Learning vocabulary is a very important part of learning a language. The more words you know, the more you will be able to understand what you hear and read; and the better you will be able to say what you want to when speaking or writing.
Which words to learn
Every day you hear or read many new English words. You also find them in your dictionary when you are translating from your own language. You can’t possibly learn all these new words, so your first problem is to decide which ones to concentrate on. Here are some suggestions:
- learn the words that are important to the subjects you are studying
- learn the words that you read or hear again and again
- learn the words that you know you will often want to use yourself
- do not learn words that are rare or not useful (your teacher can help you with this)
How to learn words
Once you have chosen which words to learn, you next have to decide how you are going to learn them. Here are a few ideas:
- write the words in a notebook (with their translations or definitions)
- write the words and definitions on small cards
- say the words many times (if you have an electronic dictionary you can hear how the word is pronounced)
- put the words into different groups (you could use a graphic organiser)
- write them in a file for use with a computer program
- make associations (in pictures or with other words)
- ask someone to test you
- use the words in your own speaking or writing
Some students put a tick or cross in their dictionary next to every word they look up. The next time they turn to a page with a marked word, they quickly check to see if they remember the meaning of that word.
In all of the above ways, you are doing something with the words. It’s usually not enough to just read through a list of words with their definitions or translations and try to remember them. Most students find that they memorise words better if they do something with them. Even better is to try and learn the word in a typical combination with other words. Learning that to apologize means to say sorry is a good start, but it’s much better to learn a whole expression containing the word, e.g. He apologized for being late. Not only is this often easier to remember, but you are also learning some very important information on how the word is used.
Learning for vocabulary tests
The previous section on this page gives general advice on how to learn the words that you have chosen as important for you. Often, however, you will be given a set of words by your teacher and told to learn them for a vocabulary test. In this case you need to be sure exactly how you will be tested, because this will influence how you learn the words. There are several ways that the teacher might test your vocabulary learning, but the ways are broadly divided into two categories:
- You will be given the word and have to:
- write a definition
- use it in an example sentence
- translate it into your language
- You will be given:
- a definition
- a gapped example sentence
- the translation in your language
and you have to write the English word.
If you do a vocabulary test from the second group above, then in most cases you will need to learn the exact spelling of the word and will lose marks if you misspell it. As with all tests, be sure to ask the teacher exactly how you will be tested and exactly how you will be graded. You will then avoid wasting time studying something that you will be not be tested on.
Learning vocabulary by reading
The way you learned very many of the words in your own language was by meeting them in the books and magazines you read. The context of a new word in a sentence or story was often enough for you to guess the meaning. Meeting the word again and again in your reading helped you learn it for use in your own speaking and writing. Doing lots of extra reading for pleasure – both fiction and non-fiction – is an excellent way to learn new English words, too. But choose books that you find quite easy to read. Difficult stories or texts that you struggle to understand will not help you to develop your vocabulary the natural way. But remember: to learn new words from reading you have to read A LOT!
More information about learning words
The vocabulary you know can be divided into two groups – passive vocabulary and active vocabulary. Passive vocabulary contains all the words that you understand when you read or listen, but which you do not use (or cannot remember) in your own writing and speaking. Active vocabulary is all the words you understand, plus all the words that you can use yourself. Your active vocabulary, in English and your own language, is probably much smaller than your passive vocabulary.
The more you work on learning a word, as suggested above, the more likely it is that it will become part of your active vocabulary.
Things to know about the words you learn
Usually the first things you learn about a new English word are what it means and its translation in your own language. But there are other things you need to find out before you can say that you know a word like a native speaker does. For example, you have to learn:
- how it is spelled
- how it is pronounced
- how it is inflected (i.e. how it changes if it is a verb, noun or adjective)
- other grammar information about it
- how it collocates (i.e. what other words are often used with it)
if it has a particular style or register
- the context in which it is most likely to be used
Native speakers learn these things about words by hearing them and reading them again and again. This is the best way for you to learn them, too.