Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

Increase Your English Vocabulary

Why Learn Vocabulary Words in Context?

The best and most natural way to learn vocabulary and expressions is in context.

3 reasons to stop memorizing vocabulary lists

  1. Memorizing the meaning of a word ≠ being able to use it correctly.
  2. You won’t remember the words for very long if you don’t use them and they are not meaningful.
  3. It can be boring and demotivating.

Go sign

3 reasons to start learning vocabulary in context

  1. You’ll know when and how to use the words
  2. You’ll remember the words faster and with less effort.
  3. You’ll have more fun! When learning is fun, you are motivated to learn more!

Many words have multiple meanings.

An important reason to learn vocabulary in context is that many words have multiple meanings. By learning words in context, you can grasp the meaning through the situation. To learn more about how to do that, check out Increase Your Vocabulary Using Context Clues

Examples of Words with Multiple Meanings

If you look up get in a dictionary, you’ll see that it has more than 20 different meanings (and that is when it is alone and not used as an auxiliary verb).

get well card

Okay, it’s true, get is one of those words that has tons of meanings, but it’s also true that many other words have multiple meanings and some have additional slang meanings that your average dictionary does not explain.

Get me out keyboard

A Killer Example

While an average dictionary will tell you killer means someone who kills, a dictionary that includes slang, like the Collins online dictionary, will give you many more definitions including impressive, exciting, and difficult.

Coffee cup killer whale

For example: He makes a killer cup of coffee!

Context is necessary to know which meaning is correct.

If someone has a killer smile it means something completely different than a killer test, and a killer test is not a test you take to become qualified to kill!

Native speakers learn vocabulary words in context. You should too!

As children, most of the words we learn are learned in context – not by memorizing vocabulary lists. Memorizing lists of isolated vocabulary words is ineffective and unnatural if your goal is to speak. Words work together to provide meaning.

Boys reading book on grass

3 Pillars of Learning Vocabulary in Context

1. Read more! Listen more!

One of the best ways to increase your vocabulary naturally is to read more for pleasure. Don’t stick your head in a textbook. Lose yourself in a good book. Follow your interests and find authentic material (material written for native speakers) related to what interests you. Choose materials that aren’t too difficult. You should understand at least 80% without having to look up words.

And of course, if you don’t like to read, you can listen to podcasts, watch YouTube videos, and get other forms of listening input where you will hear your target language being used. The important thing is to find material that you enjoy.

When you come across a new word, write it in a notebook in a complete sentence. This way, you have the context and not just the word. This method makes learning easier, faster, and more MEANINGful. Get it?

come across: meet or find someone or something by chance.

dictionary defined

2. Learn to use context clues.

When you read a word you do not know, try to use the words and sentences around it to figure out the meaning. Words in a sentence relate to the words around them. Try to use those words as clues to help you understand the words you do not know. This will not work 100% of the time, but it is a worthwhile skill to develop. Everyone, even native speakers (me included!), has to look up unfamiliar words sometimes!

Related post: Increase Your Vocabulary Using Context Clues


It’s all about relationships.

Words do not exist in isolation. They exist in relationship to other words. They should be learned in the context of the relationships they have with other words. By learning words in context, you will know how to use them well.

3. Frequent exposure is important.

Studies vary on how many times we need to hear a word before we remember it. Some say as few as 6, while others say 28 times. No two people are the same. I believe it depends on the person. Obviously, the more you see, hear, and use a word, the more likely you will be to learn and remember it.

How Many Words Do You Need to Learn?

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard this before?

  • 100 most frequently used words = 50% of words used in English
  • 300 most frequently used words = 65% of words used in English
  • 1,000 most frequently used words = 90% of words used in English

Does this mean that by learning the list of the 1,000 most frequently used words you’ll understand 90% of English? No! Sorry to break it to you, but understanding a word in isolation does not mean you can understand it when it is used.

What does this mean in practical terms?

According to the BBC news article, How many words do you need to speak a language? by Beth Sagar-Fenton and Lizzy McNeil:

“By learning the top 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language, you will have 90% of the vocabulary you need to understand written and spoken English.”

However, I believe this is misleading. Knowing a list of words is not the same as being able to use those words and understand them in different situations. By all means, take a look at the list and learn those words. But if you don’t then see and hear those words being used in context with other words, how well do you think you’ll be able to use them correctly?

Another benefit of learning words in context is that you are exposed to grammar in a natural way. This is also very beneficial.

Since we’re talking about vocabulary, I thought I’d share an interesting resource with you. If you’d like to measure your vocabulary size, head to and take their free test created by Paul Nation, a leading expert in vocabulary development.

For more vocabulary elaboration, check out: Elaborate: Meaning and Examples

For a complete lesson on vocabulary related to studying, including 9 terms check out: Study-Related Vocabulary

For all vocabulary related posts on Making Sense of English, check out the vocabulary archives.

Course Recommendation

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If you’re ready to improve your vocabulary, I recommend one of Espresso English’s vocabulary builder courses. If you go to the course page, you can scroll and see the list of lesson topics for each level. There are 30 lessons per level. You have permanent access to the course, which includes video, audio, text, and exercises. You can try some free samples to see if the courses fit your style. There are 2 levels, so you can try before you buy.

Vocabulary Builder Course

Never stop learning!