Top 5 Secrets To Increasing Your Vocabulary

Let’s face it, 25% of your Speaking score  and 25% of your Writing score is based on “Lexical Resource”.  This means that 25% of each score is based on your ability to correctly use a range of words and phrases.

So, what do most students do in an effort to improve their vocabulary?

Create lists and lists of new and/or unfamiliar words. Often times, students tell me they have “vocabulary notebooks” crammed with English words they’re going to commit to memory.

Why is this the WRONG thing to do?

Because this method does not help you actually remember new vocabulary.

Instead of wasting your time trying to learn tons of new words, use your time to effectively and thoroughly improve your vocabulary by following my five secrets:

1) Establish Realistic Vocabulary Goals

When you write out lists and lists of new words with the intention of studying them on your free time, you fail yourself.  There is only so much that the brain is capable of remembering.  You can realistically expect to learn about 4 to 6 words a day - and that’s okay! Because you’re actually going to remember them. Find, say, 25 words you would like to learn in a week’s time and move on to my second secret.

2) Create Flashcards

I know flashcards are nothing new, but they are a great way to commit vocabulary to memory.  Make a card for each of the words you are focusing on for the week.  Here’s a tip: Don’t only include the word and definition, but also add examples, a picture or symbol, synonyms, and antonyms. The more connections your brain makes to a word, the easier it is to recall.

Next, make sure that you take your flashcards everywhere you go. Do you commute to school or work and have a few minutes to yourself on the bus? Do you ever find yourself waiting in line at the grocery store? Do you have some down time between classes or meetings? Use this time to review your vocabulary flashcards. Researchers are discovering that short bursts of learning are an incredibly effective way of studying, as they allow your brain time to absorb the new material. You can check out an article on this effect here.

3) Study Word Families

Another great way to increase the connections your brain makes to new words is to study in word families.  This means studying words that are associated with each other.  Are you studying vocabulary that will help you with Part 1 of the Speaking module? Then focus on studying all the words you will need to accurately answer questions pertaining to Common Part 1 Topics, such as your hometown* or hobbies. Alternatively, study all of the forms of your vocabulary words (i.e. affect => affected, unaffected).

4) Use Your New Words

We do not naturally communicate in words but in phrases and sentences.  Because of this, it is extremely important that you use your new words as frequently as possible. This will help you learn and practice the proper context and grammatical structures required by these vocabulary words. Write journals, tell yourself stories, talk with English speaking friends, and work one-on-one with a professional IELTS coach.

5) Regularly Review Old Vocabulary

As the English saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Many things require intentional practice for maintenance, and language is certainly one of them.  At the end of every week, go back and review all of your flashcards.  Even if you think you know a word backwards and forwards, continue to review it. IELTS is stressful, and our brains do strange things when they are under stress. Make sure you are able to recall vocabulary as automatically as possible.

* You have a 50% chance of being asked a question on your hometown in Part 1 of the IELTS Speaking test.


Feature image courtesy of Deb Stgo on Flickr



My goal is to help you improve your English language skills through helpful tips, strategies, lessons, and more. Please let me know if you have specific questions that I can help you with. You can also receive individualized coaching by signing up here.