Center for Teaching and Learning

Strategies for enhancing English language fluency: Vocabulary

On this page we share principles and activities that international TAs can use to improve English language fluency on their own.

Principles for enhancing vocabulary

All speakers have both an active and a passive vocabulary. Active vocabulary consists of the words we use frequently and comfortably in speaking and writing, while passive vocabulary consists of the words we recognize when we read and listen.

Typically, a speaker’s “passive” vocabulary is much bigger than their “active” one. As you work on developing your vocabulary it is helpful to keep these questions in mind:

  • Do you simply want to be able to recognize a new word or phrase you encounter, or is it important to make it part of your “active” vocabulary?
  • Are there words or questions in your “passive” vocabulary that you would like to make more use of “actively”?

The more associations or connections you have with a word or expression, and the greater the number of contexts and senses (such as hearing and seeing) you experience it in and through, the better you will remember it.

The least efficient way to learn vocabulary is to try to memorize a list of definitions.

Even in our native language, our vocabulary is acquired largely through guessing at meanings according to the context in which we hear a word, then experimenting with the word at a later date. Training yourself to be a better “guesser” can help in vocabulary acquisition in a second language as well.

Stay conscious of the need to guess at times and be alert to some of the following “clues” to meaning:

  • Sometimes a definition is given in parentheses, after a dash, after a comma, or after a pause in spoken speech.
  • Sometimes examples following the word give a clue to its meaning.
  • Sometimes there is a word with the opposite meaning in a nearby sentence or another part of the same sentence.
  • An explanation usually follows “that is” or “in other words”.
  • Sometimes details in the sentence or in the surrounding paragraph provide clues to the meaning.
  • Identifying which part of the speech the word belongs to can help you identify its meaning.
  • Finding out how the word fits grammatically into the sentence may give you some clues.
  • Thinking of the main idea of the whole paragraph can sometimes help you guess the word.
  • Look for familiar words within a word.
  • Look for familiar roots, prefixes or suffixes.

It’s important to learn not only individual words but also word combinations and phrases – ways individual words are used most commonly with other words, often referred to as “collocations“.

Activities for enhancing vocabulary

Develop and practice with your own vocabulary list by collecting and practicing words and expressions.

Collect words and expressions

  • Keep a small notebook handy. As you read, study, listen to TV or talk with other people, write down words and expressions that you think would be helpful for you.
    • Note that certain words are used together frequently, particularly in specific disciplines. It’s helpful to write down not just individual words but sets of words that seem to frequently appear together. You will sound more fluent and comprehensible if you use words in combinations that native speakers are used to hearing.
  • Make recordings of your professor or of a graduate discussion to collect expressions that might be commonly used in your discipline.
  • Record a program on TV, listen to the program again and collect informal expressions that are unfamiliar to you. You may want to ask a native speaker which of these expressions are more common and which are less common.
  • Record yourself giving a short talk or write a short explanation of something.
    • Ask a native speaker to review the talk or explanation with you and help you use more idiomatic expressions.
    • Identify specific words or phrases that you would like to make more precise or that you would like to find alternative words or expressions for; then ask a native speaker about alternatives for those specific words or phrases.

Practice words and expressions

  • You might want to keep two lists, one for active and one for passive vocabulary. Each week, transfer the words you have written down in your small notebook to a master list in a larger notebook. It’s helpful to keep them in rough alphabetical order. Check the pronunciation, particularly the stress, of each word in the dictionary.
  • Try writing some sample sentences using the vocabulary.
  • Pick five vocabulary items and make up a short story or explanation using the items either in your head or on paper. You might also want to record the short explanation and listen to it. Then move on and try using five more items.
  • Pick three to five vocabulary items per day to review. Create flash cards for them.
    • If you only want to be able to recognize the words, you may just want to review the flash cards periodically through the day.
    • If you want to add the words to your active vocabulary, try to develop associations with them as you go through the day – either by connecting them with your experiences that day or by making up in your mind brief scenarios or explanations in which you use the words.
    • Try using the words in conversation or writing sometime during the day.
    • If possible, check with a native speaker when you use the words and ask them if the way you used the word, pronounced it etc. was clear and appropriate.
  • While you’re studying material that includes key words and expressions that you want to master, look up from a paragraph you have been reading and try to summarize its contents aloud, using two or three key words in your summary.

Practice with textbooks

Some English textbooks are designed to help in vocabulary development. Reading skills textbooks can provide you with exercises and approaches that can help you develop guessing skills. Other textbooks focus particularly on practice with idioms and vocabulary. The value of these depends on whether the vocabulary and idioms are ones you want/need to learn.

A note of caution: Some idiom books and dictionaries contain idioms which are not frequently used. If you’re not sure about how common an idiom is and if your idiom dictionary doesn’t tell you, consult with a native speaker.