Expanding your active vocabulary is essential if you want to improve your overall English communication skills. Here are a few tips and reminders of how to do it:
1. Read in English and do this..
Some of your reading will be for enjoyment, and there should be times when your ‘learn English button’ is switched off. However, when you’re in class or in study mode, grab a pen, and take note of cool words and phrases which you think you can use for your own interactions.
In other words, read AND… then add to the experience by seeing if you can spot and write down any useful vocabulary.
If you’re reading an article in your English class, first answer any comprehension questions without help from your teacher or a dictionary. After that, go back and check any missing vocabulary. Ask yourself: How did you go the second time? Did checking the meanings of some unknown words help boost your mark?
Write down the missing words and phrases, at least those you think are worth remembering.
Reading is a great way to see different phrases and expressions in action, and if you read widely, you’ll get a flavour for how vast vocabulary can be depending on the genre. For instance, reading The Economist will showcase different vocabulary compared to catching up on the latest celebrity gossip in Cosmopolitan.
Quick tip – get a story adapted for your level. Choose a book which you find interesting, and away you go! Check out here for examples at B2 – Upper Intermediate level. If you don’t have enough money try sharing the cost with a classmate.
2. Look Out For Word Partnerships
How are things?
This was the first she’d heard it, and she asked: “Is this another way to ask how are you?”
By the end of the lesson we’d gone over other common small talk greetings and phrases:
How are you going?
How are you doing?
What’s up?” (U.S.A)
How have you been?
What have you been up to?
So being curious can help you discover new vocabulary which you can use in your own interactions.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider the words you already know. You might first learn the word look, and then one day your teacher asks you to look up a word in the dictionary. Perhaps later on she says she’s looking for a new flat.
Quick tip – keep a note of which words come before or go after the words you already know.
You can also try to recognise language in the books and articles you read. Just in this post you’re reading right now I’ve already used the following word partnerships:
- Switched off – like a light, a person can also be switched off.
- Grab a pen – in the UK and Australia we use grab a lot in speech to mean take or have: eg Let’s go and grab a coffee
- Take note of (something)
- In other words – a fixed phrase used to clarify or simply what you’ve just said
- Go back and check – often go is featured in short phrases called binomials like this:
Let’s go and ask him.
- For instance – another way of saying for example
- Catch up on (news) – to find out the latest news about something, especially if you haven’t followed the news recently
The more you open your eyes and listen out for new words and expressions, the better you’ll notice new language which you can take note of and later on start to use in real life.
3. Bring a Dictionary to Class
Studies show* that if you bring a dictionary to class (or use one through your iPad), you’ll learn vocabulary quicker than those who don’t.
Which dictionary to use? There’s no clear proof just yet if it’s better to buy an English-only dictionary or a bilingual one. However the following can be taken into account:
- A monolingual (English only) dictionary can help by keeping everything in English, which can be good if you have only limited contact with English speakers during the week. You can double-check the meaning in your own language later on if you must.
- A Czech-English or any other kind of bilingual dictionary can help get an idea of what a word or phrase means, which can be very handy when you need to know a word quickly. If you choose a bilingual dictionary, choose a good one – check and see if it includes phrases, phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions before you buy it. Those $2 tiny dictionaries which I’ve seen some students bring to class are only really good for single-word items which a beginner may need to look up (eg cat, dog, table, chair).
Quick tip – you can check your homework using a dictionary. For instance, all the top dictionaries will show you which preposition to use after a key verb (eg SET off on a journey), and they’ll tell you which verbs commonly match key nouns (eg do homework, commit a crime, take off clothing).
Feel free to check the following free online resources:
And for slang, this one has some words which the ‘official’ ones don’t:
4. Write More
Coursebooks these days give you some phrases which you can use in different genres of writing. So open your book up and use them!
For example, if you’re writing a story, you can practice common expressions for organising an interesting plot (eg as soon as; the next thing I knew I was..; there I was, standing there..).
If you’re writing a formal letter or email, either because you need it for your job or a Cambridge English Exam, you can practise a whole bunch of phrases:
Following our meeting of ……., I would like to…
Many thanks for…
We do apologise for…
Please feel free to contact me should you require further assistance
Likewise the following writing questions can help expand your vocabulary:
- A letter to a friend – to practise phrasal verbs and idioms which you’d also find in everyday spoken English
- A review (of a film, restaurant, event, etc) – to practise the language of recommending and evaluating
- A letter of reference (eg for the Advanced CAE Cambridge Exam) – also practises the language of recommending and describing people, even if it’s not the type of letter you’re going to write often
- A journal or diary – writing this over a period of time can help show you how much you’re improving. You can write about your life or if you feel more comfortable writing as if you were your favourite famous person, then do that. Keeping a journal practises writing in the past, as well as everyday spoken phrases. Don’t forget to add in the vocabulary you’ve been doing in class – this means you’re already trying to use new language.
- You can find some more writing missions here.
Quick tip – plan your writing before you start most writing questions! Perhaps writing a diary is different, but a story or a letter should have a clear structure.
5. Watch, Listen and Interact
- Programmes like How I met your Mother, Big Bang Theory, Dr Who, and Home and Away are full of common English phrases and expressions. Why not watch an episode twice – the first time, for general understanding, and the second time write down 10 new phrases you hear. In most cases these days you can also check the vocabulary with the subtitles.
Watching these shows can also give you more insights into the cultures of English-speaking countries.
- Of course, listening to a programme you like on the BBC or any number of podcasts can help you.
Remember to listen actively – if you’re tuned into the BBC News, for example, grab a pen and see if you can write down the top stories you hear. Then listen to it again, noting down any new word you hear.BBC podcasts and programmes can be found here.
- Interact with your English teacher and go to events where the language advertised is English! Speak and meet new people!
In terms of learning English vocabulary, one way students can take advantage of their class time is to listen out for new phrases and expressions that their teacher uses in natural communication (like the student above who’d heard how are things? for the first time). I wrote about this approach here.Use English events for meeting new people, but be aware that many English speakers in Prague and other European capitals will not want to meet you if all you want is ‘English practice’.
Instead, focus on building real and sincere relationships. Check out this article for more.
Quick tip – if you’re a little reserved or shy to speak, do things in small steps. Once you choose an English event, make it your mission just to go there and have a drink the first week! After that, the second week you can greet a few people. Then your next challenge is to greet someone (“Hi!”) and then start a short conversation. As Mark Manson has said: “.. begin with extremely simple behavioral changes that almost guarantee success… for instance, smiling and asking everyone you speak to one day how their day is going. The idea is that the little bit of confidence and momentum you build from doing this can then be carried over to the next day where you do something a little bit more uncomfortable, and so on.”
6. Repeat, revise and repeat
Repetition helps with remembering new vocabulary. If you write down a word only once, and don’t see it again for some time, you’re most likely to forget it. So give yourself the best chance by going over your notes and coming back to them regularly.
Go over new language at regular intervals and don’t worry if it takes a while before you feel you can comfortably use new phrases and expressions.
Revising vocabulary can be done in different ways:
- Checking your dictionary for extra examples. These days most dictionaries give really good, real life examples of how vocabulary is used
- Try using the new word or phrase in your writing and spoken interactions
- Google the phrase – can you find some examples of how it’s used?
- Idiom and Phrase Race – grab a piece of paper and write down the words you remember from today’s lesson. What about yesterday’s lesson?
- Write down each word or phrase you’d like to remember on small cards or pieces of paper – pick up each card and then try to make complete sentences with them
- Quizzes, tests and revision exercises can help. Some coursebooks also have extra games, tests and activities which allow for further revision and practice
- Get the separate workbook for your coursebook – depending on the book you or your teacher chose, there should be some activities to practise the vocabulary you did in class
- Draw pictures to help you remember a new idiom or phrase you’ve learnt
- Here’s a few more activities and games you can play, even on your own 🙂
Activate Your English Vocabulary
Quick tip – don’t worry about keeping your notes perfectly tidy! I learnt French vocabulary by writing down different verbs on postcards which I got for free in pubs and cafes. Other times I wrote them out on paper, and put them up on the wall. I also brainstormed verbs on sheets of paper, perhaps using different coloured pens, and then just threw out everything out when I’d gone over enough verbs.
7. Putting It All In Perspective
Your overall progress in English and in how much you expand your vocabulary depends on the following:
- The hours you spend learning and ‘living English’. If you only have one 60-minute lesson a week, then you won’t learn as quickly as someone who is spending 10 hours. Be cool and realistic with where you are.
- The focussed learning hours you spend – how you spend your time is just as crucial in improving your vocabulary. If you’re spending most of your time on grammar, then your vocabulary won’t grow as quickly. As a general rule, you need to spend *a lot* more time on building your vocabulary than on the grammar.
- Are you meeting people and speaking English? Meeting new people will help develop your fluency and you’ll hear common spoken English phrases in action. Not only that, isn’t this the main reason why you’re learning English? This is the best way to have fun and have lots of new, interesting experiences!
- What are your goals and motivation behind learning English? I’ve often found that the most motivated are the ones who have a real reason * now * to learn English and they make more progress compared to someone who is studying English ‘for the future’.
Quick tip – this all seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it? If you just spend 10 – 20 minutes a day revising key vocabulary, you’re adding to your vocabulary bank and making it grow. It’s like the compound interest that you get from putting your money in the bank. Instead of making a little progress, you make more progress because each day you’re adding to what you did the previous day!
In a nutshell
The more time you have for English, the better. The more active you are, the more you’ll develop your vocabulary. It helps to look out for useful phrases and expressions and to go over and revise the ones you think could be useful.
Ultimately what matters is whether you’re using English in your real life. Have interactions – in person, on Skype or by ‘interacting’ with a book or TV programme – and enjoy the journey 🙂
* Check out Vocabulary Myths by Folse for example
Here are some more links on English vocabulary which I’ve written about:
- Phrases Often Used In The Present Perfect Form
- Phrases For Giving Your Opinion
- Small Talk Phrases and Worksheet
- Idioms Using Twitter
- Combining Vocabulary With The Present Simple
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