually quite a lot to it. Perhaps one of the greatest scholars in the field of second language acquisition is Paul Nation and he offers this breakdown of what information we might need to know if we truly wish to be able to say we 'know' that word.

Knowing a word (Alqahtani, 2015)

So, to 'know a word' we need to know what it looks like and sounds like; we need to know what it means; and we need to know when and where to use it.

"At just five years of age we can already recognise 10,000 words."

Brilliant brains

Knowing all of this to learn just one word does admittedly seem like quite a lot, but don't worry, our brains frequently master on average 20,000 items of vocabulary and we are able to recognise and understand the meaning of a further 40,000 words (Johnson, 2013). Apparently, we learn a new word every day until we hit middle age (Huld, 2018). A study conducted with English-speaking 2-5 year olds showed that at just five years of age we can already recognise 10,000 words (Law et al., 2016). Our brains are really quite brilliant. But how many words do we need to be able to function in a second language. Well, according to a study by Professor Webb at the University of Western Ontario, what we need to be focussing on is the most frequent words of a language. For example, in English, it would be much more effective to learn the word 'car' than 'automobile' or 'house' as opposed to 'domicile'. Car and house appear much more frequently in everyday language use than the other two and therefore, we are more likely to have to come across those words or to have to use them. Webb's research shows that if a learner of English learns 800 of the most frequently used English words, they should be able to understand 75% of spoken everyday language (Sagar-Fenton & McNeill, 2018). The same follows for those wishing to be able to communicate in everyday conversations in other languages - focus your efforts on the 800 most frequently used words. If you are hoping to be able to understand films or TV shows, the number increases to 3000 and for novels and newspapers around 8000 is recommended (Sagar-Fenton & McNeill, 2018). It might sound impossible but just think about how many words your brain has already stored in your first language and often without very much effort at all. Everything is possible. Try this link if you want to get started with the most common words in the language you are learning.

The method

This is one of the cheapest and easiest and most effective ways of increasing your vocabulary. All you need is a pack of sticky notes, a pen and access to the internet or a dictionary. Here is the way I have done this in the the past.

1 When reading or listening in the second language, make a note of words/ phrases you do not know.

2 Look the words/ phrases up using or a dictionary.

3 Write the word/ phrase on a sticky note. You can choose here how much/ how little information you put. You could:

- Write just the word

- Put the translation in your first language on the back side of the note

- Draw a picture

- Put the phonetic spelling (using the phonetic alphabet or just how it sounds to you using your own alphabet)

- Write whether it is a noun, verb, adjective or adverb

- Use different colour sticky notes for different word forms (E.g. yellow for verbs, pink for nouns, blue for adjectives, green for adverbs)

4 Stick the sticky note in a place in the house that is in some way associated to the word/ phrase. I have put photos of examples below.

5 Stick the sticky note in a place where you know you will see it often. For example, on a dry wall next to the shower.

Here, pink for nouns, yellow for verbs, a picture, the translation and the pronunciation. What you put is up to you! So, get sticky noting all round your house and we wish you luck with your vocabulary learning! Here is a video link to one guy who shows you how he did this in his home:


Alqahtani, M. (2015). The importance of vocabulary in language learning and how to be taught. International journal of teaching and education, 3(3), 21-34.

Bennett, C. (2018). 17 reps to build vocabulary muscles. Available at:

Huld, N. (2018). How many words does the average person know? Available at:

Johnson, I. (2013). Vocabulary size: Lexical facts. The Economist. Available at:

Law, Franzo et al. “Vocabulary size and auditory word recognition in preschool children” Applied psycholinguistics vol. 38,1 (2016): 89-125.

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher's manual. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 1703 North Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA 22311-1714.

Nation, I. S. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Ernst Klett Sprachen.

Sagar-Fenton, B. and McNeill, L. (2018). How many words do you need to speak a language. BBC. Available at:

Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Hello. This is wonderful, of course, and I wanted to say, as a teacher of MFL, memorisation is one of the keys to success. One of!

I used the notion of post-its once (several times, in fact) for my students...when we were studying 'parts of the body'. It made for some very interesting feedback, particularly from parents who sent me pictures of their child covered in post-its...

Lists of words too...stuck on a wall/door opposite somewhere you were guaranteed to sit for ten minutes a day....also an effective way to learn in solitude.


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