Improving Your English Vocabulary

Intermediate and advanced students are usually the ones struggling on vocabulary expansion. The ability to talk fluently in English brings with it the necessity to learn more words. Most students who are beginners are content with a limited vocabulary since they are mastering other more important areas in English.

Learning vocabulary is difficult. It entails not only memorising meanings but also understanding the words and knowing how to use them correctly.

Here’s a list of what I’ve got to say

Note: I’m making it a 3- part series so I can explain them well. This is the first most important tip.


The habit of reading is the foundation of a good vocabulary. Exposure to new words gets you motivated to look for meanings either in a dictionary or thesaurus.

Make it a habit to note down new words. While still fresh in your mind, search for its meaning and write down the sentence where  the word is used.

According to studies, memory retention is stronger if we associate an unfamiliar word with one which already exists in our vocabulary.


I used to have a student who couldn’t remember the word. We already talked about it several times. He had been using the same word for the nth time in sentences. However, he’s mind was still confused on what “POSTPONE” really meant.

I finally asked him the first word that came to his mind when talking about “POSTPONE”. At last, he said “POST”. He showed me a photo which looks like the one below.


Association: Imagine a mail which came later than expected. There’s delay. Thus, the word delay is “POSTPONE”. Photo: pixabay

Finally, he got it.


A student from somewhere in Europe was trying to understand this word. After several explanations, it seemed that he got it already. After a couple of classes, I asked him again what the meaning of the word was. As expected, he couldn’t remember it. I didn’t blame him. If I were in his shoes, I would have struggled just the same.

Again, we attempted to associate the word with another one familiar to him. He chose the word komod which means a cabinet or a shelf. This is like how it looks like, more or less.


Association: Imagine that this cabinet is in your kitchen. It’s got some commodities in it like salt, sugar, rice, wheat, corn. Photo: pixabay

Truly wonderful. He never forgot the word since that day.

Word association is not easy too.  Here’s to give you more idea how to better associate words. Source:

  • Use positive, pleasant images. Your brain often blocks out unpleasant ones.

  • Use vivid, colorful, sense-laden images – these are easier to remember than drab ones.

  • Use all your senses to code information or dress up an image. Remember that your mnemonic can contain sounds, smells, tastes, touch, movements and feelings as well as pictures.

  • Give your image three dimensions, movement and space to make it more vivid. You can use movement either to maintain the flow ofassociation, or to help you to remember actions.

  • Exaggerate the size of important parts of the image.

  • Use humor! Funny or peculiar things are easier to remember than normal ones.

  • Similarly, rude rhymes are very difficult to forget!

  • Symbols (red traffic lights, pointing fingers, road signs, etc.) can code quite complex messages quickly and effectively.


Read the excerpt below:


Do you want to have a holiday and take a break from your work? If you don’t have enough cash, you can pay by credit card. While you’re away, don’t forget to keep in touch with your family and friends.

All the underlined phrases are examples of collocations. So what then are these?

A collocation is a combination of words that are commonly used together to sound natural. Other combinations may still be grammatical but they may not sound accurate. Simply put, collocations are a pair of words which go hand in hand.

Many English learners focus on studying individual words and grammar. The study of collocations is somewhere in between vocabulary per se and grammar.

Let’s go back to the passage above:


Do you want to have a holiday acquire a holiday and take a break receive a break from your work? If you don’t have enough cash, you can pay by credit card give payment by creditWhile you’re away, don’t forget to keep in touch remain in touch with your family and friends.

Do they sound as natural as the first? I think not. While the new phrases are grammatically correct, they sound awkward. In fact, the words have and acquire are almost synonymous to each other but the word acquire doesn’t sound natural when used with the word holiday.


Verb Collocations

Source: Ameican English at State

Check out this book for more collocations!

Collocations could be

1. Adjective + Noun

annual report, effective method, artificial intelligence

2. Verb + Noun

accept responsibility, do shopping, begin process

3. Noun + Noun

climate change, active participant, business transaction

4. Adverb + Verb

clearly understand, closely resembles

5. Adverb + Adjective

broadly similar, directly responsible

Here are a few more list of collocations from Ryerson University and Pearson.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 3.45.46 PM                Collocations.English2

It is necessary to study collocations because they make English conversation more natural. Aside from that, they also widen the  vocabulary of ESL learners.


Imagine yourself taking an examination without Mr. Google or any other dictionary. You then encounter a word which hasn’t crossed your vocabulary yet. Say this one,

Most metals are malleable; they can be hammered into flat sheets; nonmetals lack this quality. Some metals are also ductile; they can be drawn out into thin wires; nonmetals are not usually ductile.


What do you know about malleable? Nothing really. What shall you do? Simply guess? Yes, you got it right. Guess!

Guessing might not sound good but there’s what we call intelligent guessing. In doing this, we have to use certain strategies. This is when context clues come into play.

Context clues are hints that we see in paragraphs and sentences telling us the correct or more or less accurate definition of a difficult word.

Context clues usually come in the following form:


This is also known a Description or Explanation Clue. The confusing word may be defined or given meaning within the sentence or paragraph. These are usually found after words “that is”, and punctuations like commas (,), dashes (-)  and parentheses ( () ).

My uncle uses a medical ventilator, a machine that  helps a patient breathe.

The sentence gives the meaning of a medical ventilator. Even without being familiar with some medical tools, you will readily know a ventilator is, how it is used and where we could likely find one.


Also known as Restatement Clue, a Synonym clue presents an idea which is expressed using a similar word.

Up the hill, we could see a tortuous road which is full of twisting and winding.

The sentence gives the meaning of the word tortuous that is twisting and binding.


There are instances when the meaning of a difficult word is clarified using the opposite word.

I met two friends at school today. Jane is gregarious while Emily is the quiet type.

The meaning of gregarious is clear hear. Using the while as the signal word, we will know that gregarious is the opposite of quiet. Without looking at the dictionary, gregarious may mean jolly, sociable and very open to meeting people.


The meaning of a difficult word can be known sometimes by looking at the examples given in a sentence. These give us hints of what the unfamiliar word is all about.

Crustaceans like crabs, lobsters and crayfishes don’t have an internal skeleton.

By this, we will know that Crustacean is a group of aquatic animals.

General Context

When other contextual hints are not clear, the sentence should be taken as a whole.

You have to consider the words that you find before or after the difficult word. Simply put, you have to view the sentence in a general sense.

Marie is a wine connoisseur. She is so interested in wine that she went to Paris just to know more about it.

Without googling, you will know that the word connoisseur. means someone who is is deeply interested or knowledgeable on something. In this case, it is wine.

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