Vocabulary learning strategies

The best strategy really, is to keep reading, listening and speaking to English speakers. However, you can be active in expanding on a new word you may come across in an article or a conversation. Here are a few different strategies to help in expanding your vocabulary.

Once you’ve learned a word, don’t just write it down in a notebook with a definition next to it. You can extend your vocabulary by taking advantage of the many new words you can add from that single new vocabulary word.

Ways to extend:

1. Look up synonyms in the dictionary as well as the thesaurus. Add them to your notes on the word. If you came across the word in an article, sometimes it will be paraphrased and other synonyms or similar expressions will be used. Take note of those! Also look closely at how they are used – they may be synonyms but may be used in slightly different ways.

ex:  finance (noun)

Synonyms: accounts, banking, business, commerce, money, money management

2. Link to meaning networks and associate words into topics. For example, new words you come across that may have to do with business, you can add to a group of new words you’ve learned associated with business.

3. Word Families – Most words are part of a “family” of words that share meaning. Identify and learn the different forms of the word (noun / adjective / adverb/ verb ).

For example:  finance (noun) / financial (adjective) / financially (adverb) / to finance (verb)

For each form, make sure you understand how to use them correctly. Write your own sentences with each form of the word or try to use them when you’re talking with others.

4. Collocation – Certain words are often paired together when they are used (think of them as “word partners”).

For example: “financially sound”, “financially independent”,  “financial gain or financial loss”,  “go over his finances”

Take note of words you often hear together as collocation and try to use them as a unit in your writing or when you speak.

5. Affixes – Words are made up of different parts:

  • Prefixes (at the beginning) For example : un-, de-, co-, trans-,sub-
  • Infix (base) – is in the middle of the word or can be at the end. For example: -graph (write), -port (carry), -duc (to lead)
  • Suffix (at the end of the word) For exmample : -er, -tion, -able, -ly,

ex:  Collocation

prefix (co-) means “together”

infix (locate) means “to place”

suffix (-ation) indicates it is a noun made from a verb

If you’re able to understand the breakdown of a word and why it has a specific meaning, you will be able to analyze new words and guess more accurately what they could mean.

If you follow these steps in your vocabulary notebook,  it should be full of extended words that build on a single new word.

Also remember, if you don’t use it, you lose it!  This means, you have to be active in using these words either in your writing or when you speak so that you naturally retain (keep in your memory) your new vocabulary words.  See here for 5 Steps to Building Your Active Vocabulary.



I'm an English teacher specializing in IELTS preparation - especially writing and reading. If you have any questions, please ask! You can also sign up for weekly tips and lessons for IELTS and English!

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  1. […] Here is the first sublist of the Academic Word List (most used) in alphabetical order with some words that are part of their word family (note the different prefixes and suffixes): […]

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