One activity that I use to build vocabulary is this: I say a word or expression, and then my students work together to list as many synonyms of that word as they can. When they’ve finished, I choose how to continue. Either they get out a thesaurus and look for other, new synonyms, or they make a similar list in their native language and we work on translating them into English together. It may seem silly to teach six ways to say the same thing instead of teaching six different things, one way each, but synonyms are actually more useful than many people realize.
I’ve written before about register, the amount of formality or informality that language has. The TOEFL tests several different registers, ranging from the high register of academic writing to the lower (but not too low) register you may use to express a belief on the speaking section. Knowing synonyms and how they compare in terms of formality can really help you to make these changes in register clear—and not knowing them can lead to embarrassing situations. Take, for example, the phrase “make a mistake.” We’ve all done it. If you wanted to talk about this on the writing section, you would probably say exactly that: “make a mistake.” Perhaps you would say “error” instead of mistake. If, however, you were speaking, it would be perfectly acceptable to say “mess up” instead. Not only will this better suit the relatively informal medium you’re working in, but the graders may be pleased with your varied vocabulary and use of phrasal verbs.
Avoidance of repetition
Synonyms are also necessary to keep us from getting bored. Take a look at this picture to see what I mean. It uses only the thousand most common English words, and as a result there are some bizarre circumlocutions and a lot of repetition. In this example, of course, the repetition is funny, but on the TOEFL it’s boring at best, and may cause the graders to think you don’t have a well-developed vocabulary.
Phrasal verbs are great practice
Phrasal verbs usually have lots of synonyms in English, and you can find lists of them in almost any English book or website. Doing the synonym activity I wrote about at the beginning of this article with phrasal verbs is a great way to expand your vocabulary. Often, phrasal verbs are pretty informal, so this activity can help you sort out when they’re appropriate and when you’re better off using a synonym (and which synonym that should be).