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How to Improve Vocabulary (and Enjoy It!)

Why do we need to expand our vocabulary?

A rich vocabulary is worth the effort for many reasons. It can make us more interesting to others because what we say will be more meaningful and precise. Having a variety of words to express the same idea also keeps us from being a boring communicator. With a more sophisticated vocabulary, we can also keep up better with the latest developments in technology, health, and other practical areas that improve our quality of life. And finally, it’s much easier to get what we really want if we know how to exactly express our wishes through a well-developed vocabulary. 

Causes of Poor Vocabulary

Some students feel that learning new vocabulary is one of the most difficult aspects of learning a new language. They may have struggled with learning new vocabulary only to quickly forget it, or observed others with this same frustration. Let’s consider some of the root causes of poor vocabulary and how they can be overcome:

  1. Unrealistic expectations. One of the most common self-defeating habits is to establish a goal based on learning a specific number of words in a certain time. For example, some learners might task themselves with learning 25 words a week. This type of goal creates pressure that actually reduces motivation. Instead, follow the advice that artists, writers and composers are often given: “Fall in love with the process and the results will follow.” The techniques discussed later in this post will help you discover you can love vocabulary learning!
  2. DO set more interesting and flexible goals.  Instead of setting rigid goals of numbers of words, try creating other goals that can really boost your efforts:
    • Set time goals, such as committing to at least 20 minutes of vocabulary study a day, or whatever fits comfortably into your schedule. There is no expectation of a final result with this goal, just a promise to yourself that you will dedicate this time exclusively to vocabulary.
    • Be sure to include some time for review of what you have previously learned in each study session. 
    • Set a  goal based on a subject or topic. Decide that for this study session, or for this week, etc., you will concentrate on vocabulary related to one area of interest to you. This could be a hobby (such as cooking or a sport), or something related to professional or academic goals.  You might also concentrate on new vocabulary you have discovered in a single source, such as a particular novel, movie, TV series or in the songs of a favorite artist.
    • Taking an intensive English course or semi-intensive English course  at an accredited language school will help you set meaningful and effective goals. 
  3. Not reviewing new vocabulary. Regular review of new vocabulary is essential in order to add it to our usable storage of words. At lower levels, we are learning basic vocabulary that is essential for everyday use. Our progress will be slowed if we forget the most common words.  As our level increases, we will learn a more sophisticated set of words that are used less often in daily communication, so making and sticking to a plan to review is very important.  Even native speakers who are trying to improve their vocabulary in their first language must review.  
  4. Not learning a practical context for new vocabulary. Words detached from their actual use in practical speaking, listening, reading and writing are less well understood and more easily forgotten. For this reason, word lists that don’t include some practical context are usually not an effective tool.  How to create a useful vocabulary journal is discussed below.

Strategies to Improve Vocabulary

There are many strategies available to improve your vocabulary. It’s important to try a variety of these methods to match your personal learning style. Switching between different vocabulary-building techniques can also help you keep your interest and motivation high. Classes  at an accredited language school will use a variety of activities to build and secure your active vocabulary.

Consistent Reading at a Challenging Level

person picking a book from a selection to read

Regular reading of a variety of materials is  one of the best ways to encounter new words. Be sure to challenge yourself by reading texts that are slightly above your current level, so you will discover vocabulary which is new for you. Try to guess the meaning of vocabulary from context, and check the meaning in a dictionary if you have doubts. Don’t forget to write down your discoveries, including using them in a sentence or two for context.  Graphic novels can be an excellent tool for discovering new vocabulary. You can even find classic literature produced in a graphic format, with different editions to match your level.

Use of Vocabulary Apps and Tools 

Since anyone now can post information on the internet and publish an app, it’s important to choose professional websites and apps as vocabulary building resources. Interactive games and quizzes are sure to keep you engaged while adding to your active English vocabulary.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has a great selection of word games and quizzes. Some of the topics include visual identification of objects, commonly misspelled or confused words, synonyms, antonyms, and others. As this is one of the most respected English-language dictionaries, you’ll be sure to get accurate information when you play these games. Taking one or two of these quizzes while engaged in some passive activity like riding a bus or waiting for the washer to run can help you accelerate your vocabulary learning. The word-of-the-day feature  is also a handy way to learn new and useful words. Don’t forget to add new words to your personal vocabulary journal, along with an example or two of how they are used in context.

YouTube Videos

YouTube has a very large selection of English learning videos.  As with apps and websites, it’s important to carefully select the best from these channels. When you take classes at a quality language school, the teachers know how to evaluate these resources and can recommend those that are accurate and effective.  One of the most interesting YouTube channels is Let Them Talk TV, which is presented by a very witty and engaging host. Here you will find many vocabulary presentations, as well as equally useful information on grammar and the history of the English language. Whenever you use YouTube, don’t forget you can change the speed if it’s too fast for your current level. This adjustment is labeled “Playback Speed” and is found in the “Settings” menu. Usually the -0.75 option is best. 

Vocabulary – Building Books

There are several books specifically designed to improve vocabulary. One particularly helpful one is Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. This book is a classic in vocabulary building literature. It’s very well organized and uses a variety of strategies for acquiring new vocabulary so the reader is always stimulated. 

One of the most interesting ways of picking up new words is to browse a visual dictionary. You can select either a monolingual English edition or a  multilingual translating format. In this type of dictionary, each word is illustrated, usually in color. Associating new words with a visual image helps many learners to more easily remember them. The illustrations are often very beautiful, creating a strong mental image that can be easily and permanently connected with the word represented. Electronic versions of these are of course also available. 

A word of caution about some of the available vocabulary books with titles including phrases such as “words to make you sound smarter” or “vocabulary for intellectuals.” While these types of guides can be useful for advanced students, they often include vocabulary that is rarely used by actual speakers outside of the academic world.  Using these without the guidance of an experienced teacher can lead to lost time and missed opportunities to learn really useful vocabulary. Teachers at an accredited language school are the best sources of recommendations for vocabulary building books and other materials because they have tested them in practice. 

Active Usage

english students of LANGUAGE ON Brickell School attending a lesson
English students of LANGUAGE ON Brickell School attending a lesson; (Photo/LANGUAGE ON)

It’s vitally important to incorporate new words in daily conversations and writings. For some learners, it can be difficult to find opportunities for active usage. Taking an English course at a school with a professionally-designed curriculum  will ensure that you keep new vocabulary active through interaction with teachers and other learners. 

Learning Word Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes

When you learn a new word, check for related words that are formed by adding a prefix or suffix to the base word. Use a good dictionary to check for the root word, and try to add at least one or two words that incorporate the same root. The meanings may be similar or contrasting. In any case, this is a great way to accelerate your vocabulary building. 

Curiosity and Learning Desire

  For learners who have a strong academic orientation, learning the origin of new words can motivate them to keep discovering new vocabulary and aid in retaining it. The origin of a word is its etymology and this information can be found in most quality dictionaries. If this information is useful to you, be sure to note it in your vocabulary journal.

Creating a Personalized Vocabulary Journal

Keep a log of new words and their meanings for frequent review. Be sure to include some context for each word or idiomatic expression:

  1. A sentence or two using the word or phrase. If the word has more than one meaning, be sure to include separate sentences that will help you recall them.
  2. Context can also mean where you learned or first discovered the word. For example, you might make a note about the novel, movie, song or other media where you first found the word.
  3. It can help some learners to add something of the surrounding scene if you learned the word in a dramatic context, such as a movie, play or novel. For example, under the entry for “parachute” you might note that you learned this word in a James Bond movie.
  4. Using different colors can be an aid for learners who are visually oriented. For example, you might write all verbs in green, adjectives in red, nouns in black, etc.

Enhancing Fluency Alongside Vocabulary

watching movies and series with close captions

Watching movies, series and TV shows is one of the best ways to improve fluency and learn new vocabulary at the same time. Closed captions or subtitles will help with understanding new words and their appropriate context.  As always, you can use a dictionary to verify the meaning. Be sure to note the words and some context in your vocabulary journal.  Here are some tips for using new vocabulary gained from entertainment to increase your overall fluency:

  1. Watch a movie or tv series with your friends. Note and discuss any words that are new to the group.  At an interesting point in the show, stop the playback. Assign each person a role, and improvise a continuation of the drama (or comedy). You’ll need to use the new vocabulary to make an interesting and  coherent continuation. 
  2. Get together with your friends and discuss recent movies or series you’ve seen. In describing the plot, settings and characters you’ll need to use the vocabulary you discovered.
  3. Throw an after-viewing party where you discuss a movie or series the group has just watched. 

Even courses that don’t emphasize vocabulary, such as accent reduction classes, will add to your working vocabulary. New words will be introduced as examples of pronunciation patterns, so you’ll achieve two goals at once.

What is the secret to building vocabulary?

While there isn’t a single secret to building vocabulary,  the most important keys to successful vocabulary enhancement are:

  1. Always have some context for vocabulary.  Context includes meaningful sentences with the words, as well as circumstances where you first encountered them, such as movies, shows, books, etc.
  2. Review frequently, and actively use the new vocabulary to move it from short-term to long-term memory.
  3. Use the techniques that work best for your learning style. Find a variety of activities and sources that are effective, and mix them up so you stay engaged and motivated.
  4. Get expert guidance from experienced, professional teachers at a top rated language school.  These instructors will keep you moving forward on your vocabulary journey with a variety of activities to discover and learn useful, practical vocabulary.  

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