“I need a wider vocabulary!” How often have you said that or thought it?
I hear it a lot from people learning English at all levels. And somehow increasing your vocabulary seems to involve sitting down for an hour or two and learning lists of more or less relevant words. But it doesn’t have to be such hard work and it certainly doesn’t need to be boring. By setting up a system and getting into a few useful habits you can learn vocabulary with a lot less effort – and have fun!

Step 1: Set up a system

First of all you need a system for recording the vocabulary you want to learn. Some people suggest writing the words and phrases on post-its which they then stick to their computer or desk. This way you have them right in front of you up to eight hours a day. But after a while you don’t really see these post-its any more and they start to curl at the edges. However, the main disadvantage with this method is that you can’t file post-its, so you don’t have a system.
Instead I recommend setting up an index card system – either on paper or a smartphone app. It’s tidier, portable and you can re-test yourself on old words from time to time – very motivating! What do you need to write on the index card? The word or phrase and its translation are the minimum. Adding an example of the word in context and connected words (e.g. the opposite or the adjective formed from the noun) is very useful.

Step 2: Fill your system

Once you’ve set up a system, you need to fill it with words and phrases – step by step (10 – 15 items are enough to start with). And be selective – don’t just add any words and phrases. Life is really too short to learn random expressions which you will never use. Choose vocabulary which is relevant for you, for what you want to say. Here are some ideas on how to do that:

  • Read articles, listen to podcasts or watch presentations on subjects which really interest you. As you do this, write down any useful vocabulary on your index card – both single words and complete phrases. If the meaning isn’t completely clear from the context, check in a dictionary after you have finished reading, listening or watching.
  • Talk to yourself either aloud or in your head. Describe your plans for the day, a problem at work, describe your mood or feelings, for example. Don’t cheat – really try to say what you mean exactly and entirely in English. If you get stuck and can’t find the word you’re looking for or feel that there must be a better way of expressing it, look it up in an (online) dictionary. Then record the expression with its translation and an example sentence and/or connected words on a card.
  • If need English mainly for emails or reports (or if you simply enjoy writing), keep a diary or journal in English. When you’re trying to describe the day’s events or your feelings, look up any vocabulary you need and record it on your index cards. You’ll be surprised how much you learn by writing just 4 or 5 lines a day.

Step 3: Get into the habit

Now that you have a pile of cards (real or virtual), take them with you wherever you go. People often complain that they just don’t have the time to learn vocabulary. But everyone has idle times during the day: while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil or a meeting to start, while you’re having a cup of coffee or sitting on the train … Instead of checking your Facebook or Twitter account, check your vocabulary. Even if it’s only for 5 – 10 minutes at a time this can mount up over the week.

Step 4: Use your new words

Finally – and most importantly – make a conscious effort to use any new vocabulary. It can be difficult to weave new expressions into conversations with others, emails or meetings. But you can certainly use them when talking to yourself or in your diary entries. And once you can do this, when you have a feeling for the word or expression, you can say that it’s part of your active vocabulary.

Posted on Aug 16, 2014 in getting ahead
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Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too. » more