vocabulary learning

14 Effective Academic English Vocabulary Learning Strategies

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.

Strategy 1: Use Images

If you’re a visual learner, someone who learns from pictures, you can use images like flashcards to help you learn and remember words.

Find pictures that represent your words and use them like flashcards.  flickr and Google Image Search are two tools you can use to search for your images.

Alternatively, if you’re artistic, you can draw simple pictures that that make you think of the word.

Academic English vocabulary learning
What word could this represent?

Strategy 2: Create Word Lists On Your Phone

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.

Strategy 3: Find Collocations

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:

  • ample evidence
  • substantial evidence
  • tangible evidence
  • present evidence
  • conflicting evidence
  • video evidence
  • to have evidence
  • evidence exists
  • obtain evidence

By using collocations, you can build a larger and more natural vocabulary.

Strategy 4: Use Your First Language

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!

Strategy 5: Speak!

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.

Strategy 6: Make a Personal Vocabulary Bank

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:

  • List words by date
  • List words by subject
  • List words by type (nouns/ adjectives/ verbs etc.)
  • List words alphabetically

You can also choose what information to include about each word. For example, you could include:

  • Pronunciation + stress
  • Example sentences
  • Collocations
  • Word family
  • Translation in your language
  • Grammar details (for ex. plural or non-plural)
  • Definition
Academic English vocabulary learning
An example with pronunciation and translation. Source: https://flic.kr/p/P7kp8

Strategy 7: Use your friends!

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:

  • Create tests for each other
  • Quiz each other
  • Discuss the meanings of words
  • Research new vocabulary together

One really inventive and practical method to help remember vocabulary AND practice your speaking skills is to do vocabulary presentations.


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!

Strategy 8: Explore the word family

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.

  • Verb: analyse
  • Noun: analysis
  • Doing noun: analysing
  • Person noun: analyst
  • Adjective: analytical
  • Adverb: analytically

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.

Strategy 9: Use flashcards

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.

I wrote an article on how to make flashcards that work. Check the article out here.

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.

Strategy 10: Record Yourself

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!

Strategy 11: Use Your Body

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.

Strategy 12: Decorate Your Room

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:

  • Different colours for different word types (noun/verb/adj etc.)
  • Different colours for different modules
  • Different colours for different pronunciation patterns
  • Different colours for different levels of importance (Green for really important)

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.

academic english vocabulary learning
Stick the notes somewhere that you’ll see them. Source: https://flic.kr/p/e3CC8F

Strategy 13: Write!

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:

  1. Find the word type – is the new word a verb, noun, adverb, adjective, etc?
  2. Look at examples to see how the word is used.
  3. Copy the examples and change one or two parts. Keep the sentence structure the same and change words or add words. This will make you comfortable with using the new word.
    1. Example: We analysed the data using computer software.
    2. My version: The researchers analysed the data using computers.
    3. My version 2: The researchers analysed the interview data using computer software.
  4. When you feel comfortable, start writing your own sentences.

This is a really practical Academic English vocabulary learning method.

Strategy 14: Create Word Groups

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:

  • Synonyms (words with similar meanings)
  • Word type
  • Topic (for ex. if you’re a medical student, you could have words related to medicine and words related to pain)
  • First letter (for ex. words beginning with ‘S’)
  • And more!

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.

Start Building Your Academic English Vocabulary:

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!

Final Words

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!


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Leave a comment below about the vocabulary strategies that you use!

23 thoughts on “14 Effective Academic English Vocabulary Learning Strategies”

  1. Haitham AL-Hilfi

    Its good to follow and apply all these strategies , and I believe it will help the development of English vocabularies in general. In addition, visual learning might include follow up TV news with subtitles and face to face chating and communication with native speakers. However, I believe that, for academic purposes, continuous reading and writing academic articles is the only way to improve your academic vocabulary which might apply through some of the mentioned above strategies like writing and proofreading.

    1. Hi Haitham – thanks for your comment!
      The suggestions about using subtitles on the TV is a really good one for finding new vocabulary!
      You’re also right about two things: 1 – journal articles are a great resource for building a strong academic vocabulary; 2 – continuous practice is very important if you want to be confident using the new words.

      Thanks again for your comment, Haitham!

  2. Great effort Sam. I liked the variety of strategies mentioned above. English learners can variously decide on one of them or also invent some of their own. That depends on each pupil’s personal mental and intellectual skills. Some people are visual while others are auditory, so each of them can gain vocabulary in a distinctive method. I do believe that the key to learning English is simply practicing it.

    1. Thanks Arwa!

      I fully agree with you. Practicing the worst method with focus is much better than not practicing the best method with focus. You could really use ANY vocabulary strategy that you wanted, and as long as you put the effort in, you’ll see good results!

      Which vocabulary strategies have worked for you, Arwa?

      Thanks again!

  3. Honestly, I usually translate the words to Arabic and then try to involve these newly learned words in my daily conversations. I also like word groups which organizes the mind while gaining new knowledge.

    1. You’re a bit like me – I like to organise new words into groups (for me it’s usually situations and word types).
      What do you do after translating the new words? Do you just make an effort to use them, or do you have a specific process?

  4. Well, nothing specific. I try to keep them in mind and find them when needed. It’s strange how the mind acts towards the new language! Sometimes my mind aids me with the best choice of vocabulary to be used suitably in different situations, while other times the words are lost between the folds of the memory!

    I think the best solution to solve this knot is to strictly follow an active strategy that has proven to be successful previously!

    1. I completely understand your comment about losing language to ‘the folds of the memory’! I agree, an active strategy is definitely important (the key word being ‘active’!)

  5. the strategy number one and number five seem very good. as an international student I think using images and speaking with friends are the fast way to memories vocabularies.

  6. Hi Sam,
    I would like to thank you for your useful article. Saving new vocabulary is so important for me and the strategies that you have mentioned might be helpful for me. I have chosen the strategies; 1,2,8, and 13 to use in future for saving a new vocabulary.
    Best regards,

    1. Hi Hamida – thank you for your comment! I’m glad you liked the article. Those are some good strategies, and I think they’ll work well together! Let me know if they work for you.

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  11. Long moment I was absent of learning and I have apologizing all my honest teachers and classmates students of the English. Because my mobile lost and I can’t afford to buy another smartphone So right now I have finding same one. I return learning so please I applying all of you kindly to allowing to back learning and I will expect you to well come

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