If you think about it, learning English is mostly about vocabulary: learning and using words.
It sounds simple, but ‘learning and using words’ actually creates a lot of questions.
Questions such as:
- What’s the best way to learn words?
- How many words should you learn?
- Which words should you learn?
- Why can’t I remember words I learn?
And for each question there are hundreds of possible answers.
Because I’m a big fan of vocabulary – I think it’s really important – I wanted to do something extra special.
I wanted to create an article that was really useful. An article that was full of advice that you could read again and again and keep getting new ideas.
So I tried something new.
I spoke to other English teachers and asked them a question about vocabulary.
I asked all of these teachers the same question. The question I asked them was this:
“What advice would you give to someone who wanted to learn more words?”
The answers that they gave me blew me away.
In this article, you’ll find over 18 pieces of advice to help you with your English vocabulary. You might even see advice from some teachers that you already know and follow.
So, if you’re ready to learn, let’s start.
IMPORTANT NOTE: this is a LONG post. Bookmark it, so you can read it later.
Also, I’ve created a Vocabulary Experts Ebook which contains all of the information here, a bonus Vocabulary Strategy Section and more. Click here to download it for free.
Use Subtitles To Improve Your Vocabulary
I asked Vanessa from Speak English With Vanessa this question, and this is what she said:
Let me share what worked really well for me. When I wanted to increase my vocabulary in French, I watched every Disney movie in French, with French subtitles. Then I watched it again in English (my native language) with French subtitles. Because I already knew these movies, I could focus on the words instead of the story. I could see and hear the words at the same time.
A lot of English learners think that if they use subtitles, they are cheating. But don’t feel embarrassed to use subtitles! Of course, if you want to improve your listening skills, try to test your ears without subtitles, but for improving your vocabulary, use subtitles. Even if you think you understood the full video, you’ll be surprised how many new expressions there are when you use subtitles!
QUICK TIP: Click “CC” on almost any YouTube video to view subtitles.
Vanessa is the English teacher over at English with Vanessa – check her out.
Learn Words And Their Collocations
Cecilia, an English language teacher from Brazil, offered this advice:
My piece of advice to someone who wants to improve their vocabulary is to learn words and their collocations, that is, words that combine alongside a sentence.
Say, for instance, you learn the word “damage”. You may want to learn common verbs that combine with damage – cause damage, for example. You can repeat it a few times and keep a vocabulary book with the new items.
Remember to revisit the word frequently.
To find out more about Cecilia, check out her Facebook and her website.
Think About What Words You Actually Need
This is how Julian from Doing English answered my question:
Think long and hard about what words you actually need, and whether or not you really do need to learn more words. It’s easy to memorise words and feel like you’ve done something, but ask yourself — did my English really get better? This is something I see again and again with high-level English learners, but generally not being able to speak or produce language well doesn’t come from not having enough vocabulary. It comes from not being able to combine the words you already have. Of course, all else being equal, more is better. Yes. But, and this is a big but, unless you want to sound like a caveman you’re going to need more than single words!
Case in point: apart from “caveman”, “vocabulary” and “combine” all words in the above paragraph are in the most common 1000 words in English.
In a nutshell: Make chunks, phrases, expressions and collocations your priority and you’ll improve faster.
Julian runs the website Doing English – a place for English learners who feel stuck with their English. He also has a Youtube channel where he shares useful learning advice.
Get Extensive Exposure
Jason – the Fluency MC – gave this advice:
Get extensive exposure and practice with words in collocations, high-frequency word combinations, such as “arrived on time” “heavy rain” “no one in sight” and “called off the picnic”.
The challenge: finding enjoyable and motivating ways to get this exposure and practice. My favorites: short movie scenes, games, and -especially- songs.
Jason is the original voice behind the song and video “stick, stuck, stuck”. Find out more about him here and check out his website here.
The Most Important Thing Is Remembering
This is what Shayna, the teacher behind Espresso English, suggests:
The most important thing in learning new words is REMEMBERING them! The best ways to do this are:
1) writing them down and reviewing them a few days later; and
2) using them in a sentence of your own. This way you are using the new words actively, and they will become a permanent part of your vocabulary
Shayna teaches useful English phrases over at her website Espresso English. She has a Youtube channel full of useful videos.
Find Something Which Excites You
Kevin from Feel Good English gave this two part answer:
First of all, ask yourself which words are important right now? What topic do you want or need to learn more about? Immerse yourself in material related to that area for a month or two. Also, make sure it’s interesting to you! Does it excite you? If not, light it on fire and throw it out the window (don’t really do that, fire is dangerous).
Second, and very important, find material that isn’t too difficult, but not too easy. You should be able to understand a minimum of 80% of what you’re using to learn from. That way you will understand the context of the material, which helps you better acquire and start using the small amount of new words you find.
Kevin runs the website Feel Good English where he creates interesting podcasts for English learners.
Remember Don’t just read this advice, be sure to use it too!
Also, don’t forget to get the Vocabulary Experts Ebook. Click here to get it.
Dedicate Time To Committing Words To Memory
Jennifer from English Outside the Box shared this advice:
Don’t expect to remember new vocabulary if you only study a word once for a couple of minutes. You need to dedicate time to committing it to memory. First, learn the word, definition, and read an example sentence. The next day review this information and then create your own sentence example.
A third day, come back, review everything you’ve done and then create a question to ask someone using the new word. Ask yourself the question and answer it (in a complete sentence using the target word).
Try and do all of this while speaking aloud, too! Finally, try and use the new word, in English, in a real conversation. You can ask the question you created or just tell someone about the word! Practice makes perfect
Jennifer is the teacher behind English Outside the Box,which focuses on everyday English. Check out daily tips and videos on Instagram, and sign up for weekly lessons and a phrasal verb guide!
Use The Words Actively
Michael from Happy English gave this answer:
If you are looking to build your vocabulary, you need to make sure that you use the words actively. Let’s imagine you want to learn the idiom “hit the sack” which means to go to bed.
The first thing you need to do is to use that idiom in 2 or 3 original sentences that are true for you. This is a key point. The examples you write MUST be true sentences that have some connection to your life, otherwise you won’t remember the vocabulary. So in your notebook, write some sentences using “hit the sack” like:
“I usually hit the sack at 11:30pm.” “Last night I was tired, so I hit the sack at 10:30.” “On the weekend, I tend to hit the sack after midnight.”
I think 3 sentences are ideal. Then, study, memorize, and speak the sentences so that you can speak them fluently, and with no hesitation, just like you can introduce yourself in English, like, “My name is Michael and I’m from New York.” Speak the sentences daily, and you’ll be amazed at how much vocabulary you can really learn.
Michael is the teacher at Happy English where he shares useful English words and phrases. He posts a new video each a week on his Youtube Channel.
Use Your Imagination
Here is Sabrina from Calm English‘s advice:
If you have a word or phrase that you just CAN’T remember (but need to), try this short exercise. Close your eyes. Imagine the word. Say it in your mind or out loud. Imagine where you will be when you use the word. Imagine what you will be doing when you say the word.
Really picture the person you will be talking to while using the word. Imagine yourself saying the word in a sentence to that person and imagine how you will feel. Sit and imagine the situation for 15 to 30 seconds.
Our minds are so powerful. So taking the time to feel what you will feel when using the word can help you remember it on so many levels (not just with your brain).
Sabrina Fletcher helps successful, soulful professionals speak English fluently with coaching and English classes on Skype. Download her free mini-guide on improving your spoken English here.
Always Keep A Notebook With You
Shanthi, a business English teacher who runs the site English With A Twist, shares this advice:
Keep a little notebook handy with you at all times.
When you see a word or expression you like, for example, that you’ve heard on TV or on the radio; read in an article, blog post or book; seen it written on a board, write it down.
Note also the context in which you saw the expression or word. For example, “buy one get one free” (supermarket); Self-checkout (supermarket), timetable (train station)
If you’ve picked a word, look at the other words that come before and after your chosen word. This is important because words don’t act in isolation of each other and it’s not going to help you learn how to use those words in a sentence.
For example, you like the word “impression”. Now look at how it was used.
Was it in a sentence like “we all need to make a good impression on….” or “you gave me the impression that you would be good for this job…” or “the impression people have of migrants is often wrong”.
Here we have three verbs we can use with the word “impression”
- Make an impression
- Have an impression of
- Give an impression
Make a note of the expression, translate it in your own language and then, try and create your own example.
This may sound very time-consuming but if you develop the habit of recording vocabulary this way, you will slowly expand your bank of words. It’s been proven that the more we write down words and expressions, the more we’ll learn AND remember them.
If you’re learning English for business purposes, you need to visit Shanthi’s website, English With A Twist.
Set A Goal
Lindsay, from Lindsay Does Languages, gives this advice:
Set yourself a goal. But ask yourself two questions before you do:
- How many words do you want to learn in a week?
- How many words can you learn in a week?
Be realistic with the second question. The worst thing you could do is overwhelm yourself.
Once you’ve got a figure, break it down into a daily goal and find time in your daily routine that works for you. Make sure that you’re actually scheduling it into your day rather than just popping it on your calendar.
Lindsay is a ploylglot (someone who speaks several languages), and she shares her language learning advice on her website: Lindsay Does Languages.
Learning Definitions Is Not Enough
Kim from ‘English with Kim‘ focuses on ‘why‘ in her answer:
Ask yourself why. Are you learning more words to expand your academic vocabulary, to feel more confident in business, or to sound more like native speakers?
In all of these situations, context is key. It’s not enough to just learn what words mean in terms of their dictionary definitions. Instead, it’s essential to understand the context in which the words are used, the positive and negative associations that are naturally made with the words, and even how these words are used in different English-speaking regions.
For this reason, it’s best to focus on learning English vocabulary as it is naturally used in conversation. If you hear a certain word or phrase mentioned again and again at university, at work, or in social situations, you want to learn what that word means and why it is being used in that context.
When you use new words or phrases in appropriate situations, you’ll sound more natural in English and express your meaning the way native speakers do. After all, isn’t that the point of learning new words? You want to find the most effective way to connect with your listener.
Start asking yourself “why?” every time you learn a new word.
Kim aims to help students sound more natural when they are speaking English. Check out her site: English With Kim.
Don't Forget It’s not always about how many words you know, but how you use them.
Did you get the free Vocabulary Experts Ebook yet? Grab it here.
Make Sure You Know How Words Sound
Cara from Leo Listening focuses on pronunciation in her advice:
There are many things you have to learn when you learn a new word (part of speech, register, word grammar, pronunciation etc) but learners rarely learn how new words sound in fast, conversational English.
This is different to the careful pronunciation of the word that a teacher will give you or that you can check in a dictionary.
It’s not just grammatical words like prepositions or pronouns that have different pronunciations.
Even content words such as nouns and verbs can sound different in conversational contexts.
If the word or expression is an informal one that speakers use often in conversation, make sure you know how it sounds when people are speaking spontaneously and casually so that you can recognize it when you listen.
Cara Leopold is an online listening teacher, helping upper-intermediate to advanced learners finally understand spoken English, particularly the informal conversational kind, no matter the accents involved. Check out Cara’s website here: Leo Listening
Make New Words Your Own
Elena, an accent specialist, gives this important advice:
If you want to learn new words be sure to learn them in context. “Try them on yourself” as one of the translators once said.
Think how you can use them and experiment with them. Think of a situation and a sentence where this word might be used. Try saying the entire sentence out loud. Don’t write it down, just say it. Say it to yourself. Record yourself. Repeat a number of times. Listen to yourself saying it until you get confident that you can use this word with others. Then use it in a conversation.
The problem with using a word in a conversation right away is that it sounds new and weird to you. That’s why you need to try it on yourself first. Then it will become “yours,” and you won’t feel awkward saying it.
Elena Mutonono is an accent coach who helps expats sound more natural, feel accepted and integrated into their new workplace overseas. Sign up to receive her free e-book with tips on how to sound more like a native.
Learn Words From Context
Jack Askew from To Fluency shared this advice:
Learn new words in sentences and from strong context (conversations, TV shows, podcasts etc.). Use Anki or similar
software to repeat the sentences in a smart way so that you internalize the meaning and the sentence structure over the long-term.
Jack runs a website for English learners who want to improve their fluency: To Fluency.
Use Mnemonics To Help You
James from Lingua Materna shares this piece of memory training advice:
James loves languages and he teaches business English at his website Lingua Materna.
I recommend two ‘hacks’ for this. The first is to have a list of the vocabulary you want to learn. These words could be from a textbook, a word frequency list or just your own notes. It doesn’t really matter. Just make sure you know what you’re trying to learn and you can keep track of it.
My second tip is to use mnemonics (images) to help you remember words. This means creating images in your mind that help you remember the pronunciation and meaning of the word. When trying to memorise vocabulary, creating images (mnemonics) is extremely useful. And the wackier they are, the better they tend to stick in your brain.
Here’s an example I came up with this morning to remember the Russian verb Брони́ровать (Branerovat – to book):
Emperor Nero eating Bran flakes from a giant vat (cauldron) while BOOKING a room for his holidays on his laptop via bookings.com.
James loves languages and has a website where he teaches business English. Visit his website Lingua Materna.
What’s Your Reason?
And finally, something from me…
Have a reason for learning new vocabulary. Learn words you need or want to know. Don’t learn new words ‘just because you want to’. There are no medals for having a huge vocabulary (unless you are at school), so the most important thing is being able to use the words.
Focus on being able to use the words that you already know, and if you think there are gaps in your English, think about what you need to know to fill those gaps.
You don’t need to rush to learn English. A good working vocabulary takes time to build.
I’d introduce myself, but you should already know who I am!
First, I’d like to say ‘thank you’ to all of the teachers who shared their vocabulary learning advice.
Second, there is a lot to read here, but don’t worry! I’ve put all of this information in a free download. You can download this article (and some extra vocabulary learning goodness) here. Just click.
Third, share this article with your friends, family and colleagues who are learning English. There’s some fantastic advice in this article!
Have something to say? Have a question? Leave a comment!
In a Rush? Did you scroll all the way down to see how long the article was? No worries, we all have things to do!
You can download this full article (with all the links, advice and images) right here. Just click. I’ve added some extra vocabulary learning stuff in there too. Get it here.