Having a good Academic English vocabulary is a significant part of studying at university. If you have a large Academic English vocabulary, you’ll write better essays, give better presentations and understand more of your lectures. Reading academic articles will be easier, too!
To build a large Academic English vocabulary you’ll need to learn words from two different categories:
General academic English and subject specific English
All university students will need to know how to use general academic words, such as identify and analyse.
You will also need to know the subject specific words for your course. For example, a biology student might need to know about photosynthesis whereas a software development student might need to know about application integration.
I know this all sounds like a lot of work… That’s why I’ve created a list of 14 different strategies that you can use to help you learn and remember vocabulary.
If you’re a visual learner, someone who learns from pictures, you can use images like flashcards to help you learn and remember words.
Alternatively, if you’re artistic, you can draw simple pictures that that make you think of the word.
What’s better than carrying your word lists and dictionaries around with you? Having one on your phone! A wordlist on your phone is really convenient because you can use it whenever you have some free time.
Waiting for the bus? Use your phone’s word list.
In the doctors’ waiting room? Use your phone’s word list.
Stood in the queue in the supermarket? Use your phone’s word list.
Dictionary.com has a free app for download. Try it here.
Collocations are words which commonly go together, like sunny day and a sharp increase in sales. They’re really useful for developing native sounding language.
When you discover a new word, head over to Google and search for [your word] + collocations (for ex. evidence collocations). You’re sure to find some more collocations to add to your vocabulary bank.
Let’s use the word ‘evidence’ as an example:
By using collocations, you can build a larger and more natural vocabulary.
If you’re a lucky learner, your first language will have some similarities with English.
Here’s an example of the similarities between Portuguese and English taken from this website.
Brasília é a capital do Brasil.
Brasilia is the capital of Brazil.
Find these similarities and take advantage of them! Even if the similarities are a bit strange or unusual, they will still help you to remember the words!
Another common Academic English vocabulary learning strategy is to say the word out loud. A lot. Say it to yourself. Say it to your friends. Sing the words. Rap the words. Say the words and clap at the same time.
By saying the words out loud, you increase your familiarity with the word. You also get used to the pronunciation and stress of the word.
This is an important strategy if you’ll be using the word in a presentation.
You can use an old notebook as your vocabulary book. This is a really good way to keep a track of all of the words you are learning.
There are a few ways that you can organise your word lists:
You can also choose what information to include about each word. For example, you could include:
There’s a common saying which goes “a problem shared is a problem halved”. This means that if share your problem (vocabulary) with someone (your classmates) you can learn these words faster.
Ideas of what you can do with your friends and classmates:
One really inventive and practical method to help remember vocabulary AND practice your speaking skills is to do vocabulary presentations.
ACTIVITY IDEA: VOCABULARY PRESENTATION
Work in a group of 3-4 people. Divide the total words between you. For example, if there are 4 people in your group and you’re looking at 16 different words, each person should focus on 4 words.
Prepare a short presentation (using 1 PPT slide per word) and present your words to your group. In your presentation, you should include examples, definitions, word family information and collocations.
Afterwards, you can test each other.
I use this activity in class, and it’s always successful!
You’ve seen “word family” in this post a few times already, but what does it mean!?
Word families are groups of words that all have a common base meaning. Finding the word family can really make your vocabulary learning effective.
Let’s use the word ‘analyse’ for example.
So, from one word (analyse) we can learn five more words! That’s quite a good deal!
You can find word families from most good online dictionaries.
Flashcards… everyone’s used them at some point. Some people love them, and some hate them.
They are slowly being taken over by phone apps, but, in my opinion, nothing beats flashcards that you can hold in your hand.
The information that you include on a flashcard is completely up to you. You have a lot of choices, so choose the information based on what you need. See strategy 6 for ideas of what you can include.
Nobody likes to hear themselves speak, but recording yourself can be a really effective Academic English vocabulary learning strategy.
All you need is a computer and a microphone, or a phone with a voice recorder.
You can record yourself repeating words to practice pronunciation, or you can try recording yourself using the word in sentences. This helps you become familiar with using the word.
This strategy is particularly effective if you are usually quite shy – recording yourself can increase confidence!
This strategy isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a kinaesthetic learner, then you might like it!
Kinaesthetic learners learn best by using their bodies. This means that they might need to get up and move around regularly to stop themselves from getting bored or tired.
To take advantage of your learning style, you can try to create actions for the vocabulary you are learning. A dated study by Oxford and Crockall (1990) concluded that using your body is not effective when learning abstract nouns (such as analysis).
However, if using wordlists and vocabulary cards doesn’t work for you, try using actions or acting while studying.
Also, if you’re a kinaesthetic learner, you might like the next strategy.
Post-it notes are those small pieces of paper which you can stick to the wall. By using these, you can decorate your room with new Academic English vocabulary!
Sounds fun, right?
You can also try using different colours for different things:
Make sure that you put these post-it notes in places that you will see them often, such as in the toilet, on the fridge and by your bed.
Learning a new word is great, but you don’t really know the word until you can use it correctly.
That’s why this vocabulary learning strategy is extra important (and one of my personal favourites).
To really learn a word, you should practice writing sentences using the new vocabulary that you are studying. By doing this, you not only practice the spelling and meaning of these new words, but also how to use them.
This makes it easier to use the new word in your writing.
Here’s how I do it:
This is a really practical Academic English vocabulary learning method.
A word group is a method of organising vocabulary. By grouping words together, you create more connections with the word. These connects help you to improve your memory, which makes it easier to remember the words.
You can group words in any way that you like. Try these for example:
Hint: This one really only works if you create your own word groups. If you download the word groups or use someone else’s, you won’t get the full benefit.
Now that we’ve looked at 14 different Academic English vocabulary learning strategies, we need a plan to implement them.
My suggestion is to choose 3-4 different Academic English vocabulary learning strategies and use them every day for at least 2 weeks.
After 2-3 weeks, evaluate the strategy using. Keep using the strategies that are working and replace the ones which are not!
You have to try a strategy to know if it will work!
So, there you have it. 14 different tried and tested vocabulary learning strategies!
These strategies won’t work automatically, though. You need to work to make them useful!
Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.