ESL Vocabulary Strategies

Written by tutor Ekaterina V.

A great number of English learners stumble upon the fact that they just don’t know enough words. The strategies I have gathered here will be useful to a learner of English of any level, from complete beginners to those who have been studying the language for a while. A few of these strategies can be easily used daily without much effort, while others will require a more concentrated approach.

The best way to learn a new language is to become obsessed with it. And while it may not seem like an obvious part of language learning, motivation is a key factor. Decide what you are excited about and tie vocabulary learning to that activity or idea. Do you enjoy reading the newspaper? Then you would be much more interested in deciphering that article about an event in your neighborhood then reading a textbook. I once heard of someone who enjoyed chess so much that they learned English just to read more books about chess. Another example is of a student who was very interested in fashion so she began learning French just so she could get her hands on more literature about fashion and its history. Your motivation may be as simple as having it be a necessity to speak English in your current environment, or it can be just the fact that you love learning new languages. Anything that will make learning English more enjoyable specifically for you, will work.

The number one way to gather new vocabulary is reading. Read anything you can get your hands on and become interested in. Always have a dictionary close at hand. And with today’s technology, you no longer have to carry around a hefty tome. Especially while reading, a tedious, but very helpful way is looking up any unknown words you come across in a dictionary. Even better if you write out newly found words and definitions in a separate notebook. When trying to memorize a specific word, associate it with something you already know. This can be a picture, a memory, an idea, or anything else that comes to mind. It may seem time consuming at first to have to constantly look up new words and write out definitions, but pretty soon you will find yourself seeing more and more familiar words. While reading a sentence, it is often possible to guess the meaning of the word by relying on words surrounding the unknown word. You will also inevitably find that you already know many vocabulary words because there is an exact or similar word or phrase in your own language.

However, it is a good to have an idea of what kind of learner you are. I am very visual and until I see something written or better yet write it down myself, my hopes for remembering it are gone. On the other hand I’ve had a few students who remember much better from hearing something somewhere rather then having it written down or read. In any case you must cover all fronts. Listen to the radio as much as possible and watching TV is even better then listening to the radio. Depending on what knowledge of the language you start with, at first you may not be able to hear separate words, but pretty soon you will start picking out familiar words, then phrases, and then be able to understand the entire program. If you are watching a movie, put on English subtitles, you will be able to read the words and recognize them as they’re being said. Listen to English songs. Even if at first you don’t understand anything you’re hearing, its still beneficial. You are getting used to the rhythm of the language. To the patterns and pauses of English speech. Another seemingly silly idea is posting signs with vocabulary words all over your house. For example, on a cupboard, put up “cupboard”, on the wall put “wall”.

After discussing different vocabulary learning strategies, I am still firmly convinced that reading is one of the best ways to learn new words. A great idea is picking up a book you’ve read and loved in your native language. When you revisit it in English you’re familiar with what happens and may even remember some sentences and phrases that will help you recognize the meaning of new words in English. Carry a notebook, have access to a dictionary whether online or in book form, and your favorite book in English. You will be surprised how soon you will discover that you know many new words and what’s more, can use them in daily speech.

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