How to widen your English vocabulary quickly
Learning new words and phrases, and being able to use those you already know in a suitable context, will help you feel that you are making progress. Here are 5 strategies that will help you widen your vocabulary and improve your confidence.
1. Use a spidergram
A spidergram is a type of chart where you write a word or a sentence in the middle of a page and draw then several lines or ‘legs’ radiating out from it. You then write a word or expression relating to it at the end of each leg. For example, using the word ‘dark’, which words or phrases containing the word dark have you learned? You could write:
- Dark chocolate
- Dark blue
- Dark horse
- Dark matter
- ‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
2. Break down long words
Long words are often made up of other smaller words or parts. Once you understand this it will be easier to pronounce and retain new words. Pay particular attention to prefixes and suffixes. Prefixes are small parts of words we add to the start of a word to change its meaning. For example:
- Comfortable, uncomfortable
- Regular, irregular
- Respect, disrespect
Suffixes are small parts of words we add to the end of a word to change the part of speech. For example:
- Comfort (noun), comfortable (adjective)
- Regular (adjective), regularity (noun)
- Disrespect (verb), disrespectful (adjective), disrespectfully (adverb)
3. Use technology
For learning on the go there are apps which focus on building your vocabulary. Here are some apps you might find helpful.
- Anki: this uses flashcards to help you remember words
- HelloTalk: this uses a chat function where you can learn and practise new vocabulary
- Duolinguo: this uses gamification and bite sized lessons
4. Read graphic novels
The pictures in graphic novels help you understand the story and context, while the words give you the dialogue and details. Usefully, the conversational tone of graphic novels means you can apply a lot of the language you get from them in real life conversations. Here are some examples of graphic novels worth reading:
- Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi: an autobiography from the point of view of a little girl growing up in Iran.
- Primates, by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks: the biographies of three famous female primatologists of the 20th century and their research in the Kenyan Highlands, Tanzania, Congo and Borneo.
- The Arab of The Future, by Riad Sattouf:a story about childhood and growing up in the Middle East.
5. Use new words in context
You may know a word because you have read it in a book but you do not know how to use it. This is referred to as passive vocabulary. A simple and effective way to activate this vocabulary is by choosing a few words and creating situations where you can use them. The key here is repetition and relevance. If you don’t actively use a word you’re less likely to remember it in the future.
Every so often go back and have a look at the new words you learned after a week or a month, refresh your memory and continue to use them in context.
Matter: This can have two meanings: (1) physical substance, (2) a subject or situation under consideration.
Lightweight: This can be used as a (1) noun: a person or thing that is lightly built or constructed, or as an (2) adjective: weighing less than average or lacking seriousness, depth or influence.
Lighthearted: amusing and entertaining.
Light at the end of the tunnel: an indication that a long period of difficulty is coming to an end.
This blog has been written at level C1. Practise your reading and listening by reading the blogs below.
More English tips and skills
- English for Human Resources professionals (level C1)
- Working online: what are the implications for language and communication? (level C2)
- How to write effective business and work emails in English (Level B2)
- 10 differences between formal and informal language (level C2)
- 10 books that will take you around London (level C2)
- Top 10 TV series to learn English (level B2)
- Business English for job applications: writing your CV and cover letter (Level C2)