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Expanding your English vocabulary

By Elizabeth Mc Donnell, March 2022

The basic building blocks of language are words. We combine them in particular patterns to create phrases and sentences that are interpreted and recognized by another person. We communicate with each other through this amazing process.

Graphic by Erika McClane

Mind map of phrasal verbs associated with food

To speak a language well, you need to have at your disposal a reservoir of these building blocks, the words. You may know all the grammar rules and have good pronunciation and intonation, but without an adequate vocabulary, your capacity to engage fully with the language is reduced. You can think of vocabulary as including single words and also word phrases that convey a particular meaning. Examples of such phrases are 'Good morning',

'a weekend break', 'a slip of the tongue'.

A dictionary provides a rich reservoir of words

The English language has over one million words. New words appear, and some disappear. Every new generation of young people invents its own lexicon. Additionally, English is used as a lingua franca (a shared or common language between speakers with different languages) in many parts of the world. This adds more variety and complications to learning English vocabulary. However, do not despair. There are numerous words and phrases that are used repeatedly, and that are in common use across different cultures.

What are effective approaches to learning new vocabulary?

Learning lists of random words is not a particularly interesting nor a useful approach unless you are someone who enjoys memorising and playing with words in this way. Try some of the approaches below if you don't do so already. All involve learning new words in a context. This is important to acquiring vocabulary and being able to recall it when needed.

Using visuals

An image of ripe and ripening blackberries creates a strong visual stimulus.

If you hear or read the words 'blackberry', 'raspberry' or 'cherry', they may mean little to you. If I tell you that they are all types of small fruit that we like to eat, then you can form associations in your mind. If I show you a picture of each item, you immediately have a visual image of the object associated with an image of the word itself. This helps you in remembering what each word signifies. If you are familiar with eating the food, it helps further with memory retention.

You can create mind maps or spider diagrams for yourself on a central theme such as food, hobbies, technology, household items and so on. See how many words you can think of that relate to the central topic. Or create groupings of words.

For instance, on the topic of travel, collocations include:

to fly a balloon / plane

to ride a bike/ motorbike

to drive a car / bus / lorry

to sail a ship / yacht / boat

Can you think of others?

Play with words

Scrabble is a fun word game that you can play by yourself or with others.

Word formation and word association activities, word games, and crossword puzzles are ways of playing with words. For instance, how many word forms can you make with the word 'help'? Try putting each in a simple sentence and even tell a little story.

I will help you with carrying that heavy box (To help - verb).

Thank you, that is a great help. (help - noun).

You are a very helpful person (helpful - adjective). The other person was very unhelpful. (unhelpful - adjective). I sometimes feel quite helpless (helpless - adjective).

No problem, helping others makes me happy (helping - gerund of the verb).

Can you fit the adverbs, 'helpfully' or 'unhelpfully', into the story?


Books come in all shapes and sizes

Read, read, and read some more! Reading is a great way to soak up vocabulary in a way that is enjoyable and productive. However, ensure that you choose readings - books, articles, blogs, papers - that you find interesting and engaging. Don't choose a reading that is far higher than your language level. You want some challenge but not so much that you give up after the first few pages, or find yourself very reluctant to continue reading. Vary your approach to reading - at times, you may wish to continue reading and not stop to discover the meaning of every word. Underline or highlight new words and select a few to look up later. There may be key words - words whose meaning is critical to understanding the story - that you will need to check in a dictionary at the time of first reading.


Writing equipment - pen and paper

Writing is another great way to develop your knowledge and use of vocabulary. One approach to try is free flow writing. Just write whatever comes into your mind - in English, of course! The idea here is to focus on the vocabulary rather than worry too much about the structure and the grammar. Say you went on a tour of a historic city the previous weekend. What impression did it make on you? What did you find most interesting about it? What did you learn? Try playing with words to express your thoughts and feelings. By doing so, you are actively exploring vocabulary and learning it in context.

Whatever you do to learn new vocabulary, enjoy the activity. Play and experiment. You want to use approaches that interest, yet challenge you, and where you feel that you are making progress.

Get in touch with us at Professional English Solutions if you need help with extending and developing your English vocabulary.

Below are links to some useful tools and further reading


Anki is an app ( that is very useful for vocabulary learning. It is based on the idea of flashcards and the way in which memory works. There is a period of acquisition of new words and terms which are forgotten easily (short term memory). This is followed by reactivation of those terms - review and repetition and eventually the new vocabulary is retained indefinitely (long-term memory).

Quizlet is another app that lets you create vocabulary quizzes and games to help you practice.

Further reading

This video (8.11mins) gives advice on choosing your reading.

Short stories and novels


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