Expanding Your ESL Vocabulary - One Word at a Time

Let’s face it. Language learning takes into account lots of skills, but vocabulary ranks pretty high. Who doesn’t want to understand what is being said at a business meeting or to grasp the meaning of a daily news article and to read the best seller on the New York Times list? Who wouldn’t like to speak more fluently and to be able to easily choose from a repertoire of words that they inherently know? How is it that some ESL speakers seem to increase their vocabulary with what appears to be little effort, while others become stagnant in their vocabulary growth? Perhaps some of these suggestions on how to enrich your vocabulary will help you – one word at a time.

1. Read words in context to study their meanings

It is easier to learn words while studying them in context. So when you come across a word you don’t know, you can first try to figure out its meaning from the sentences around the word. Stop a minute. Reread the sentence. Try to substitute different meanings of “that word you may not know” into the sentence until you think you have an educated guess at what the word means. Then read the sentences again. Next, read the whole paragraph. Do you think you have a good idea of what the word means? If not, repeat the process of reading the sentence, surrounding sentences, and the whole paragraph. Then look the word up or ask someone how that particular word is used in that specific context. Then when you discover its meaning, you will be more apt to remember what the word means. The next time you stumble upon this word, you can draw on this first encounter with the word, and hopefully apply what you learned the first time. Remember that context clues really do help capture the meaning of words and helps you to remember their meaning.

Example of a context clue:  The boss rewarded the sales department with plaudits by singling them out at a business meeting and encouraging everyone to clap for them.

From this sentence, what do you think the word plaudits means? If you guessed extreme praise, you’re right!

Intellectual man reading a book standing in library in front of bookshelves

2. Read lots

Read, read, read. Read good books. Your vocabulary will be the richer for it. - Carmen Agra Deedy, award-winning writer and National Radio Broadcasting contributor

When you read, you will come across new words naturally and be drawn to understanding their meaning so you can understand the larger text. Most vocabulary words are learned from context. The more words you're exposed to, the better vocabulary you will have. While you read, pay close attention to words you don't know. First, try to figure out their meanings from context. Use a wide range of word-solving strategies like dividing words into syllables, using word parts, using prefixes and affixes, and connecting words to known words. Use word-solving strategies like background knowledge and inference to predict word meanings. Use word roots and origins to understand related meanings, if possible. See if the word has regional or historical meaning or if it is from another language than English. Then look the words up. Read and listen to challenging material so that you'll be exposed to many new words. And continue to read, read, read. This is one of the surest ways to build vocabulary. Ask any English teacher and I am sure they will agree.

3. Read good writing

You should try to read some academic or intellectual writing in your mix of reading. Do you know the buzz of business writing? Read periodicals and blogs. Check out fiction and nonfiction books at the library. Visit bookstores. Good writers know how to tell a story. They know how to share facts. Their choice of words will astound you, and you will be able to capitalize on this ability and build your own choice of words. Look how authors organize their writing from beginning to end and how they arrange their ideas. See how the writer presents and supports main ideas and themes in the text. Play close attention to the sentences, phrases, and expressions used to describe events, actions, or information. See the word choice that the writer selects to convey meaning. Listen to the author’s voice, the unique style the author writes in. As a result, your listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabulary areas will all improve.

4. Be a well-informed reader – Diversity of topics is important

I was always an avid reader of books. My vocabulary and my English, all thanks to the reading habit, improved. – Madhur Bhandarkar, National award-winning Indian film director, script writer, producer

Try to read a variety of information from general to subject-specific topics. Look at history and philosophy, the sciences, travel and anthropology, politics and art, linguistics – the whole gamut. This process will round out your vocabulary and make you a more confident reader who can feel comfortable reading on topics outside your area of expertise or main interests. This in turn, will build good conversational vocabulary that you will be able to transfer to any situation at home, school, at work or in the community.

Parents Sitting With Children Reading Story Indoors

5. Make studying vocabulary an ongoing process

You need to cultivate the habit of improving your vocabulary every day. It is this continuous learning process that will move you forward in the acquisition of words and closer toward your goal of ESL language fluency. Learning vocabulary should not be an isolated step that you do in limited time frames. It should be something that you consciously do every single day. Then you will see progress every single day. You might want to use some type of graphic organizer to help you with your study. This is one example that I designed to help with vocabulary study. You might find it useful. Feel free to adapt it to meet your learning needs.

Vocabulary Study

Fill out the form on the word:  ____________________________

vacabulary building chart

6. Activate memory of the new words

Say the words over and over. Relate the words to other words you know. Think of sentences for the word and how you will use the word. Use some type of memory device to remember the word. Link it to a funny story. Find a meaning of the word that rhymes. Whatever seems to work for you would be a helpful suggestion. Write the word a few times so you visually see the word and how it is spelled. Cover up the word and see if you can spell the word and also say the meaning from memory. These combined techniques will increase the chances that you will remember the vocabulary so it is available for you to use.

For example, the word “abase” is a verb meaning to feel shame or to hurt the pride of.  A mnemonic (memory aid) for this word could be:  to bring someone down to A BASE level or a baseball player tripped over A BASE marker thus humiliating himself.

7. Take the time to look words up

You see failed vocabulary in the adult world so often and it’s often because you reach a certain age and you’re kind of embarrassed to go look up a word if you don’t know what it means. – Daniel Handler, American author, pen name of Lemony Snicket

If you don’t know a word, how to pronounce it, or how it is used, what it means, etc. – stop and look the word up. There are many online resources to help you. An English-speaking dictionary and thesaurus are handy tools to have, as well. This is a great habit to acquire. Look up the words and you are on your way to understanding their use and then you can apply these words in future situations.

8. Listen to words everywhere

Be open to learning new words from all sorts of avenues. Maybe you hear a “new” word on the radio or you are attending a lecture and the speaker mentions something that you aren’t quite sure of the meaning.  Write these words down and then when you have time, look the words up and learn their meanings, one word at a time. Maybe you have an English-speaking friend who can help you with your English from time-to-time. You might have a 1-1 tutor or a language group, or you might be taking an on-line English class or a class at a university. You may even have stumbled on a website where you write in an English question about a specific word and how it is best used. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in different ways and capitalize on the ways that work best for you.

three wise businessman that they didn't hear, speak and see.

9. Apply the new words to your speech and writing

Vocabulary is a mater of word-building, as well as word using. – David Crystal, British linguist, academic and author

You should try using the new words when you can. Maybe one of the words fits with what you are trying to say at home, school or work. Maybe you can weave this word into your business writing, an email, or an article or blog of some sort. Experiment with new words and make them part of your working vocabulary. Research shows that it takes from 10-20 repetitions of using the new word to make it part of your vocabulary. You might want to consider putting these words on index cards and reviewing them time to time so you increase the opportunity of repetitions so those words do become a part of your working vocabulary.

10. Play word games

Play Scrabble, Boggle, and do crossword puzzles. These and other word games are available for the computer so you are not always dependent on others to play with you. You can also peruse assorted games at toy stores and learning shops and see if any of these have online versions. The bottom-line is to make learning fun for you. Games are a great avenue to increase motivation to study and to learn. This positive environment of playing a game can help with the retention of language that is learned.

11. Be positive about the words you are using and your quest to learn

Loving your language means a command of its vocabulary and beyond the level of the every day. – John McWhorter, American linguist and political commentary

If you have a positive attitude about learning and acquiring more words, then your ESL study will be more effective and enjoyable. It will make looking up words fun and rewarding rather than something that is to be dreaded.

Remember that having a wider vocabulary can enrich your career as a student or an employee. A strong grasp of vocabulary will help you perform better on standardized tests, in the classroom  during discussion and on essay tests, when you submit any written work or communicate in any written fashion, and in your future work no matter what the field. Your listening skills, your speaking skills, your reading skills, and your writing skills will be profoundly impacted. So let vocabulary learning be a lifelong endeavor. You have the confidence to soar at ESL learning!

I love to learn


The most important thing is to read as much as you can. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary. – J.K. Rowling, British novelist best known for the Harry Potter fantasy series

What have you been reading lately?  Write to me in the comments section below and tell me about the tips that you liked or if you have any tips you'd like to offer.

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