Thursday, January 30, 2014

Improving your vocabulary

To use a plant metaphor,  one can think of knowledge and ideas as being the roots of communication.   Strong roots make for better communication.     Arising from the roots is the base which is vocabulary.    Communication itself is the flowers or fruit that blossoms.

So how does one strengthen the foundation that is vocabulary?

First,  some key questions.

  • How strong (or weak) is your vocabulary knowledge and ability?   Receptive?   Productive?   Written?   Oral?
  • What do you do when you meet a new word?
  • How can you learn new words?
  • Is your vocabulary learning effective?   Are you pro-active or re-active?

The typical 20-year-old university student in Canada will have a vocabulary of about 20,000 words.   The typical 5-year-old will have a vocabulary of about 5,000 words.

The first 2000 words are the most important as they are the most frequent.  They will account for approximately 82% of the words in academic texts.

If you want to engage in academic study in English, it has been estimated that you will need mastery of the first 7-8000 words.    Mastery of the first 5000 is a minimum.  Otherwise in reading and listening there will be far too many words that you don’t know, which will seriously impede your comprehension.

The tests you will take will indicate your vocabulary mastery of the different levels of vocabulary.

Mastery can be considered above 80% in the vocabulary levels tests.    This would mean a score above 31 on level 1 and above 14 in the other levels.    How is your vocabulary?

 Go to and take the test.   Record your score when you are done.   Don't click reset.

Then go to and take the tests for Level 2000, Level 3000 and Level 5000 and University Word List.   Record your score after each test.  

The next step is to plan your vocabulary study?   Are you effectively building your vocabulary?

According to Paul Nation,   there are 9 aspects to knowing a word:


  1.    Know yourself.    What are your vocabulary strengths and weaknesses.  Keep track of your progress.
  2.    Be pro-active.    Consciously plan your vocabulary learning.   Spend a little time each day building      your vocabulary.    Try to interact with the word at least 7 times to anchor it in long-term memory.
  3.   Try to only learn words that are useful to you.   These are either high frequency words or specific to     your    domain of study or work.    This website will help you decide the utility of a new word:       Make a solid vocabulary foundation by focusing on the most frequent 3000-5000  words and the academic word list.   You can study the Oxford 3000 here.  Oxford Advanced American Dictionary online will tell you if a word you enter is on the academic word list.   You can also study the academic word list here and here.
  4.    Attend to both reading and writing words,  plus speaking and listening as appropriate.
  5.    Notice words you encounter repeatedly.   They are probably important.   Pay attention to how they     are used.
  6.     Try to guess words from context.
  7.     Use a dictionary sparingly and effectively.
  8.     Learn a words collocates (the words typically associated with it).  You can find out more about         collocations here.
  9.    Learn word roots (esp. Latin and Greek) and parts (affixes such as prefixes and suffixes)  as this       will help you to better guess word meanings and expand your  vocabulary.
  10.     Make it interesting and fun.   Otherwise you won't do it.
  11.    Don't always learn alone.    
  12.    Use technology,  especially mobile devices.
  13.    Don't just use a list of words in two columns, with the English word in one and its translation in the       other.    This is a boring and ineffective way to learn.
  14.    Read often and on varied topics.    Do this for pleasure, not for intensive study.

Core Strategies:

1.   Create vocabulary flashcards

This is what you should do.   Use the two sides of the card.

Side 1:   First language translation of the word/a picture/an English definition:  Choose just one type of information about the target word. This goes in the middle of the card.

Side 2:   The target word in English.   This goes in the middle of the card.
On side 2 there are five spots to put additional information to help expand your knowledge ofthis word.   The four corners and the centre.

Possible types of vocabulary information include:*   pronunciation and syllable information (the centre is a good spot for this)*   part of speech such as verb or noun (this could also go in the centre)*   word forms*   synonyms*   antonyms*   sentence example/s*   collocations*   common phrases using the word

I recommend studying between 30 and 50 words.   As you learn the words, you remove these from the study pile and add new words.     As your ‘known word’ pile grows,  you need to review it occasionally.

If you forget the word, you return it to the ‘study’ pile.     If you spend 5-10 minutes a day studying vocabulary this way,  you can really learn 30-100 words per month.    It is important to choose words that are useful for you.

This website is designed for just that:   Anki

2.  Keep aVocabulary Notebook

Here you can do much the same as with flashcards, but reviewing is not so simple.    You may want to keep a vocabulary notebook in addition to flashcards.  

You can organize a notebook in ways you are comfortable with.    For example,  one page might list verbs. Or food-related words.    You might organize by frequency levels.

Useful web resources:

The Language Coach   (explore the vocabulary boards on this page)

Learning with Les Vocabulary Page    (some additional vocabulary links)

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