English fluency · reading tips · vocabulary

What’s the Best Way to Learn New Vocabulary?

Jacqueline Schaalje

Photos by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

I get asked this question fairly often. There are many different approaches to learning vocabulary, but in my view reading offers you one of the best ways to learn new words in a fun way.

read21 Read and Read.

I know, you’ve heard this tip before from old boring me. Reading helps you to learn about the world and to learn English, but did you know that reading is also the best way to learn new vocabulary? According to research, reading is one of the most important ways to teach vocabulary. “Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning. Reading volume is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998).”

What does this mean? That when you read, you pick up words and their meaning in a way that you don’t always notice consciously, but all the time when you’re reading you’re actually learning new words.

Research has also shown that when you know more words, you become a better reader. And when you’re a better reader, you will be able to learn even more words, faster.


read32 Make sure that you’re reading something that is fun for you to read.

Make sure you’re having fun while you read. If you’re having fun, you will keep it up longer.

You see, in order for reading to have an effect, you need to read a lot. To make it fun means that your newspaper, book, ezine, magazine or computer game/software/app is easy to understand and contains stuff that interests you.

You won’t feel a staggering difference in your vocabulary after you’ve finally finished one book. You need to make reading a regular habit in your life.

Some people (very strange people!!) don’t like reading books. That’s fine, but you need to find something else that you like to read. Maybe you’re into bicycles or cooking or surfboards or whatever other hobby you have. In that case, check out websites that talk about these hobbies.

But: only read English websites!

read43 Decide what kind of vocabulary you want to acquire.

If you need academic vocabulary, it doesn’t make sense if you avidly start to check out celebrity pictures in Now Magazine. Although you might some good words in a gossip glossy too.

But next to your gossip magazine you’ll need to read a book or magazine about the subject that you want to practise your vocabulary in.

For instance, you’re studying towards a psychology degree and you want to know more psychology words. You might want to check out a psychology magazine. It doesn’t have to be a (difficult) academic journal. Popular psychology magazines often use the same vocabulary but in everyday English, which make them much more fun to read.

Popular Magazines

There are many popular science magazines on the market.

I read New Scientist, which is quite entertaining. I use it for some of my students too. If you wait one week, you can read the articles from the past week for free! You only need to register your name and email.

Many other magazines are free online too, or at least part of the magazine.

Subscriptions aren’t expensive, by the way. The big magazines send issues all over the world and the price will be very reasonable. It’s even cheaper if you buy the electronic version for tablet or telephone.

If it’s still too expensive for you, ask your boss at work whether they can take a subscription to a magazine that you want to read. You can give them reasons for this: you need this to talk to the clients about it, or so that you can keep up with things that can help you with your job.

You can also download magazines illegally (but free of course) from various websites. Or have a look in your local library.

4 Don’t Learn Words, Learn Sentencesread5

Learning individual words is nice, because unless you’re a genius you’ll often forget them as soon as you’ve learned them.

On average, you need to use/hear/read a new word 13 to 14 times before you remember it.

This is why reading is so important to acquire new vocabulary. If you read about a certain subject, the words that are typically used in talking about this subject keep coming back.

You should look up those words in a dictionary to make sure you understand what they mean.

5 Make Good Use of your English Teacher

You can make sure you use new words when you take lessons with an English teacher. This is a good way to practise speaking (and grammar).

According to the research, students learn new words more effectively when they practise speaking with those words and answer questions using the new words.

You can ask your teacher to train you in a certain subject that you want to know the words of. It’s even better if you do a few lessons about the same subject, so you repeat the words words you’ve learned throughout those lessons.

read46 Free Lessons with Friends

You can get yourself free lessons (free fun and conversations) if you find English-speaking friends on the internet.

I think most of the friends on my English with a Smile Facebook page will be delighted to hear from you. And the same with some lovely people on the Forum. Try it, don’t be shy!

If you’d rather speak with a native English-speaking person, try one of the websites that we recommended in an earlier Newsletter (published here on the blog:).

Find a Fan Page on Facebook

Another way to meet English native speakers is by becoming a friend or a fan of an English Facebook page. It can also be another website that has a forum, but Facebook is really easy to make friends on.

First follow the page or website a little bit, until you understand what is going on. After that, you can make comments on statuses that the page publishes. If you’re interested in being friends with a particular person who seems interesting to you, befriend them and then you can message them with a friendly “Hi, how are you?.”

7 Is Watching TV or Movies Good for Increasing Vocabulary?

What about watching TV or movies, is that good for learning vocabulary? Yes, it can be.

However it won’t work for everybody, because many people like to read the word that they hear because that helps them to remember it.

If you like watching something, I recommend that you watch TED.com where you can turn on the subtitles or the transcript (in English only!) or watch a movie on DVD where you turn on the English subtitles.

read6What’s Better: a Documentary or a Movie?

You will learn more words from watching a documentary than from watching a Hollywood movie. Unless the movie is at an intellectually high level, the vocabulary in standard movies is much more limited than in a good documentary. The reason is that people in everyday conversation don’t use that many different words.

Hope you found these ideas useful. If you have comments on this article or you have some golden tips for learning vocabulary, by all means let us know!

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