Aproximate reading time: 10 minutes
Now by far this is on the top 3 challenges any student can have when preparing for a standardized test, along with grammar and structuring your responses and to be honest, there isn’t a super-fast way to increase your vocabulary.
It takes months or years to get to a very high level of vocab, depending on your starting point and how much you practice.
This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, and there are precedents, plenty, to prove that following a few simple steps, students from all levels can consistently increase their vocabulary. So let’s go straight on to these steps:
Know your current level of English!
This is fundamental, as this can help guide you into knowing what can be attained in what amount of time. If your preparing for a standardized test such as the TOEFL or the IELTS, then you should know where you are to know where you are going.
You can check out our post about the CEFR and how it correlates to the TOEFL, IELTS and other tests by clicking here.
After knowing your level, you can determine your potential score, and how much you would have to improve in order to get there and higher.
Create a study plan around your life.
If you do not study, you cannot improve. But beyond just studying, you must be consistent with the training. My recommendation is to try and program your study sessions to about 1,5 to 2 hours long and to make them consistent in 2 main aspects: location and time.
If you study in the same area every time you are already adapted to the surroundings, the level of distractions and you know where everything is so that you can interrupt your sessions far less than if you have to study in different places all the time. You may forget a book, guide or even a pencil and that can cause some very inefficient study sessions.
Additionally, the timing should be constant as well. Your body adapts to exercising at certain times of the day and week, so why not be constant with this. If you are, then you will see how you will be more and more efficient in your study sessions as time passes. You can check out our post about Improving study habits to read more by clicking here.
Make a dictionary.
This will be the most important part. You may stumble into new words here or there, but unless we write it down, our memory will send it to the trash bin as soon as something new comes along.
Your own dictionary will not be in alphabetical order unless you do it in a computer software like Microsoft Excel. Which I recommend you to do. But it is also good to have a physical notebook where you can scribble down your newly found words and put them in.
It is important for you to write not only the word in the discussion but also a definition of that word. Also, I always recommend my students to write down at least 2 synonyms.
This because it will help further increase the vocabulary straight away. So once you find a new word, in reality, you find at least 3. This works as a multiplier and is very useful when wanting to increase your vocab a bit faster. Here’s an example.
Inheritance: something inherited; something passing from a first owner to a second one at the first owner’s death.
Synonyms: legacy, estate.
From here, the student can also look for the words Legacy and Estate. Once these words have been allocated in the notebook, they can be transcribed into a Spread Sheet in a few days.
We do not recommend transcribing them right away, as this way you have contact with the words in a second iteration in a few days, making them more memorable in your long term memory.
Read a lot!
This is one of the most hated advice from students, but it is one that has to be done. Reading will expand your vocabulary a lot. You will stumble into a good number of new vocabulary for you, as well as increasing your overall reading comprehension, key if you want to score high in any international Language Test, such as the TOEFL or the IELTS.
But many students ask me, what do I read? Easy, the first thing is blogs, such as this one about topics of interest making sure that they are in the target language that you want to practice.
In the case of English, here are some links I always share with my students for them to increase their vocab and get some reading practice.
These are good for preparing for a test such as the TOEFL-iBT, because they have some academic level of readings and vocabulary which is something you will encounter in these tests.
Additionally, buying a book from your favorite author is also good. No matter if it is suspense, romantic, biographical or other genres, as long as you start reading and expanding your vocabulary.
From these books and articles, you can get a significant amount of words that will all be added to your personal dictionary.
Set a goal of words per week
Setting goals is important if you want to be constant. The number you set here will vary depending on what you want to achieve and how much time you have for it.
It is strongly recommended for a normal student to acquire at least 25 words per week.
This is a decent number, because if the student is constant, then in about 5 months, they can get approximately 500 words. Which is a significant boost. To give you an idea, Native English speakers usually don’t use more than 2000 words in their everyday life.
If you are in a tighter deadline for a test date, for example, you can increase this rate to a higher one.
Though one thing to bear in mind is that our memory works in a very specific form, so if we increase that rate to an unrealistic one, such as 100 words per week, then, we won’t be able to collect all the vocabulary permanently and will forget about half of it.
The maximum for a normal person is about 40 to 45 words per week. More than this will trigger some casualties in vocabulary.
Use your vocab and Review your dictionary constantly.
If you don’t use it, you lose it! That is clear. We need to be able to put the vocab into use the same day or week in which we have added it to our repertoire of handy tools.
It may sound comical to write sentences of the vocab we have obtained, and yes, I normally don’t recommend doing this except for when adding it to your dictionary. But there is more than you can do than just writing sentences.
What I recommend my students is that, when they read an article from the previous links or a chapter from a book, is to take some 20 to 30 minutes to summarize what they read and understood of it and to take that opportunity to use the words that have been acquired that day and that week as well.
This really helps boost the long term memory of the student making them write better essays. The added bonus is the general improvement of the writing comprehension and structuring of your essays and texts in general.
To practice, you just have to go to your notebook and try to use at least 5 of the words found that day or week. With a few essays a week you will be headed on the right track.
For those students who wish to do things a bit more intense, I recommend an essay per day as a minimum.
Try games, why not?
One of the most popular forms of getting vocabulary is through flashcards. Does it work? Yes, it does, but it is not for everyone.
Though there are many games that you can play in order to increase your vocab, which can be very fun playing in a group setting. For example, jeopardy, scrabble, charades and more. My personal favorite is Boggle, but just because I usually win.
The important thing with this final tip is to not think of it as a boring thing to do. But also take into consideration that it can be entertaining to practice vocabulary and learn a few new words. If playing with friends, then some healthy competition is always good.