7 Tips for Building Your English Vocabulary


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1. Come join the (word) family

Use your knowledge of word grammar to enlarge your working vocabulary. Knowledge of the different parts of speech and the suffixes that are used to create them will have you boosting up your word bank. For example, if you encounter the word evasive and look it up in the dictionary, you can benefit from the opportunity and look up its derivatives (other parts of speech and related words from the same root, comprising its “word family”), thus resulting in the following word set:

noun     verb     adjective     adverb
evasion     evade     evasive     evasively

In addition, knowledge of prefixes, suffixes and word roots (often Latin and Greek roots) will help you both decipher and memorize a word, as you analyze it into its constituting elements.

prefix     prefix     root     suffix     suffix
un     pre     dict     able   
    in     act     iv    ity
    omni     potent     ial     ism
    extra     ordin     ar     ily

2. The put-it-in-the-sentence routine

If you need to remember a word like reluctant and cannot come up with a crazy story, why not invent a crazy sentence? You can even think of a sentence in your native language and simply stick reluctant in it where it fits you. Let’s see, what about:

  • “My aunt Stella made her famous cheese cake and made me taste it forgetting I am lactose
  • intolerant. I was completely reluctant to cooperate due to my lactose issue.”

We will leave it to you to come up with sentences in your native tongue. Try to create something funny and light-headed and it will do the job!

3. It’s all about associations

1. Crazy stories to remember words with

A key to a good memory is an active imagination. The human brain is a sensation-seeking organ so if you just stare at a word you want to remember, the brain may start working its charm and invent some crazy story that will help you memorize. What are we actually talking about here? Let’s say, your new target word is evolve. A friend of mine, who was studying English some years back, told me that after not succeeding to remember its meaning of
“gradual progression and development”, suddenly came up with the following story.

  • “When Jim turned 18, his parents bought him his first car. It was a simple red Beatle he
  • used until his final year in college. Then, as a graduation gift, they helped him buy a
  • used Ford, which was not such a step up. After working in IT for a few years, he managed to
  • buy a new Mazda he liked, in banana-yellow. When his bosses wanted to promote him to
  • department sub-manager, they preferred that he use a more elegant cobalt-blue Chevrolet.
  • When he was appointed vice president of the company, he was given a brand new shining
  • silver Volvo! Jim finally evolved to having a Volvo.”

This story, using a phonetic association between evolve and Volvo, is known as “a crazy memory story” that imaginative people use to remember things. The fact that my friend is passionate about cars, directed him in relating his interests to the target word in question. Take it from me, we all have a vivid sense of imagination! We should simply let it go wild and relate whatever comes to mind to the memorization task at hand. And no, this long story is not harder for your brain to remember. Short lists with words not connected to anything are more difficult to retain than long stories that are interesting for you.

2. Your target word will sometime remind you of a different word in your native language, thus giving you a head start for a crazy story. For example, colombe in French means dove.

The story goes like this:

  • "On his way to America Christopher Columbus sees America in the distance when a dove
  • suddenly lands on his head! And of course there is that famous soap brand…"

4. Group it up with theme-related vocabulary

Another great way to pick up more vocabulary is using themed vocabulary resources, especially for basic concrete concepts, such as “colors,” “the human body,” “vegetables,” “farm animals,” “kitchen activities,” or “at the bank.” These are usually presented accompanied by a big illustrative picture visualizing all the word items. Picture
dictionaries and textbooks usually have such helpful visual spreads. When it comes to more abstract themes, such as “values” or “crime and punishment”, you can find specially written texts that include many related words and expressions, followed by vocabulary activities. Again, it is the context of the larger picture that is the main channel helping your word memory. Both concrete and abstract vocabulary themes are usually followed by vocabulary activities that further strengthen their usage and memorization.

5. Creativity and imagination when learning a vocabulary

A key factor contributing to the success of language learners is creativity and imagination. In the following sections, you are welcome to start thinking a bit differently about how you remember the words you study in English. These strategies derive from different learning styles people use. Learning styles open new channels to learning, which not necessarily use verbal intelligence or purely academic procedures. Remember that mastering the grammar of the language is not enough to master the language. In the long run, it is your level of vocabulary and how you use it in your English writing, which determines how well you are at English. Whether you need English for personal, academic, or business purposes, always use any opportunity to acquire more and more words.

6. Listen to the sound!

Music is a great way for learning new vocabulary. You may be having a hard time reading an article from the New York Times’ Literary supplement, but you will memorize and understand every word from Bob Dylan or Britney Spears (depending on your musical inclinations) in no time, because you love the music. This is why using song lyrics, movies, TV series etc. is very much conducive to English learning.

Another thing you can do to help you memorize specific word lists is to record them on an audio file, or better yet, re-listen to the texts from which you extracted the words in the first place. Most textbooks have a CD with texts recorded on them. Some scientists say that you can even listen and learn while you sleep; I listen to my language learning audio CDs while doing the dishes…

7. Give me a visual!

The sense of sight uses up to a third of the brain, therefore making visualizing a prime channel to aid us in remembering words. Some people are very visual and relish on anything that stimulates their eyes. Therefore, the following may help:

1. Big signs with target words hung around your house to be encountered at all times, with optional related pictures.
2. Small stickers on objects around the house will help you associate word and image.
3. Visual dictionaries are great, as mentioned before, together with English learning software with online vocabulary games.
4. And of course, another crazy story is in order here! You need to remember the word abandon, how will you do it? Well, the story goes like this:

  • A famous rock group was venturing out from Liverpool on a ship heading for New-York. The
  • ship sank and they got stranded on an island. The result was a band on an island, or a-
  • band-on!
  • Yes, I liked it too when I heard it…