How to Improve English Vocabulary

Person looking over stack of books

In many ways, a language is its vocabulary. Other skills, such as grammar, pronunciation, etc. all revolve around correct, meaningful use of words. To master the English language, you need to know a large volume of English vocabulary. 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. So let’s look at the best strategies to help you improve your English vocabulary!

1. Add New Words to Your English Vocabulary

Having a large vocabulary is one of the best ways to improve English communication skills for non-native speakers. However, for those who speak English as a second language, remembering all of the vocabulary you’ve learned (and adding new words to the mix) can be a challenge. Thankfully, there are a number of simple tools to build your English vocabulary fast.

Let’s look at some of the best practices for learning new words. However, keep in mind that while you can easily learn a new word, you can forget it just as easily if you don’t regularly use it. This is why we’ll also cover some tips to help you remember words in the long-term.

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 it 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.

If you’re up for it, use English language dictionaries where all the definitions are given in English. If this is too hard, use dictionaries that translate words into your native language.

Start Using a Word Journal

A word journal is simply a place for you to jot down new words, definitions, and even hints about how to pronounce or remember new terms. How you choose to organize your journal is completely up to you.

For some people, simply writing down new words and then looking them up later is good enough. For others, noting down a brief definition, pronunciation notes, and even pictures will help them better remember the meaning of new words.

Writing down the context along with the new word is a good learning practice. Learning one definition at a time (the definition that suits the context) will also help avoid confusion. Some words have different meanings depending on how and when they are used, so you don’t want to overload your brain with too many definitions all at once.

However, a word journal is useless if you don’t have it with you when you encounter new words. If you leave your journal at home, you probably won’t be able to remember the new words by the time you get back from school or work. That’s why you should try to always keep your journal with you. As soon as you hear or see a new word, write it down.

If you have time, write down any additional notes that help you remember the meaning of the word. You know your learning style the best!

Participate in English Vocabulary-Based Activities

Learning new words doesn’t have to be all about hitting the books and taking notes. There are many entertaining ways to improve your English vocabulary as well. Here are just a few fun tools to get you started:

Learn English Vocabulary by 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.

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 Ororo.tv that have lots of subtitled English language videos. You can even find vocabulary-focused ESL study guides for English film on sites like ESLnotes.

2. Retain English Vocabulary Words

It’s one thing to learn how to spell a word, perfect your pronunciation, and then learn the definition. It’s something else entirely to remember how to use the word and recall its meaning months or even years later. So, let’s look at a few ways to help cement new words in your memory bank:

Practice Using Words in Speech and Writing

You could use the words actively in a conversation or writing. It helps if you see them when you read new texts and hear them when you listen to English speech repeatedly. This is truly the best way to keep the words in your memory!

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.

Review Your Notes Regularly

Whether you decide to have a word journal or take diligent notes from your English class, you should regularly look back at what you’ve written. Ideally, you should review new words that you’ve jotted down daily. However, if you don’t have the time, try to look back at new vocabulary words at least once a week.

Say New Words Out Loud

A straightforward way to improve your spoken English vocabulary is to talk 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.

3. Pace Yourself

It’s important to remember that building your vocabulary takes time. Since everybody learns at their own pace, it’s hard to say exactly how many new words you should try to learn per week or month.

However, don’t try to learn too many at a time. If your brain gets overloaded with new information, you’ll end up forgetting the vast majority of it. Instead, find a pace that works best for your schedule and learning style.

Resources for Improving Your English Vocabulary

Finally, you can find dozens of great online resources to help you improve vocabulary. Below you will see a couple free and paid resources to get you started:

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Authors

  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

  • Matthew Jones

    Matthew Jones is a freelance writer with a B.A. in Film and Philosophy from the University of Georgia. It was during his time in school that he published his first written work. After serving as a casting director in the Atlanta film industry for two years, Matthew acquired TEFL certification and began teaching English abroad. In 2017, Matthew started writing for dozens of different brands across various industries. During this time, Matthew also built an online following through his film blog. If you’d like to learn more about Matthew, you can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his personal website!