Study English in the UK

10 Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary

by Carol Norbury
Here at Express English College Manchester we want you to improve all areas of English. How can you improve your vocabulary? Firstly, let’s consider the lexical approach.

What is the lexical approach to language teaching and learning?

Firstly, let’s look at the word lexis, which according to the Oxford Learners’ Dictionary is a noun which means “all the words and phrases of a particular language” and is Greek in origin. Synonyms for lexis are words and vocabulary. The adjective is lexical and the adverb lexically. A person who studies words and is an expert about them is a lexicographer and they write dictionaries. I have already demonstrated 3 ways to improve your vocabulary, namely finding synonyms for the word, finding the word family it is part of and using a high-quality reliable dictionary.
I would recommend The Cambridge Advanced Learners’ Dictionary Cambridge English Dictionary: Meanings & Definitions and The Oxford Learners’ Dictionary 1993 saw the publication of Michael Lewis’ “The Lexical Approach”, which questioned the decades of dominance of grammar over vocabulary in the ELT classroom. Vocabulary had until then been regarded as secondary and merely a vehicle to illustrate the grammar. The key tenet of a lexical approach is that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar.” This means that lexis is pivotal in creating meaning, whereas grammar plays a secondary part in managing meaning. The implications are that the teacher should spend more time helping learners to develop their vocabulary both inside and outside the classroom. The lexical approach argues that language consists of meaningful chunks not solitary words. There is therefore an emphasis on collocations, set phrases and authentic English. Here are 10 suggestions to improve your vocabulary.

  1. Read Extensively

Read, read, read and read some more. Don’t just read your coursebook. Read a book or a graded reader dependent on your level. Read a newspaper or magazine. Read blogs, recipes, reviews about things that you are interested in. Make a note of any new words you come across as you are reading. Could you understand the general gist or did your lack of vocabulary hinder your understanding? We don’t need to know the exact meaning of every word as usually we can guess from the context so we can read the article or book. However, after reading we should check all the words that we didn’t know in a dictionary. Then we should look for synonyms and antonyms and other words in the family. We should record these details in a vocabulary book. I would advise checking how the word is pronounced too. This is something else you can find in a dictionary and you can listen to the pronunciation too. A good dictionary is a staple for a language learner.

  1. Keep a Vocabulary Book

Record everything you can find out about the word, e.g. word class, origin, register, translation in your own language, synonyms, antonyms and frequency. Be committed to doing this effectively and understand how time consuming it can be. It is worth putting in the hard word. Many exam tasks such as IELTS speaking and writing require a demonstration of a range of vocabulary that is appropriate to the task.

  1. Make flashcards

Flashcards are a great way to record and test yourself on vocabulary you have learned. Carry them with you and when you have 5 minutes spare whisk them out and test yourself. Use online flashcards on Quizlet Learning tools & flashcards, for free | Quizlet you could make a set as a class or you could share yours with classmates.

  1. Label things.

If you are low-level this is a great way to learn nouns in particular. Use stickers or post-it notes and label things around you. Why not start in your room and label all the furniture that you can see? If you don’t know the word look it up in a picture dictionary. When you are cooking do you know all the names of the food and utensils in English? If not, find out! Picture dictionaries are great for visual learners.

  1. Test, test, test.

We spend a great deal of time being exposed to new words that we then never remember or use actively. You must review vocabulary often, that’s why your vocabulary book is important! Look at the words again after 24 hours, after one week and after one month. Keep revisiting them so they become part of your active vocabulary.

  1. Upgrade your language.

If your aim is to improve your IELTS score, you will be awarded higher marks in both speaking and writing for your vocabulary range. You show the examiners how much vocabulary you know. In the IELTS writing tasks grammar only accounts for 25% of the overall mark. Avoid using basic words all the time. Think of synonyms and higher-level vocabulary. Also avoid words like get, have, do and make which are more a feature of spoken language.

  1. Be proactive

If you hear a new word in class don’t be afraid to ask what it means. If a classmate uses a word you don’t know ask them to explain it or give you an example of how the word is used. This is good practice for them too as technical words or jargon should be explained to non-specialists.  The ability to explain things in English is a great skill to have and means that we can all learn from each other and not just the teacher.

  1. Set SMART Objectives

Many students say I want to improve my vocabulary but this is a very vague statement. Commit to learning 10 new words a day that’s 50 in a week and then for self-study after completing your vocabulary book write 50 sentences using the new words. Think of it like going to the gym. Be disciplined.

  1. Play Vocabulary Games

There are lots of great vocabulary games you can play with your classmates or online. For example, Hangman, Pictionary, Taboo or Scrabble. What better way to learn than by having fun? You could even start doing crosswords.

  1. Become a Logophile

Learn to love words, a logophile is a lover of words and it is Greek in origin. Start writing poetry or reading Shakespeare as a way to enjoy and appreciate the wealth of words in the English language. Think about what words from your own language are borrowed by the English language. You may be surprised.

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Tags: English College, english school, General English, IELTS, teachertips