Why is it difficult to recall vocabulary and how to fix it?

The phenomenon of retrieving words at will seems to be almost magical. The mere intention of wanting to use any of them recalls them effortlessly and in no time.

Hah! You wish!

The truth is that most of us look like constipated capuchin monkeys trying to poop out a screwdriver when we try to retrieve vocab! It’s difficult and it sure as hell don’t come easy.

Why is it so?

Well, first of all, the universe is a cruel place and probably hates you.
Other than that there are some other memory-related reasons for that state of affairs.

Since I can’t do anything about the universe, let’s concentrate on the latter.

Difference between remembering and retrieving a word


Let’s start with a very different distinction between remembering a piece of information and retrieving it. Contrary to the common knowledge and the intuition, they are not the same.

To explain this concept, let’s look at a simple model of memory.

  1. encoding
  2. storage
  3. retrieval

As you can clearly see that first you have to encode (memorize) a piece of information and only then can you retrieve it.

It means that:

a) you can remember something but you might not be able to retrieve it.

b) if you can retrieve something you certainly remember it.

The infamous tip-of-the-tongue feeling refers to the so-called failure to retrieve error,

If you want to improve your chance of recalling an item you need to improve its retrievability.

What is retrievability?

Long-term memories can be characterized by two elements: Stability (S) and Retrievability (R) are part of the Two-component model of long-term memory.

Retrievability of memory is a variable of long-term memory that determines the probability of retrieving a memory at any given time since the last review/recall.

I would like to direct your attention to the word “probability”. You can never be certain that you will be able to retrieve a given memory. It all depends on a plethora of factors. But what you can do is increase your odds.

Let’s dig deeper.

Fundamentals – Retrieval Cues


Whydifficult to recall vocabulary


Before we move on, you need to familiarize yourself with some basic memory concepts. Only then will you be able to fully understand why you can’t recall a word and how to change it.

Everything starts with a retrieval CUE.

A Retrieval Cue is a prompt that help us remember. When we make a new memory, we include certain information about the situation that act as a trigger to access the memory. Source: AlleyDog

As you can see, literally everything can be a cue! Let’s say that you meet a nice girl. The way she looks is a cue. Actually, every piece of her garment is a cue. The weather is a cue. The look of disgust on her face as you empty yet another cup of beer and whisper gently into her ear, ” Shh. Let the magic happen” is another great example of a cue.

The sound of your feet being dragged across the dirt by the security is yet another cue.

What? No. That did not happen to me!
Mind your own business! Let’s get back to the science!

Saying that everything is a cue is a bit lazy, isn’t it? I think you will be able to understand them much better once you see how they are typically categorized.

And don’t worry. This is not an exercise in futility. This info will come handy.

Types of retrieval cues

Gillian Cohen in his book Memory In the Real World distinguishes the following cues:

  • External cues were ones that came from the environment.
  • Abstract (aka internal) cues were all thoughts or linguistic references to the original episode.
  • Sensory/perceptual cues were those that provided sensory/perceptual referents to the original episode.

Sensory cues can be further categorized as visual cues, auditory cues, haptic cues, olfactory cues, environmental cues, and so on.

  • State cues were physiological or emotional referents to the original episode

I hope that now it’s easier for you to understand that literally everything can be a cue – starting from a thought and ending with a smell.

Then, you might wonder, if there are so many of them, how come you still have trouble retrieving memories or words?

The easiest answer is that you need to use the right cues.

Memory principles governing recall


There are a couple of general rules which will help you with understanding when it is usually possible to retrieve a word.

1) The encoding specificity

Somewhere in the 70s, a psychologist by the name of Endel Tulving proposed a theory called the encoding specificity principle.

It states that:

Successful recall relies on the overlap between the thing you are trying to remember and the situation in which you first encountered it, and the cues or prompts that are available when you are trying to recall it”.

This gives us our first rule:

The more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

Let’s stress it one more time – it’s not guaranteed that you will recall desired words.
Meeting the said conditions simply increases the likelihood of retrieving them.


Let’s say that you memorized (actively) a word “cat” in the following phrase: “a black cat”.
If at any given time during a conversation, you decide to use this phrase, it will most likely come to the top of your mind.

But what happens if you decide to use this word in another phrase:”a wild cat”? Assuming that you already know actively the word “wild”, there is a chance that you will be able to string this sentence together.
However, the likelihood of this is definitely smaller than in the previous example as you have probably never ever made such a mental connection before. This leads to problems with so-called “information transfer“.

If you memorized some word in only one context, your mind can cling to it so tightly that it won’t be able to transfer a given item into another context.

Any time you use a given word in one part of a conversation and then can’t use it in another one,
you run into exactly this problem.

Fun fact

Interestingly, these rules stay true regardless of the relevance of the information you are trying to retrieve.

“When short-range contextual dependencies are preserved in nonsense material, the nonsense is as readily recalled as is meaningfull material.” – The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives

Side note: Now, when I am reading this sentence I think that I need to go out more often.
I have a strange definition of “fun”.

2) The strength of associations

Another aspect of a successful retrieval is how strong your associations are.
I think that it is intuitively understandable that the stronger the association between the cue and the target information the bigger your chance of retrieving an item is.

However, make no mistake:

The strength of your association is still not as important as the match between features of recall and features of encoding (Pansky et al., 2005; Roediger & Guynn, 1996).


Imagine that you are eating peacefully your breakfast in a hotel abroad and all of the sudden
some cat jumps on a table and gracefully puts its paw into your cereal bowl.

You think for a second how to word your outrage in a language of your choice and
then you finally cry out “I will skin you alive, you sack of fleas!”.

From now on, every time you decide to express your outrage in a similar situation
the chance of using exactly this phrase increases.

3) Number of cues



Edward Vul and Nisheeth Srivastava presented another interesting perspective. Namely, the process of retrieval is the process of retrieving cues which anchor the said item.

From this it follows that:

  • recognition performance is superior to recall performance when the number of items is greater than the number of cues
  • recall performance is better than recognition when the converse holds.

It means that the bigger the number of words you want to memorize, the bigger the number of cues you need.

Don’t overdo it – a cue overload effect

There is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. If you decide to go over the top and insert too many cues into a piece of information you are trying to memorize you might notice that your recall rate didn’t change.

It happens so because:

If retrieval cues are not recognized as being distinct from one another, then cues are likely to become associated with more information, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the cue in prompting the recall of target information (Watkins & Watkins, 1975).



Let’s say that you want to memorize a two-word phrase “a disgusting slob”. If you just create a flashcard and then try to din it into your head, there is a good chance you won’t succeed.

The number of cues is minimal here. You can just see these words visually.

In other words, you are using one sensory cue. But as you know now, there are quite many different kinds of cues.

You can dollop more of them on top of this one.

  1. You can add a sound (another sensory cue)
  2. You can say it out loud (internal and sensory cue)
  3. You can modulate your emotions (state cues)

Instead of just saying a phrase, you can shout it out angrily.
Win-win! Unless you shout it out on a bus, of course.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s a slight simplification of a problem as it doesn’t factor in
the capacity of our short-term memory.

4) Distinctivity of cues

The last (important) piece of a puzzle is how distinct your cues are.

In order to increase the likelihood of recalling a verbatim-based piece of information, you need distinct retrieval cues (Anderson, 1983a; Anderson & Reder, 1999; Tuckey 743 & Brewer, 2003).

But why do we need distinct retrieval cues?

Shortly, recall of one item can prompt further recall of semantically related items (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This occurs through the spread of activation through the associative links of the memory network. Gillian Cohen – Memory In the Real World

You can think about it as a domino effect. One element leads us to another.

How to build good cues 


difficult to recall and retrieve vocabulary


Good quality retrieval cues often have:

  • (1) constructability (cues generated at encoding can be reliably reproduced at recall);
  • (2) consistency between encoding and retrieval within a given context  (i.e. an effective retrieval cue should be compatible with the memory trace created during encoding and show high cue-target match);
  • (3) strong associations with the target and the ability to be easily associated with newly learned information;
  • (4) bidirectionality of association (the cue recalling target information, and target information recalling the cue).
  • (5) It is also important that retrieval cues are distinctive or discriminable.

Think about those rules as guidelines. Applying them will definitely increase your odds of retrieving an item.

However, don’t go too crazy and try to apply all of them every time when you try to memorize something. If anything, you should increase the number of cues only for the words you have trouble remembering.

How to maximize your chances of recalling words – a summary


Time to recap everything you have learned so far about maximizing your chances of recalling something. But let’s do it in plain English this time.

  • 1. You should be the person who generates cues

If you download ready-to-use flashcards or use apps like Duolingo and then whine that you can’t learn then there’s your explanation.

High levels of recall usually occur when the cue is self-generated (Hunt & Smith, 1996).

  • 2. Retrieve vocabulary in different conditions

If you just sit at home and pore over a computer or books you are encoding and retrieving items in the same conditions and that clearly hinders their retrievability.

As you already know in order to retrieve a piece of information we need to use good cues.


Retrieval is a selective process, relying on a complex interaction between encoded information and features of the retrieval environment (Tulving & Thomson, 1973).

  • 3. Memorize natural phrases / collocations

One more time – the more retrieval cues are similar to encoding cues the bigger your chance of retrieving a piece of information.

Let’s say that you want to learn the word “a bike”. You decide to put it into the following phrase which you will later memorize “a bike made with light alloys”.

If you have never ever heard yourself saying such a phrase in your native tongue then what are you doing?! Use something simpler and more natural, for example, “a new bike”.

P.S. Here you can read more about choosing the best learning methods.

Examples of learning methods which impede retrievability


In the world of learning, there are a lot of methods and approaches which don’t work at all
or which can be used only in the specific cases.

I would like to complete your understanding of this topic by giving you a couple of examples
of strategies which don’t follow the aforementioned framework and thus, will mostly hinder your learning


As I have argued before, mnemonics are a great addition to your learning toolkit.
However, you shouldn’t treat them as anything more than just a temporary extension of your short-term memory.

Let’s look at the quickest way to retrieve a word in a conversation.

encoding cue             ->      retrieval cue (identical or similar to the encoding cue) = success

Quite straightforward, isn’t it?

Now here is the path of retrieval when you decide to use mnemonics:

a big cat  -> looking for associations -> turning them into pictures -> placing them in some location -> decoding them -> retrieval

As you can see, we are adding a lot of unnecessary steps into the process of retrieval.
The usual effect is that you:

  • a) don’t remember them after a couple of days/weeks
  • b) you remember them but can’t recall them since you have no real context for these items


Associations are certainly a useful learning tool. The problems occur when there are too many of them. In my line of work I have met people who were obsessed with finding an association
for every possible piece of information.

The thing is that the associations, just like mnemonics, can at best help you with remembering the word but not retrieving it.

A couple of associations are great because they are distinct.
However, there is nothing distinct and special about 100 associations.

Another problem is that once again you are lengthening the process of retrieving a word

encoding information -> building an association -> decoding an association -> retrieval

(a cat) -> (it sounds similar to a candy bar ” Kit Kat -> (now you want to use the word in a conversation) it was something connected with a candy bar -> I bought a new Snickers!

Teaching/learning styles


difficult to recall vocabulary and retrieve it


I have mentioned before in a couple of articles that learning styles don’t exist (read about it more here).
Sure, you can have preferences for a giving style of learning but that does not mean that this style
of learning will be more effective memory-wise.

Sure enough, there is a host of studies which suggest that even teaching styles have no influence
on the students’ ability to recall information.

If you have ever had a teacher who hired a throng of merry and naked gnomes in order
to sing you a lengthy list of historical dates then I have bad news for you.

Although, you have to appreciate the effort, right?

Question for you

How often does it happen to you that you can’t recall vocab when needed? Let me know in the comments!

Share your thoughts. It does matter.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.