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How to improve your vocabulary in English

Words form the building blocks of any language and the more you know, the more freedom you have when expressing your thoughts and ideas.

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Improving your vocabulary in English can be a challenge if you are living in your home country and have little contact with English. However, a little time and dedication goes a lot way and by making small changes to your daily routine, you can expand your English vocabulary each week.

Adult native English speakers usually have a vocabulary of 10,000-21,000 words depending on their age and level of education. Reading is an important factor that tends to expand a person’s vocabulary size. Non-native speakers of English should aim for a vocabulary 3,000-5,000 words. This is enough to understand 99% of everyday conversation and communicate freely and without compromise. Building towards this target takes time and effort but is achievable for all learners of English who really want to know the language well.


Always learn vocabulary in context

Whenever we use words, they are always in a context so it makes sense to learn them in the situations in which they arise. This approach has several advantages. You gain a better understanding of how to use words in a real language situation and learn them in combinations and as collocations. If you do not know a particular word, you can often guess its meaning from the context in which it is found. Therefore, context is important and should not be ignored when learning English vocabulary.

Thematic vocabulary

Some learners acquire vocabulary more easily when it is arranged in lists by topic. For example, you might have a list of airport vocabulary with 20 words connected with the topic of air travel. This is a good approach but bear in mind that there are many “cross-over” words that fit into multiple categories and topics. These words are no less important and should appear on a general vocabulary list of their own with examples of their usage in context. Try this list of 1580 commonly used words in English. If you know all of these words, then you are already half way towards your initial 3,000 word target!

Read more in English

Native speakers who have large vocabularies are often big readers. This makes sense as they have more contact with complex literary and scientific language. You can expand your vocabulary by reading too. Set aside 30 minutes a day to read in English and make sure you have a good dictionary to hand. You will also need an English book (or article) and a pencil. As you read, try to understand the general meaning of the text but also underline any new words, phrases, and unfamiliar idioms as you go. When you reach the end of a chapter or your 30 minutes is over, look up the new vocabulary in your dictionary and make a note of it separately. Over time you will build up a small personal dictionary of words that you need to learn.

Learn through association and logic

Many words follow logical patterns both in their structure and application. Learning one root word can lead to an understanding of several other lexical units derived from it. It is also worth taking the time to learn Greek and Latin roots in English. For example, if you know that “bi-” means two and “ann-” means year, then you can work out that “biannually” logically means twice yearly. Try to see the bigger picture – take the smallest unit you can find (the root) and work outwards from there. By adding prefixes and suffixes, you can alter the meaning of a root word, creating several other lexical units in the process. Associating words with one another can also be a good way of expanding your vocabulary by logically grouping similar items together.

Use it or lose it

The funny English expression “In one ear and out the other” applies well to vocabulary acquisition. Imagine the temporary files folder on your computer or laptop. It stores information for a limited time only before deleting it. This is done so that your computer does not slow down or get filled with unnecessary information. The same is true of your brain when learning English vocabulary. Words that you often use are in your active memory and you can use them fluently, often without thinking too much about their translation in your language. On the other hand, words you are still unfamiliar with and use rarely are harder to remember and use because they form part of your passive vocabulary. The key here is to force yourself to have more contact with the words you want to remember. This can be done through reading and repetition.

If you read 10 articles about keeping goldfish, then you will probably need to use the dictionary quite often up until article 5. Once you have translated and learnt the unfamiliar vocabulary, the following 5 articles will be much easier to understand and by article 10 some of these new words will have been retained. This is a simple approach but an effective one. Concentrating on one subject area at a time can lead to better vocabulary retention.

Perhaps the hardest task of all is learning to use your new vocabulary when speaking English. This takes times and practice because you need to remember words and constructions quickly in order to use them during a flowing conversation with few pauses. OTUK offers one-to-one classes via Skype with British English teachers. We help our students expand their vocabulary and retain it through real conversation on interesting topics. If you would like to improve your English with OTUK, drop us a line to arrange a trial consultation today!

Click here to download this post via our mobile website!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

Written by Alex Jude —
ESL Specialist & CEO at Online Teachers UK

Alex Jude is the Founder & CEO of Online Teachers UK. He holds a BA hons degree in Linguistics from The University of Manchester and is a life-long English teacher. Following graduation, he spent 2002-2012 living and teaching in Russia, where he lectured in General Linguistics and Translation Studies. Alex is a fluent Russian speaker and worked with the BBC at the World Cup in 2018. In his spare time, he enjoys camping/bushcraft, playing guitar and watching rugby league.

Written by Alex Jude —
ESL Specialist & CEO at Online Teachers UK