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How to build your vocabulary?

How do you learn new words? A typical classroom exchange I have with students, whatever the level, goes like this: when students see a new word they try to guess it in context, or look up its translation. Some may write a “mental sentence” but the process usually stops here.

My response is always the same: if you don’t write down the meaning and practice making sentences with it, you won’t remember much. The information you just looked up will remain in the dictionary and not in your head. The key to learning vocabulary is taking an active approach.

As a teacher, I make a distinction between passive and active language knowledge. Passive knowledge is recognizing a word when you hear it within a given context. Our passive knowledge is often greater when learning a language and what’s tricky is making it become active—actually reproducing and using words correctly, spontaneously and flexibly. This is harder to achieve and means taking extra steps or an active approach.

First, focus!

You can’t learn all the new words you come across, unless you’ve got a photographic memory! So start by identifying which words to focus on. Like those connected to your profession or field, ones you like or see repeatedly and know you want to use.

It takes an average of seven times being exposed to a word before you actually remember it, so this means you’re going to have to repeat, repeat, repeat.

How to learn words

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Write down words in a notebook, including translations or definitions (*for advanced students: use an English dictionary)
  2. Write the words and translations on small cards. Carry these with you and test yourself whenever you have a spare moment
  3. Organize words into different categories such as work-related, hobbies, verbs, adjectives, idioms, etc.
  4. Make word associations, or create sentences and have fun with it—you’ll remember more this way
  5. Make it a goal to use a new word in speaking or writing that day

On a last note

It’s more realistic learning a few words a day (rather than trying to memorize a long list), so remember: less is more. Focus on fewer words, learn them well and you’ll expand your vocabulary. See it as an organic process that takes time to mature.

Also, know your learning style. Some students are visual, others like to write, etc. so be aware of what techniques work best for you. If you don’t like writing, for example, you might try recording your ideas. But the fastest way to boost your vocabulary is understanding the process requires discipline—only you can take action on this—and daily practice.


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