10+ Simple Vocabulary Strategies 

Try these vocabulary strategies for learning new words. Different strategies work best for different people. Use the ones that help you the most.

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Vocabulary Strategies: Learn as you Read

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The best way to increase your English vocabulary is to read (or watch or listen to) some English every day: news, blogs, articles, books, podcasts, or videos on a variety of subjects that interest you. (It's important to choose subjects you like or care about so you will keep on reading a little in English, week after week.)

When you see or hear words you don't know, use these strategies to figure them out, and to learn the ones that are important to understand what you're reading-- or that you see over and over.

  • Use Context CluesTry to guess the meaning of a new word from its context (the words around it.) See Improve (Your) Reading Skills for more information.
  •  Analyze word parts (roots and affixes.) Also see if any of its parts are like other words you know. Maybe you can figure out its meaning from similar words. 

If you know that spectators are people watching (looking at) an event and spectacular is something that looks impressive, you might be able to guess that an inspector is someone who looks into things and watches to see that things are done properly. (More than 25 pages on EnglishHints explain different roots and affixes, but Word Families is a good place to start.)

  • Watch for cognatesIf you know a European language related to English, whether it is a Germanic language or one that comes from Latin, you may be able to guess at English words that are cognates to your language. (Words that are similar because they have the same roots.)
  • When necessary, use a dictionary. If you still feel uncertain, and it’s hard to understand what you are reading without the word, then look it up in a dictionary. (Online dictionaries let you listen to the word as well as read its definition. Hearing and repeating it will help you remember it, as it makes extra connections in your brain. If there is an example sentence, read that aloud too, especially if you learn best by hearing.)
  • Start a vocabulary notebook. Try writing new words and their meanings in a vocabulary notebook or on a flash card. Also write an example sentence if possible. If you can, add a drawing that reminds you of what it means.
  • Make a mental picture, motion, rhyme, or other clue to help you remember it. (Use whatever works best for you.) Associate it in your mind with related words you already know.
  • Then review it-- often at first (at least once the same day if you can), then once in a while when you know it fairly well. You can use flash cards for this (or spaced repetition software like Anki), or a vocabulary notebook or checklist. Watch for it when you read. (Is the use and meaning the same?)  Keep your review sessions brief. A few minutes every day will help you learn much more than 2 hours once a week.

Vocabulary Strategies: Learn Words in Groups

  • Learn related words together. Although memorizing lists is a common vocabulary strategy, it is not an effective one by itself. However, learning related words as a group can be, especially if you actively think about the words and how they are related, categorizing or grouping them and then sorting them by their relationships within the groups.
  • Notice their differences in usage. (Talk, shout, scream, and whisper all use your voice to communicate, but some are louder than others, and some are not polite, or are not appropriate in a particular situation. Shouting to a friend in class would be very rude, but it would be the right response if you see a fire starting and want to warn people to escape.)

Learn a New Word Every Day

  • There are several good websites that offer a word a day, but I'm especially impressed by the New York Times' Learning Network's page. It chooses really useful words-- not just unusual ones-- and gives standard dictionary information like the meaning plus a recent quote from the New York Times that uses the word. A bonus-- the page lists more than a week's earlier entries in case you miss one. Try bookmarking it right now.

Increase your Vocabulary Month by Month

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  • Subscribe to EnglishHint’s free newsletter, English Detective. (Of course, you could take an English class instead, or join a regular discussion group-- anything that regularly exposes you to new words and ideas in English...)

You'll receive one or two issues a month, with interesting reading, review activities, games, puzzles, and quizzes, to reinforce what you learn and make it yours!

The best way to learn new words is to read or hear them several times in context (not just study a list of words.) It takes a number of repetitions for most people to remember a new word and be able to use it. The main purpose of English Detective is to give you multiple opportunities to read, hear, and work with common academic vocabulary in interesting, real-life contexts.

For more information, see Building Vocabulary Week by Week, or sign up on the form in the nav bar to the left.

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