It is unlikely that teachers can cover in class the huge number of vocabulary items that students will need to use or understand, so it is equally important to help students with how to learn vocabulary as well as with what to learn. In this blog post I would like to answer some questions my students usually ask about learning vocabulary, and also to offer some tips and links which I hope can help them to improve their vocabulary.
What is meant by ‘our vocabulary’?
Our own individual vocabulary refers to all the words we know. It includes both our:
- active vocabulary – the words we understand and use regularly when speaking or writing, and our
- passive vocabulary – the words we understand when we hear them, but do not or cannot use them.
We often recognize a word before we can use it. It takes a long time before we fully know a word.
Why is it important to improve our vocabulary?
A wide vocabulary helps you to understand what you read or listen, and to write and speak well. It is far more difficult to communicate with no vocabulary than with no grammar.
You will improve your English very much if you learn more words and expressions instead of spending most time studying grammar.
What is meant by really knowing a word?
Really knowing a word means knowing all its different kinds of meanings. Knowing a word also involves understanding its form, i.e. what part of speech it is, how it works grammatically, and how it is pronounced and spelt. In order to pronounce new words correctly you can use the phonetic alphabet for help with pronunciation. You can also use an online, talking dictionary that tells us how to say a word (i.e. includes a sound clip of the pronunciation).
You need to say new words a number of times; listen to what you are saying. You need also to use your new words in conversation, in emails and other writing many times before you can be said to have learned them. Make sure you check with your teacher if there is anything you are not sure about.
It takes a lot of practice before you really acquire / learn / know a new word. You should be systematic about studying and review new words at least once every couple of weeks.
Useful tips to help students improve their vocabulary
1. Record your vocabulary systematically
As far as vocabulary learning is concerned, one of the main problems is recording your vocabulary in a way that will help you remember it. It is a very good idea to have a vocabulary notebook and to organize it into themes or topics (e.g. appearance, food, clothes, health, holidays, relationships, travel, traffic, etc.). Have one theme per piece of paper and create headings to sort out your words and phrases into really useful ‘word maps’.
Try not to note down single words. Try and find out what other verbs, adjectives, prepositions etc. go together with each word.
2. Learn vocabulary in chunks
The best way of learning new words is to gather together words and phrases in clusters that make sense, that connect with each other – because, simply, it helps the brain remember them.
The term collocation means a natural combination of words; it refers to the way in which English words are closely associated with each other. For example, we talk about: heavy rain and heavy traffic but not about: heavy sun or heavy roads; or we say that we make a mistake, but we don’t do a mistake. If we say: My father is a very high man, our language will sound very unnatural, because high goes with mountains and tall goes with men/women. So, heavy rain and make a mistake, as well as high mountain and tall man are often referred to as collocations, and we say that heavy collocates with rain, or that heavy and rain are collocates of each other.
Let’s look at the next example:
If you say: “I forgot my passport and lost the plane”, this will sound very unnatural, because a native speaker of English would say: “I forgot my passport and missed the plane”.
Apart from helping you to expand your English vocabulary, you need to learn collocations because they will help you to speak and write English in a more natural and accurate way.
3. Use a dictionary
You need to have access to a couple of good dictionaries. If you read or hear a word you don’t understand, look up the meaning of the word and write it down in your ‘vocabulary notebook’. Good learner dictionaries give students so much help with getting a grasp on vocabulary. Most dictionaries have a key at the beginning to explain the codes. Example sentences are useful for showing you how a word is used in practice. Phrases and collocations show you the different uses of a word and help to further increase your vocabulary. If students are taught how to use them properly they will increase their depth of understanding. With correct usage of a good dictionary, such as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary students will know how vocabulary is pronounced. They’ll also be able to identify which words are from the academic word list, learn synonyms and antonyms etc.
Remember that English is changing every day. The more recently a dictionary was published, the more up-to-date the language will be.
4. Range of contexts
Students need to use new vocabulary in various contexts outside the classroom. They can listen to the news, read books or listen to their favourite music in English. The more that language is seen in different contexts, the more students will be intrinsically motivated as they will want to know more. This is much more interesting for students (and teachers) if the focus is on the topic, not the language.
Read something you enjoy and choose a variety of topics; include texts that are a bit challenging and which include words that are unfamiliar. If you come across new words while you are reading:
- Try to work out the meaning of the word from the context.
- Don’t keep stopping to look up words you don’t know as this breaks the flow and makes it more difficult to concentrate on, and understand, what you’re reading.
- If you’re really struggling to understand what you’re reading, look up one or two words that you don’t understand, then reread the passage and keep going.
Mobile apps and short online activities are also great for this, as you can log on instantly and test yourselves at any point of the day – it’s really not difficult to integrate learning into your daily routine this way. Try the games such as Scrabble and Boggle – they’re fun and great for learning new words. Do crossword puzzles and other word games in print or online.
Useful links to help students improve their vocabulary
Free rice [A fun and interesting site to help you improve your vocabulary. Play the game and for each answer you get right, 10 grains of rice are donated through the World Food Programme to help end hunger.]
VocabularySize.com [VS test your knowledge – Measure your vocabulary size and affix knowledge.]
World Wide Words [Investigating the English language across the globe]
A.Word.A.Day [Wordsmith – Subscribe to the site and receive a newsletter about the magic of words and learning new words.]
WordThink [Insightful and persuasive words you can use every day.]
Wordgames [The Problem Site – A variety of free, online educational word games.]
Pronunciation tips [BBC Learning English – Pronunciation tips including the phonemic alphabet, the sounds of English, interactive quizzes and videos.]
Phonemic chart [British Council – Includes sample words and English sounds.]
O’Dell, F., McCarthy, M. (2005). English Collocations in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O’Dell, F., McCarthy, M. (2002). English Vocabulary in Use – upper-intermediate&advanced. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McCarten, J. (2007). Teaching Vocabulary – Lessons from the Corpus, Lessons for the Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [ McCarten_booklet ]