Increase Your Vocabulary Naturally by Learning Words in Context

storybook vocabulary alive

Why Learn Words in Context?

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

Stop Sign

3 reasons to stop memorizing lists of words

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

Go sign

3 reasons to start learning words in context

  • It will help you know when and how to use the words
  • It will help you remember the words faster and easier. We remember words more easily when they are a part of a story.
  • It will be more fun! When learning is fun, you are more motivated to learn more!

Many words have multiple meanings.

get well card

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 me out keyboard

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.

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 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 vocabulary words is ineffective and unnatural.

Boys reading book on grass

Want to increase your vocabulary naturally? Read more!

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.

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!

dictionary defined

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.

chainlink

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.

Best news ever!

  • 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

What does this mean? 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!

More advanced learners might enjoy reading How many words do you need to speak a language? by Beth Sagar-Fenton and Lizzy McNeil at BBC Radio 4. Here’s an excerpt:

If you learn only 800 of the most frequently-used lemmas in English, you’ll be able to understand 75% of the language as it is spoken in normal life.

If you’d like to measure your vocabulary size, head to VocabularySize.com and take their free test by Paul Nation, a leading expert in vocabulary development.

In the end, if you absolutely want to memorize a list of vocabulary words, here is the list you should focus on first:

Sign up here to receive your free PDF list of the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language. 

For more elaboration on vocabulary, check out The Word of the Day: Elaborate

For a complete lesson on vocabulary related to studying, check out 9 English Idioms and Expressions in Context: Ace, Cram, Flunk, Killer, Pull an All-Nighter, Slack Off

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