Vocabulary tips

Words are the building blocks of language. Try some of these strategies to help build your vocabulary.

Vocabulary can be learned through lots of exposure to different texts—your vocabulary will always be growing. This involves both remembering words and being able to use them quickly and effortlessly. The more “attention, practice and application”, the more likely you are to remember vocabulary items and be able to use them correctly. When learning vocabulary, vary your activities—drills and repetition will get boring and tiring.

Strategies for learning and remembering new vocabulary

  • Create your own word lists or flashcards using Quizlet or Memrise or use existing ones—on the front of the card write the word/phrase and on the other side write a sentence with the word, the pronunciation in phonetic transcription, indicate the stressed syllable(s), any accents, the translation, and add important details about word partnerships eg the preposition used after a particular verb.
  • Learn to identify the basic vocabulary building blocks in the language you are studying eg common word endings, suffixes for nouns, prefixes commonly used to make an adjective or adverb etc. When you come across a new one, try to find several examples that follow this pattern.
  • Apply, review and re-use the new vocab—create sentences with the new words in context, write them out, say them out loud, record and listen to yourself often.
  • Familiarise yourself with any false cognates to avoid future slip-ups. These are words that look similar but differ (or have come to differ) in meaning, eg sympathique (French) and sympathetic (English).
  • Read a lot and widely to help you grow your active vocabulary. The LLC has a variety of reading materials on a range of topics that may interest you. When faced with unknown words and phrases, try to guess their meaning from context. Then use a dictionary.

Activities for learning vocabulary

  • Label objects in your home with the corresponding word in the language you are learning. As you go about your day, you’ll be cementing those words in your head.
  • Create your own mnemonics for remembering thematic sets of vocabulary like days of the week or colours.
  • Word maps—choose a topic and think of as many nouns as you can remember relevant to the topic. Write the main word in the middle of the page and arrange the other words around it. In the gaps between the nouns, write the verbs which link them together. Use a dictionary to fill in any gaps.
  • Create your own gap-fill exercise – choose a text, photocopy and “blank out” the words you want to work on, but list those same words jumbled up on a separate page. Leave for a few days. Then fill in the gaps—use the random list to make it easier. Try with a friend.

Inspired by: Fernández-Toro, M. & Jones, F. DIY Techniques for Language Learners, London: Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT), 2001, pp. 3-34