Build your vocabulary!


Students are always looking for ways to increase the range of their English vocabulary. So what’s the best method? Well, some keep well-organised notebooks with a record of new words and phrases. Others rely on computers and mobile devices to help them study and remember the language they learn. There are even a few who do nothing and hope that their knowledge of English words will improve by magic!

As a teacher and student of foreign languages myself, I wouldn’t recommend the ‘do nothing and hope’ option. The more active your approach to finding, understanding and studying vocabulary, the happier you will be with the results of your efforts. Fortunately, lots of research has been done into how our brains learn and remember new words, and we can use this information to make studying more efficient. In the coming weeks’ posts, you will find useful tips for managing your own improvement in this key area of language learning. There will also be links to web-based tools that make exploring and practising English words more interactive and engaging.

Will work for vocabulary
Image courtesy of Despotes

1. Keep an organised record of the language you want to remember.

This is the minimum you should do to take charge of your learning. Over the years, studies have shown that we have to ‘experience’ a word/phrase anywhere from 7 to 20+ times before it moves to our long-term memory! So, reading it on the board (1), writing it on a worksheet (2) and using it once during a speaking activity (3) is not nearly enough. You need some way to take the vocabulary with you in order to access it later and review what you learn in class. Keeping a vocabulary notebook is the easiest way to do this and allows you to create a system for remembering words and phrases that makes sense to you. If you prefer, you can keep an ‘e-notebook’ using a spreadsheet program on your computer.

One effective way of organising your notebook is to record words and phrases together that are related to the same topic or theme. Topics can be something like ‘sports’ or ‘food and cooking’, but they can also be things like ‘language for writing informal emails’, ‘business meetings ‘ or ‘very polite language’. You can make notes within each topic section to remind you of other areas where the same vocabulary is useful. For example, words and phrases from the ‘business meetings’ section may also be ‘very polite language’.

2. Context is everything.

Each word in a language has a job to do, and many words in English do more than one. Some words name things and actions, others describe, still others act as a ‘glue’ that holds sentences together. Let’s take the word have :

Ive had lots of homework to do every night this week.

In this sentence, the word have is used to form the present perfect and it is also the main verb.

What about pretty?

That’s a really pretty dress.

I’m pretty certain he said to meet at 8 o’clock.

In the first sentence, pretty is an adjective describing dress. In the second, it’s an adverb that says how certain the speaker is.

If you want to see the other jobs these words do, click on the orange links above to visit their pages in the Oxford Online Dictionary.

So, how does this relate to learning vocabulary? Well, it means that writing single words, without any context, is less effective than recording new vocabulary in phrases.

Fortune cookie
Image courtesy of bingbing

Words have families (more about that next week), friends and enemies. In the fortune cookie message, there are several collocations that provide context for the individual words. Let’s take a look at the ones that include the word time :

waste + (your) time + hesitating

time + to move + forward

There are many things you can waste (money, effort, breath), and many things you can waste your time doing (watching telly, complaining, waiting in a queue). Part of knowing the words time, waste and hesitating, is knowing how they can be used together.

The collocations time + to do something, and to move + somewhere also help show the precise meaning of the individual words in this sentence. It makes sense to record and study them this way.

If this looks a little like grammar, it is! But it is also very much part of learning vocabulary.

Collocations are words that are ‘friendly’ with each other, and tend to occur together. Some of these word combinations are very frequent, and some are rarer, but all help give fuller meaning to individual words. Just as important is knowing which words don’t go together. Some of these combinations are difficult for my students to remember and I encourage them to record these ‘enemies’ in their notebooks as well. Here are some examples:

I made my homework.

Today is very freezing.

I’m going to take a coffee during the break.

Here’s an activity to give you some practice with collocations: use a monolingual (English-English) dictionary or the Oxford Collocation Dictionary Online to find the correct collocations for the words homework, freezing and coffee in the contexts above.

Visit the CEC Blog next week for more tips to help you build your vocabulary.

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