Updated: Nov 12, 2020
By Dr. Linh Phung, Eduling International Academy
I remember trying in vain to memorize long lists of words when I was a student learning English in Vietnam many years ago. I was often frustrated with not being able to remember all of the words despite spending much time on them. As a highly competent English language user in the U.S. and a professional with training and experience in teaching ESL for many years both in the U.S. and Vietnam, I now realize that the challenge that I had was not because I was not smart enough or working hard enough. I realize my frustration with vocabulary was due to the fact that I didn’t have enough interesting and suitable materials to read and listen to at that time. What I read was mostly from test preparation books, which was limited in the kinds of words I saw in meaningful and engaging ways. Therefore, I must say that one of the best ways to improve vocabulary and language skills in general is to read and listen extensively and use English frequently.
However, it is also helpful to use some strategies to intentionally learn new words. I would like to share some strategies in learning academic and technical vocabulary from the book titled “Studying in English: Strategies for Success in Higher Education” that I and other professors published a few years ago (Hayo Reinders, Marilyn Lewis, and Linh Phung, 2017)
What does knowing a word mean?
When you learn a new word, ask yourself the following questions.
1. Do you know the meaning of the word and are you able to translate it into your language?
2. If so, do you know it for sure, or approximately?
3. Do you know the word well enough to use it in your own writing or speaking?
4. Do you know if the word is normally used in writing or speaking?
5. Can you pronounce it? Spell it? (Don’t look back at the word!)
6. Do you know what words normally go together with this word (which words ‘collocate’ with it)? For example, do we give a commendation or offer a commendation or can we use either?
7. Do you know whether it can take a preposition? (e.g. is it ‘a commendation for’, or ‘a commendation with’?)
8. Does it have a positive or a negative meaning? Would you use it in formal or informal situations?
Answering these questions may help you to assess your depth of knowledge about a particular word. You can then decide the amount of time spent on the new words.
Usually, students learn frequent words before words that are less frequent. If you would like to check your vocabulary level, follow the instructions below.
1. Go to: https://www.lextutor.ca/tests/vlt2/
2. Choose the word level you want to test. For example, 2000 words means that the test only looks at the 2000 most frequent words in English.
3. Write down your answers below.
University Word List
How to learn new words?
Here are some strategies that students may use, but also read the comments that follow.
1. I highlight or copy words I don’t know from my textbook and other readings.
This is a good idea, but be careful (at first) to choose only words that are quite frequent, as you don’t want to spend your energy on words you will not see or use again.
2. I read newspaper articles, stories and academic texts every day.
Excellent! Reading different kinds of text regularly is one of the best ways to learn vocabulary and also the grammar of a new language. The more often you see some words, the more likely you will remember them.
3. I study lists of words and phrases we are provided with.
Words given out by your teachers are important to learn as they are very relevant to the courses you are taking.
4. I use the 1000, 2000 and Academic Word lists on the internet and check I know those words well.
This is an excellent strategy. The Academic Word List (AWL) is a famous list because it covers words that commonly appear in academic texts. You can find the list in the link below. As you go through the list, ask yourself questions in the first section of this article to assess how well you know each word. There are a lot of exercises to practice these words as well.
How to remember words?
The following strategies may be helpful as you try to remember words.
1. Group words by their meaning
2. Create a story with the word
3. Link new words with pictures
4. Review regularly
5. Use flashcards: https://quizlet.com is an excellent website that has electronic flash cards. There are lists that people share. You can practice those lists through games and quizzes. You can also create your own lists and flash cards.
How to practice using new words?
1. Choose some words in the morning and remind yourself to find a way to use them that day
2. Keep a list of words on your desk so when you write, you remember to use them.
Some vocabulary resources
General service list: This list contains the 2000 most useful word families of English. It has been estimated that these words make up 80% of the words used in academic texts so it is important that you check that you know all of them. Click on ‘The actual 2284 words, with frequency numbers’ to see the list. http://www.jbauman.com/gsl.html
English Daily: This website has information and exercises on different aspects of English. For vocabulary, read the idiom sections. http://www.englishdaily626.com/
Self-study quizzes for ESL students: Lots of grammar and vocabulary exercises for elementary, intermediate and advanced learners. Use the quizzes to test yourself. http://iteslj.org/quizzes/
Merriam-Webster Dictionary: This online dictionary has a daily podcast and exercises. http://www.m-w.com
Learner Dictionary: This online dictionary is for learners of English, so it has definitions and examples that are easy to follow. https://learnersdictionary.com/
Thesaurus: You can find synonyms through this dictionary. However, pay attention to the differences in the meanings of the words. https://www.thesaurus.com/
Vocabulary for academic purposes: This website contains lots of useful information on academic vocabulary. http://www.uefap.net/
Lexical Tutor: Here you will find many vocabulary exercises and tests to find out your level. Recommended! www.lextutor.ca
Word and Phrase Info: You can find hundreds or even thousands examples of how a word is used. In addition, click on ‘Input/analyze text’. Write or copy and paste a piece of writing in here. This program will analyse it in terms of the frequency of the words used. http://www.wordandphrase.info/