“What’s the best way to learn new English vocabulary?”

My students ask me this question so often! The answer is practice. But what type of practice is best? Wouldn’t it be great to learn and practise new vocabulary in the most effective way, so you can feel confident that you’re learning as quickly as possible? Right now, I’m learning Spanish so I’m just as interested as you are to find the right answer to this question! To successfully learn new vocabulary, you need to create good study habitskeep it interesting and make it fun! The truth is, we all learn differently. So I’ve made a list of different tools and techniques that you can use to improve your vocabulary (in the way that works best for you)!

1.  Don’t learn individual words on their own! Learn words in groups that they are commonly used in

Have you heard of collocations? A collocation is two or more words that are often said together. They just ‘sound right’ together because native English speakers use them together often. Have you ever heard a native speaker tell you “well… you could say that, I guess… But it doesn’t sound right (it doesn’t sound natural).” By learning words together, you’ll quickly start to understand which words ‘sound right’ together. You’ll learn how words correctly join together in a sentence, then later, you can start adding or replacing new words, as you learn new ones.

For example, instead of memorising the noun bunch, learn bunch of grapes’ or ‘I bought a bunch of bananas’. Instead of learning the word apply, learn the phrase apply for a job’.  You can learn hundreds of new individual words in English but you will be frustrated if you can’t correctly put them into your sentence together, in a way that makes sense and sounds natural. When you learn words in groups, you’re learning new words WITH the verbs, nouns and prepositions they are used with so you sound more natural when you speak!

2.  Learn new vocabulary through stories

Stories are FULL of new words, phrases and interesting expressions that show you how words come together in an interesting, fun and engaging way! Just like the collocation method, you are learning new vocabulary in context. You’re not only learning what words to use but how to use them! An important note to remember: It’s great to challenge yourself, but it’s important not to feel completely confused! Read stories that are fun and enjoyable! If you are not very confident with English, start with children’s books. “Emma, are you serious? Children’s books?” Yes! I’m serious! There are lots of great children’s books that are interesting, funny and full of adventure! Start with children’s books, and when reading them becomes too easy, try something a little more challenging! Some great books to start with are:

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  • Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
  • James and The Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

3.  Listen while you read

Take English storytime to a whole new level using audiobooks! Some of you will prefer to listen and read in English, see you can see new words as they’re read. Another technique is to listen to the same story in your native language while you read in English! This technique will help you understand to understand so many new, interesting words and phrases. You will need to select a popular book that has been translated from English into your native language, such as Harry Potter.

4. Learn new vocabulary through songs

If you love listening to music, there is no doubt that learning new vocabulary through songs will help you remember them. You’ll need to find songs where the words are not sung very fast so that you can hear each word and how it’s pronounced. It’s more effective if you can download the lyrics and read as you listen to learn the words and rhythm correctly. There are lots of extra benefits when you learn new vocabulary through songs, such as:

  • Good songs get stuck inside your head, so you’ll be singing and practicing them in your head often – and it won’t feel like practice sing in the shower, while you’re exercising and when you’re driving to work!
  • Songs use colloquial language and slang words that are common in spoken English. You’ll learn how words are reduced and contracted and improve your listening skills too!
  • Singing them out loud will improve your pronunciation and other aspects of spoken English.
  • The rhythm of music helps you to memorise new vocabulary!

Here are a few of my suggestions:

The Lazy Song – Bruno Mars
(Sitting On) The Dock of the Bay – Otis Reading

You can easily find the lyrics to heaps of other English songs at metrolyrics. (If you know some good songs to practice with, post your suggestions in the comments box and share your love of English music!)

5. Use Online dictionaries!

Online dictionaries offer so many ways to practice and learn new vocabulary! Let’s look at the verb ‘produce’ as an example. When I look up this word in an online dictionary I can:

  • Read the definition(s) 
  • Read and listen to the different verb forms (produces, produced, producing, etc.)
  • Read lots of example sentences, that show how the word is used in context
  • Learn synonyms (other similar words) and collocations (words that are often used with ‘produce’)
  • View the word family, including produce (verb), producer (noun), production (noun), productive (adjective), unproductive (adjective antonym), productively (adverb), product (noun) and produce (noun).
  • Listen to the pronunciation. In this example, you’ll be surprised to learn that the verb produce and the noun produce are pronounced differently!!

I recommend the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. They also have great apps for iPhone and Android. Go and explore all their amazing vocabulary building tools! Plus if you sign up to their email list, you’ll get sent a new English word every day! That’s another great way to learn new vocabulary!

6. Labels & Flashcards

Flashcards have been a favourite way of learning new vocabulary for years and years. But there are different options available for us today. You might prefer to hand-write flashcards with an English phrase on one side and the translation to your native language on the other side. You can also use an SRS programme, such as Anki. I downloaded Anki a couple of weeks ago and I think it’s fabulous! An SRS allows you to remember a large number of words in a short amount of time and it lets you work at your own pace. As you practice with the flashcards, the programme remembers what words you know and what words you don’t know. It will keep showing you the flashcards you get wrong so that you practice them more! It is a really efficient way of studying.

7. Describe the world around you

If you like using a dictionary to learn new English vocabulary, getting into the habit of describing things that are happening around you in English is a great way to study. When you are unsure of words, look it up! It will help you fill in the gaps in your vocabulary. For example, when you are at your local supermarket, ask yourself:

  • Do I know the name of all the items in the fridge?
  • How can you describe the woman waiting in front of you?
  • How many colours can I see?
  • Do I know the English names of all the vegetables?

When you can’t think of a word, stop and look it up. Understand how to use it and practise it again the next time you visit the supermarket!

8. Imitation and Shadowing

Imitation and shadowing are great techniques to improve pronunciation and spoken English, but they’re also awesome for learning new vocabulary! Sign up for my free email lessons here to practise imitation and shadowing! Try it for yourself!

9. Language Immersion for Google Chrome

This is a really neat extra trick you can use to keep you learning new words as often as possible, so you improve quickly! Language Immersion for Chrome works when you are browsing websites. It randomly chooses words on websites you are viewing and shows them in English. It works for any of the 64 languages supported by Google Translate. The great part is that you can change the settings from beginner through intermediate to advanced! For example, individual words and short phrases are translated for beginners, while whole sentences are translated for advanced-level students. If you hover your mouse over the word, you can hear it pronounced and translate it back to your native language.

Most importantly, you need to find ways to learn vocabulary that work best for YOU. Because hey, we all learn differently, we have different priorities and different amounts of time to spend learning new languages. You need to create your own good study habits and find ways to enjoy English!