How to improve your vocabulary

How to improve your vocabulary

Students often come to the Study Support to improve their vocabulary. Here are some useful tips on how to do that. Which is your favourite tip? Comment below!

11 effective techniques to expand your vocabulary

An improved and expanded vocabulary will boost you on a personal and particularly professional level; the benefits are manifold. Explore the beauty and potential of a language. Communicate in a more engaging, entertaining way. Speak without confusion on any subject. Become a better writer or enhance your overall reading experience. The sky is the limit.

Assuming you have interest in the topic, we are on the same road trying to constantly add new expressions to our pool of active and passive words. In this comprehensive article (grab a coffee) I will therefore outline techniques to show you how to improve vocabulary on a daily basis. It ranges from setting goals and playing games to writing exercises and language learning. The vocabulary activities and tips are grouped by similarity but can applied in no specific order. Experiment!

1. Set your goals

It is an interesting fact that if we want to speak a language fluently we only need to know an average of 2,500 passive and 2,000 active word-families to handle most types of our conversations. That is 4.5% of the available 100,000-word families in English. English natives know about 10,000 to 20,000 words. Still something out there, right?

Before you start filling the gaps, I suggest to make your project a passion or to simply get enthusiastic about discovering interesting, specialised or rarely used words. Welcome unknown words, try guessing their meaning, think about their uses. It can be an eye opener!

If you want to be organised, here we go:

  • What is the main goal and purpose? Is it for job, exams or personal reasons?
  • How many new words? What is your time frame and schedule? Per day, week, year.
  • In which specific areas you would like to expand on?
  • Schedule your activities. Stick to 15 minutes a day.
  • Get your stuff ready, e.g. dictionary, thesaurus, flash cards, worksheets.

2. Get a thesaurus and dictionary

If you are looking to expand your word palette, the best thing you can do is purchase both a thesaurus and an English-English dictionary. A dictionary will allow you to learn what new words mean, as well as how to pronounce them. It will often give you an example of the word in a sentence, showing you just how to use that word in everyday conversation and work.

A thesaurus, on the other hand, will show you other words you can use that have the same meaning in your conversations and work. When used together? They are an incredibly powerful tool that can become the very basis of your wider reading and improved vocabulary. Thesaurus.com is a popular online tool.

Free online resources: Thesaurus.com | Oxford Dictionary | Dictionary.com

3. Read. And then read some more!

Words are like pictures. The more we see them the easier we recognise and get familiar with them. Voracious reading can be one powerful key, particularly to enhance your writing!

However, despite what some websites and vocabulary teachers may tell you, reading is not the be-all-and-end-all of improving your word pool. There is no sense in reading a 500 page book if you are only going to understand 1/3 of the text! Reading is however a hugely important part to solidly build and improve vocabulary. These factors are important to approach material effectively:

Remember: Unless you apply speed reading techniques it’s better to take time and just enjoy the reading process. You may want to approach your text on a word-by-word, sentence by sentence basis. This is also where the dictionary and thesaurus come in handy. Grab that dictionary and look the word up and how to pronounce it!

Start Small, Aim Tall: Depending on your age or reading and knowledge level aim for material that is made for you but is also challenging in a positive way. Science-Fiction and fantasy books are a great source of imaginary words, while non-fiction material will increase your vocabulary on a more academic level. Reading novels or books about contemporary topics will help get to learn vocabulary that is new and wasn’t around a few years ago.

Read classic novels: As entertaining as the latest celebrity gossip magazine may be, by itself, it will not teach you the wide variety of words you will be looking to learn. Often the most useful reading material available for building your vocabulary are classic novels from literature greats. Whilst they may take longer to digest and understand, this reading source will also show you just how certain words can be utilised in conversation and description. ReadAnyBook.com will provide you with a huge selection of free and downloadable novels for you to get stuck into).

Use Audiobooks: The great thing about audiobooks is that you can find them just about anywhere, from online sources to your local library. Plug in your headphones and do nothing more than listen! Even if you do not understand every word you hear, it will teach you the exact pronunciation and placement of every word. And if you do understand every word? Then that is even better! Words are often made much clearer when placed into context and used in conversation, and as a listener, you will also be presented with an interesting and engaging story to boot! Open Culture and Loyal Books are two great places to start.

Sign up to receive a word a day: There are numerous sites that will email you a word a day for you to remember. And it’s a helpful word too that you will be able to use whenever you like. Add this word to the lists and mindmaps you have created in Step 4 to further develop your vocabulary. The official English Oxford Dictionary website is a great place to start, sign up today!

4. Use imagery, visualise

Attach an image to certain words: This is a technique utilised throughout schools when attempting to educate students in a second language. By getting pupils to associate an image with a certain word, each and every time they see that image they will immediately think of that word and thus start to use it in sentences and conversation.

You can do exactly the same. For long words, try splitting the word down into parts, each part having a cute cartoon attached to it. There is only one rule here; the more unique, the weirder the image you attach to that word, the better. Make it truly memorable. If you have a playful mind try the game Camping Trip which will train your visualising skills in no time.

5. Play vocabulary games

Online word memory games: The great thing about the internet is that games are literally everywhere and there are quite a few to improve your vocabulary significantly. Alongside traditional favourites such as word-searches, you can find shooters, car driving games and flip cards, all of which will present new words to you in an enjoyable, welcoming environment. ManyThings.org is a site that caters to a wide variety of students, from children to adults and also has a hugely enjoyable selection of games.

Create your own memory games: If a regular or mobile internet connection is an issue, do not worry! Detailed in section 7 is just how you can create word lists of similar words that will help you with your memorising of these words. Create a word-search or a crossword on your Microsoft word, or simply construct one with a pen and paper. Add in the list of words you want to learn for the day, and off you go!

Use the games in your cupboard: We all have a drawer or a small cupboard where we all put the family board games. Favourites such as Scrabble and Boggle can all go some way to improving your vocabulary, and, if you have a dictionary at hand, you can learn and have some fun while laying down your letters! If you do not have any games in your cupboard? A journey down to your local car boot sale or to Amazon Retailers will provide you with one.

Create flash cards: The use of flash cards is one of the most effective ways to learn new information. Add words into the mix, and you will see your rate of memory retention shoot upwards. Write some tricky, or hard to learn words onto your cards and then have a go with them, and watch your memorization shoot upwards! StudyBlue is an excellent flash card creator and you can take it with you wherever you go! [Editor's note: quizlet.com and englishvocabularyexercises.com are also excellent resources]

6. Consider software to improve your vocabulary

Vocabulary Builder Software can help expanding your active word-families effectively. They should offer extensive step-by-step guides and give access to a comprehensive word database including in-depth explanations and option to add images and your own notes. Depending on what type of learner someone is, a comprehensive program also ships with a variety of games, video tutorials, flash cards, ability to create and print word lists and of course advanced progress monitoring.

The latest trend is to make them all cloud-based adding benefits such as social sharing options, learning in groups and constant system updates. Consider tutors that allow several systems installs and more than one user account so family and friends can join the fun. Ultimate Vocabulary 2015 is one popular tutor which is used and recommended by many people around the world.

7. Write! And then write some more.

Start an online blog: Each and every one of us lives out a different life each day, and yours could well be one of the more interesting ones out there. Why not write about it? This will have 2 main benefits. It will encourage you to write down words on a regular basis, and the more comfortable you become with writing and using said words, the more likely you are to use them in the future. Find that your writing is using the same words again and again? Use your thesaurus to find a good alternative. This will, in turn, give you another word to use in your everyday writing and conversation!

Write a poem or small song: Whilst you will not be expected to write the next hit single for Beyoncé or Iggy Azalea, writing down a song or poem with a simple, yet clear rhyming pattern can be a great tool to use when trying to remember new words. How about writing a poem that contains a certain word and what it means? If it rhymes with another word that you are trying to learn, that is even better. If you want to take the poetry route, then Poem Of Quotes is a hugely enjoyable, easy to follow site.

Create vocabulary worksheets: Human beings love lists. They make activities clear to understand, they keep order and you can also easily keep track of your progress in a variety of activities. Hence, why not use them when trying to expand your vocabulary? Create lists of similar words using your thesaurus, let’s say fifteen words of a similar meaning each list. All you need to do is spend 10-15 minutes each day memorizing this list, making sure you can remember each and every word on there. Alternatives are professional programs that come with a build-in work sheet creator.

Create a mind-map: Find that the list is not working for you? Try mind-mapping instead. Mind maps make the connections between certain subjects incredibly clear, and if used correctly can be a major asset when expanding your vocabulary. They will also allow you to give examples of words in use, something you are limited with if you choose to construct lists. MindMup is a comprehensive, yet easy to understand site available in this field.

[Editor's note: bring your extra writing to the Study Support Teacher's for feedback and correction!]

8. Link words!

Find the latin or greek origin of words: This may sound like a time consuming and rather boring way of expanding your vocabulary. Rest assured that this is actually one of the most effective ways that you learn. A majority of English words originate from Latin and Greek. By relating to the word and actually finding its origin and original meaning, you are much more likely to remember it in the long run, but also understand new ones quickly.

Think of each word as a new person that you meet. If you just pass over it once, you are not going to remember anything about it for more than a few hours. If you engage with it, learn about it and also put it to use? Then you are going to remember a lot more about it! EnhanceMyVocabulary.com is a good starting point to make the process easy and enjoyable.

Master suffixes and prefixes: By understanding their meaning you are likely to grasp a words' meaning faster. This PDF list of prefixes and suffixes is quick and brief.

Link words from different languages that sound similar: What is meant by this is that, if English isn’t your first language, use your native tongue to your full advantage! Take for example the French for the colour pink, which is rose. Roses can be pink in colour, so every time you see a rose or think of rosé, you will associate it to the colour pink. Easy! This EDU site gives a great example of how to to connect words from languages you know.

9. Use new words in everyday language!

Talk with people: Nothing out there beats actually absorbing yourself in an environment where you are encouraged to use those words as much as possible. For this particular avenue of exploration, this means talking to as many people as possible. Engage in everyday conversation, no matter how basic and try using one or two of your learnt words when talking to somebody. See how they react, see if you get response. If not? Then try again. It is all part of the learning process, success or not! LiteMind has some great suggestions on this topic, as well as one or two other ideas you may wish to try.  [Editor's note: The Couch is also a great place to do this in Melbourne - and they have free food!]

Type to people: Are you on an online forum focused on your fashion interests? Your favourite football team? Your favourite hobby? Use this to your advantage! The great thing about communicating through an online medium is that it is less immediate in nature than a face-to-face conversation, so you can plan and think carefully about your response.

10. Run vocabulary tests regularly!

Testing can be fun. And you dictate when! The idea of a test to many of us is no fun. Sure, whilst you will be putting your vocabulary to practice on a regular basis with the techniques shown above, once in a while a short test will be in order. Have you actually remembered those lists you created in Step 7 a week after you wrote them out? Find out!

Or, if you prefer a slightly more general route, websites such as Memrise will throw as many words at you to test your skills as you can handle.

11. How to improve vocabulary: A final word 

Thanks for reading this far. You may have wondered why we have published an article on “how to improve vocabulary” on a site about speed reading. It’s obvious: This blog is dedicated to how to speed read material effectively. The more words we recognise the faster we will understand a text, the more we will also be able to comprehend and retain. Mastering both is just a perfect combination.

Part of the fun of improving your vocabulary is that there are also numerous ways that you can do so. Each and every technique that is shown in How to Improve Vocabulary will have its own advantages and disadvantages depending on who you are, but each and every one will allow you to learn at your own pace.

If you require any further guidance or hints and tips to get you on your way, then write us an email or comment [Editor's note - comment on the original article here or on our site below]. We can provide you with additional links you can utilise to your heart's content. And if you want a daily activity just to keep yourself ticking over? EnglishTown is one of the best free resources out there.

Final tip: Be aware that people might not understand rarely used or highly specialised words. Keep it real when talking to children, friends and family. You may want to impress but you don’t want to sound off-hook in your everyday and casual talking.

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