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How to Improve English Vocabulary

In many ways, a language is its vocabulary. Other skills, such as grammar, pronunciation, etc. all revolve around correct, meaningful use of words. Clearly, you want the biggest, best English vocabulary possible. This is especially important on the TOEFL, where you can’t stop to look up a word or ask someone to explain it. Vocabulary is an important part of all four TOEFL skills: Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking. When you practice each skill, you have many different opportunities to build your vocabulary as well. Let’s look at ways to build vocabulary using these four key aspects of language.

Improve English Vocabulary Through Reading

Written English tends to use more vocabulary words than spoken English, so reading is a great way to build your vocabulary quickly. When reading to build your vocabulary, underline unfamiliar words. If you are reading something on your computer, copy the passage into a word processing file and underline electronically. Once you’ve underlined all the unfamiliar words in a passage, try to guess the meaning of the words from context. Then look up the new words in a dictionary. Were you right, or at least close? Once you’ve defined the new vocabulary, reread the passage. That way, you can fully understand new vocabulary in context.

Improve English Vocabulary Through Listening

If you learn new vocabulary only through reading, you’ll run into a problem: You often won’t know how to pronounce new words, or recognize them when you hear them. To avoid this problem, you want to be able to mentally connect the spelling of new vocabulary to the sound of new vocabulary.

One thing you can do is take new words you’ve read and type them into Google Translate. Then click the speaker icon, which looks like this: htiev_img1 Google Translate will then “read out loud,” saying the words you typed. Many online dictionaries also have a clickable speaker icon so that you can play an audio file of a word.

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It’s also good to learn written and spoken forms of words by listening to natural speech. Listen to things that have both audio and transcript. TED Talks are very good for this. Many (but not all) videos on UpWorthy come with transcripts too. And there are sites like that have lots of subtitled English language videos. You can even find vocabulary-focused ESL study guides for English film on sites like ESLnotes.

To build vocabulary, read transcripts as you listen. Underline or write down vocabulary that is new to you. If you are watching subtitled videos, pause the video to write down a new word from the audio and subs. Again, you’ll want to first see if you can guess the new vocabulary from context. Next, look it up in a dictionary to see if you’re right.

Improving English Vocabulary Through Writing and Speaking

Once you’ve taken the time to find new words in writing and audio, you can strengthen your understanding of these words by using them yourself.

There are several ways to practice using new vocabulary in writing. I’ve already mentioned posting to English language message boards in an earlier post. This is a great way to share your written ideas with others, get feedback, and perhaps even get advice on how to use new vocabulary. Online debate clubs give you a chance to write out your arguments and share them with people. Journaling is good too. To get feedback on your use of vocabulary in your journal, consider showing it to a teacher, tutor, fellow English student, or pen pal.

Practice your new spoken vocabulary by speaking to real people. This can be done through conversation exchanges. Consider joining an English conversation club with other English students as well. You could even make your own. And of course, word games like Apples to Apples or Mad Libs are also a fun way to learn and say new vocabulary words.

Keeping Track of Your Improved English Vocabulary

It’s easy to forget new words if you don’t make note of what you are learning. Be sure to keep a list of the new words as you learn them. Consider keeping a word journal. Looking at the progress you’ve made with English vocabulary will give you something to review. It will also give you the pride and confidence to keep learning.


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