Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary

Read this article for ways to build your vocabulary.

You derive several proven benefits from learning new vocabulary, but how should you go about learning new words in the most effective way? By using the following ten vocabulary-building strategies, you are guaranteed to develop a strong vocabulary and keep improving it every day.

blackboard that says "hi"

1. Read Voraciously

Reading is undeniably your most effective technique for learning new vocabulary. When you read, you see words being used in context, which makes it more effective than merely memorizing a word list.

Seeing the contextual information that surrounds each word allows you to guess its meaning by understanding the overall text. Discovering the meaning of words in this way is the natural way of learning a language. Reading provides the best opportunity to get exposed to this natural way of learning.

If you are not able to infer the meaning of a new word you read, it is probably because there are too many unknown words in the text. In this case, try reading easier materials. The key to good reading is making it a pleasurable activity. Do not be afraid of coming across unknown words, but make sure the text is appropriate for your reading level.

2. Make Friends with the Dictionary

A dictionary is an indispensable resource for helping you improve your vocabulary. Looking up a word in a dictionary will help you learn its precise meaning, spelling, alternate definitions, and other useful information. A thesaurus is another valuable resource since it helps you find connections between words, such as their synonyms and antonyms.

Consider adding a good dictionary and thesaurus to your bookshelf. Here are some recommendations:

  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  • The New Oxford American Dictionary
  • The Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus

There are many free online dictionaries with great additional features. Even if you have a good dictionary in print, you cannot miss having a good online dictionary at your disposal. Here are a few:

  • OneLook: has a reverse lookup function (get the word from its definition) and works as a "meta-dictionary" showing you definitions from other major online dictionaries
  • Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary: a well-established and well-regarded name in the realm of dictionaries
  • Ninjawords: searches the free dictionary Wiktionary. What makes this site interesting is that you can look up multiple words simultaneously. Moreover, the results pages can be bookmarked – making them good personal reference pages
  • Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus: if you're a fan of mind mapping, you will certainly enjoy viewing related words represented in a visual map format
  •,, The Free Dictionary, and many others: all of them are good resources – try each one at least once to help you make up your mind.

3. Use It or Lose It

Try using the new words you read and those you have looked up in the dictionary. Using these new words will help you commit them to your long-term memory.

Be creative and try to use your newly-learned words in as many ways as possible:

  • Write them down
  • Say them aloud
  • Create sentences with them, mentally or in writing
  • Try to use them in a conversation
  • Discuss them with friends

It is also important to be aware of your own language style. Try to catch yourself every time you are about to use common or nonspecific words such as "nice". Try to use a richer, more descriptive, and more precise expression instead.

4. Learn One New Word a Day

If you learn just one new word every day, you will notice they add up pretty quickly. 

Many websites provide free word-of-the-day services. Here are some to try:

  • Merriam-Webster's Online Word of the Day: this website delivers the most useful words of all. It is also the most feature-rich: it provides an audio explanation, pronunciation, and word history.
  • WordSmart Wordcast: provides difficulty level, comprehensive details, and audio pronunciation for the word. 
  • Dictionary Word of the Day: another fine service, perhaps not as complete as Merriam-Webster's or WordSmart, but still worth checking out.

5. Understand the True Meaning of Words

By deeply understanding words, you can make your vocabulary grow exponentially. Instead of just memorizing words, try to really understand them by looking at their etymology, word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. At least half of English words are derived from Greek and Latin roots, so enormous benefits come from being familiar with them.

For example, when you understand the prefix "ortho" means straight or right, you can find connections between words that seem unrelated, such as orthodontist (a specialist who straightens teeth) and orthography (the correct or straight way of writing).

Understanding the logic behind words always pays off in terms of learning and recalling. Consider the examples breakfast which means to "interrupt the night's fast", or rainbow which means "bow or arc caused by rain". Having insights about words, foreign or otherwise, never fails to deepen your connection to them.

6. Maintain a Personal Lexicon

By keeping a personalized list of learned words, you will have a handy reference to review later. Since you will probably want to go back and refresh your memory on recent words, keeping them in your own list is much more efficient than going back to the dictionary every time.

Even if you never refer to your lexicon again, writing words down will enhance your ability to commit them to memory. Another excellent learning aid is to write an original sentence that contains the word. Using your lexicon to do that is a great way to enforce this habit. You can also add many other details, such as the date you first came across the word or maybe a sequential number to help you reach a word quota.

word list sample chart


There are many ways to keep a personal word list. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, so make sure to pick the format that works best for you. You may prefer to keep it as a simple text file on the computer, in a regular paper notebook, or maybe as flashcards in a shoebox.

One option is a computer spreadsheet, for its handy features such as searching, sorting, and filtering. 

7. Follow a Process

To make vocabulary improvement a permanent habit in your everyday life, you should make it as habitual, automatic, and tightly integrated in your daily workflow as possible. Otherwise, you won't do it when your days get too busy.

One useful concept is maintaining a Word Inbox. Creating a predefined place to capture the words you come across will help you process them more efficiently. 

Your process can be as simple as you wish. The key is to define it beforehand and follow it. Knowing exactly how, and how often, to process your inbox allows you to stay on top of improving your vocabulary, even when other pressing matters are vying for your attention.

8. Play and Have Fun

Playing games and engaging in group activities are useful and effective for language-related learning. Gather your family and friends and play word games together. Some interesting options are Quiddler, in addition to the classics Scrabble and Boggle.

It is easy to come up with your own word activities without having to spend money on boxed games. For example, you may try your own variation of "word evening" when a different person brings a new word to the meal on a certain day of each week. The person reads the word, defines it, and others must create a sentence using the word.

There are also many word games in the Internet. You can play them when you are bored or integrate them in your daily routine, such as after lunch. Consider the following recommendations:

  • Merriam Webster's Word Games & Quizzes
  • Merriam Webster's Daily Crossword
  • Scrabble or Words with Friends

9. Leverage Every Resource You Can

The Internet is a goldmine of resources for vocabulary building. Here are a few to get you started, though many more exist: 

There is a wealth of free literature on sites such as Project Gutenberg. There are many ways to integrate dictionary lookup functions into your browser, such as the Google Dictionary extension in Chrome or the Oxford Dictionary add-on in Firefox. You can find specialized vocabulary lists, such as these feeling words or descriptive words. You can even learn some classy, Shakespearean insults! 

You are only limited by your willingness to learn: let curiosity be your guide and you will never run out of resources to learn from.

10. Diversify

Do something different from your daily routine: hunting, fishing, or blogging – any activity that is not a part of your normal life can help you learn new words. Every niche has its own jargon and unique ways of communicating. Read different books and magazines than the ones you are used to. Watch foreign-language movies, take up new hobbies, or hang out with different people.

Doing things out of the ordinary will help you improve your vocabulary and make your life much more interesting.

Source: Lumen Learning,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Last modified: Friday, May 13, 2022, 1:17 PM