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How to speed up your vocabulary learning and how to choose what words to learn

What does it mean to "know a word"?

There are various levels of understanding of, and being able to use, a word or phrase. The following is a brief list.

  • You recognise a word when you read it and have at least a vague idea of its meaning in context See the glossary definition .
  • You can supply a translation of a word into your own language.
  • You can pronounce the word.
  • You can spell the word.
  • You can give a simple definition of the word in your own language.
  • You can give a simple definition of the word in English.
  • You can supply a synonym See the glossary definition and/or an antonym See the glossary definition .
  • You can use the word in context.
  • You can use other forms of the word in context See the glossary definition (using the noun form instead of a verb, for example).
  • You can recognise when the word is used inappropriately (because it has been mistaken for a similar word or has been used with odd collocations See the glossary definition ).
  • You can use the word or phrase in context with appropriate collocations See the glossary definition ).
  • You can explain various meanings of the word, their synonyms See the glossary definition and antonyms See the glossary definition , and say whether they might be appropriate words to use in academic writing.

The vocabulary skills and tools you need

In order to learn vocabulary (and you need a lot of vocabulary in order to write well) you need a systematic approach and and a set of skills and tools to help you master this long-term task.

You need to keep a record of the words you are trying to learn. This can be on paper (just fine - you don't need anything high tech to learn vocabulary) or on some device. Repetition is important - you need to see and use a word a number of times before it becomes fixed in your memory. Spaced repetition apps can be useful but you don't need them if you are determined and organised enough to revisit your notes every day. If you are a speaker of English as a second language studying at university you may need to boost your level of vocabulary considerably and fast. A native speaker of English in tertiary education probably has a usable vocabulary of around 17000 words (see below). If you already know 7000 words, you are still have a disadvantage of 10000 words. You will certainly learn many of the words you need in the normal course of your studies but you're going to struggle in the early part of your course. Do some simple arithmetic; if you are on a three year course, you'll need to learn 10 new words a day to learn 10,000 words in three years, and by then your course will be finished. So you need to learn more - at least 20 new words a day. With a systematic approach, you can do this. And as you progress the task will become easier.

What words do you need to learn? Obviously, all the new words which you come across which are a central to your area of study. But also a lot of general (often abstract See the glossary definition ) words which are used more often in academic discourse See the glossary definition than in other forms of speech and writing. It helps to learn these and their collocations. You can see more about academic word lists below).

These are the skills you need, and some tools to help you.

  • You must be able to use a dictionary - bilingual and English, online and conventional book form. Not just for a definition, translation or spelling, but also for pronunciation, collocations See the glossary definition , grammatical information, register See the glossary definition , synonyms See the glossary definition and antonyms See the glossary definition . Being able to use synonyms (or near synonyms) antonyms, and superordinate See the glossary definition terms gives you more flexibility in how you write, allowing you to avoid too much repetition. They are often used in lexical chains, which contribute to cohesion in text. You can see an example on the lexical chains See how lexical repetition helps with cohesion page.
  • You should learn about prefixes See the glossary definition and suffixes See the glossary definition . This can help you guess the meanings of unfamiliar words when you see them in context.
  • You must understand the grammar of a word and be able to use its different forms (noun, verb adjective ...). Grammar Information is available in the Cambridge English DictionaryConsult the Cambridge English Dictionary and on this site.
  • You need to understand register See the glossary definition - what types of text is the word used in and at what level of formality. Good dictionaries tell you about this or may just signal a word as formal or informal. You'd probably want to avoid informal words in academic writing.
  • It is sometimes useful to be able to use a thesaurus See the glossary definition . But be careful; as with synonyms, words are not usually replaceable in all contexts and grammatical forms. There are often subtle differences in meaning and use in terms of register, formality or style. VisuWordsConsult VisuWords is a visual way of looking at related words and the Macmillan ThesaurusConsult Macmillan Thesaurus is a more conventional thesaurus.
  • Abstract nouns are important in academic writing and they are used in special ways (as shell nouns) to refer to ideas in other parts of a text. You can learn more about these on the abstract nouns Read about abstract nouns and their use page.
  • You must learn about collocation See the glossary definition . This means learning about which words tend to occur more often when they modify a particular word. There are some examples on this site. You can see some collocations used in noun phrases on the noun phrases Go to the Read about collocation and noun modification page and you can see some other examples in the glossary See the glossary definition . If you are a student of English as a second language you may need to study collocations carefully as part of your vocabulary learning efforts. Even good writers of English sometimes use odd collocations perhaps because of first language interference. If you'd like familiarise yourself with some common collocates of words from the Academic Word List See the glossary definition you can play the collocation game Play the Collocation Game.

Using word lists for academic writing

Whether you are a native speaker/writer of English or are learning English as a second language, expanding your vocabulary is an extremely important aspect of improving you writing skills. The task is simpler for native speakers, who probably already have a wide vocabulary at their disposal is they are studying at a tertiary level. However, most students entering tertiary education whose first language is not English face an especially difficult task. See  Nation and Waring (1997). Many of these students may have only IELTS band 6 or 7 level English (CEFR level B2/C1See IELTS and CEFR levels) and a vocabulary size of less than 5000 words (compared to a native speaker’s 17000 words) on entering tertiary level education. These students need to narrow this disparity as fast as possible. In fact, improving vocabulary levels is probably the single most important thing a language learner can do to quickly improve proficiency.

One of the best ways to do this is to read as much as possible and to read widely; but that’s not enough. It would take an enormous amount of reading for a learner to come across, understand, and assimilate all the words, phrases and idioms See the glossary definition needed reach native speaker level. And in doing so the learner would probably end up learning a lot of rarer words of limited use (unless they are concerned with the student’s particular speciality).

For this reason it’s important the student have access to word lists which indicate which words are generally more frequent and which words are more likely to be used in academic writing. It's possible to narrow this down even further for some specialist study areas (BusinessConsult the Business Service List and NursingConsult the Nursing Academic Word List, for example). The following are the main lists used to help students concentrate on learning the most useful words in academic writing. A very useful review of these lists was recently written by Dana Therova (2020) and you can find the reference in the bibliography on the credits page See the Bibliography.

If you are learning English as a second language for academic purposes your teachers will probably use one or more of these lists to help you with your vocabulary learning. You can also use them yourself to decide which words to prioritize in your own vocabulary learning efforts. You can play Five-A-Day Play Five-A-Day which is a quick daily colllocation game. You can also play this collocation game Play the Collocation Game which will help you understand collocations of many "academic" words. It is based mainly on the Academic Word List. You can see further details about the words used in the collocation game and how it can help your vocabulary learning on the collocation game details Details about the various collocation games page.