10 Activities to Improve Your English Vocabulary [Self-Study Guide #6]

Published on
November 16, 2022
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Updated on
November 16, 2022
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10
min read
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Written by
Emile Dodds

A wide range of vocabulary is the very foundation of good English language skills. It’s important to learn vocabulary efficiently and effectively, so that it’s not easily forgotten. These ten simple activities will help you do just that.

10 Activities to Improve Your English Vocabulary [Self-Study Guide #6]
Table of contents

Note: This is the seventh of a series of guides covering self-study activities. You may also be interested in other other guides on listening, writing, reading, speaking, grammar, and pronunciation.

Which language has the largest vocabulary? English! English has over one million dictionary entries.

Does this mean that, as an English learner, you need to learn over a million words? No, of course not! The average working vocabulary of an English speaker is much smaller than that - 20,000 words.

However, it does mean that there are a lot of words out there to learn and that means you will need effective strategies to learn them.

How to approach vocabulary practice

Here are some things to remember about vocabulary practice.

  1. Try to learn vocabulary in context. Learning lists of words is not as helpful as learning vocabulary in the context of a reading or listening passage.
  2. Remember that English words tend to have multiple meanings. For example, an object is a thing, but to object means to complain!
  3. Vocabulary doesn’t just mean words. It means phrases, idioms and expressions. For example, you know the word pull and you know the word off, but do you know the meaning of “pull off”?
  4. Always try to guess the meaning of new vocabulary before you look it up.
  5. Have a notebook to keep track of new vocabulary. I recommend writing down the sentence where you saw or heard the new vocabulary. You don’t need to write down the meaning, just underline the new word or phrase. When you review it, you will force yourself to remember the word using the context.
  6. Review your vocabulary notebook regularly.

Using this guide

This is the sixth of a series of guides covering self-study activities. You may also be interested in our other guides on writing, reading, listening and speaking.

With each activity, you'll find our recommended resources, the time the activity takes, and the effort level. 

For the recommended time, we've split it into short, medium and long. How long you want to take depends on you, but you should be able to do the shorter activities in under 15 minutes, the medium ones in around 30 minutes, and the longer ones in up to 1 hour.

Easy activities

Activity 1 - Quiz time

There are plenty of websites out there with free vocabulary quizzes. They offer a fun, quick and simple way to test your vocabulary and learn new words.

The very best quiz that I have found is Google Word Coach. It gives you five short multiple choice questions, some with pictures, and then offers rich feedback at the end of each quiz - definitions, example sentences and explanations.

Google Word Coach is not a website or an app - you can find it by Googling “word coach” on a phone, and it looks like this:

Note that it works only on a phone. It won’t appear on a laptop or desktop.

Here are five more of the best free quiz sites:

  • You can test yourself on thousands of IELTS-related words here: https://www.examword.com/ielts-experience/vocabulary-quiz-online
  • Knoword is a challenging quiz where you are given the first letter of a word and definition - you have to guess the word. I recommend choosing easy mode.
  • The Longman Dictionary features a quiz page perfect for learners, with topics such as collocations and phrasal verbs.
  • Sporcle offers thousands of short, categorised vocabulary quizzes where you type in words, given the clues.
  • For advanced-level vocabulary, you can try the vocabulary quiz at Merriam Webster Dictionary. The questions are randomised, so you get new questions each time you try.

Skills: Vocabulary
Tools: Websites recommended above
Time: Short
Effort Level: Easy

Activity 2 - Word games

When it comes to vocabulary, word games are a great way to improve.

When you play a word game, you need to go back deep into your memory and recall words that you have almost forgotten. Games like Wordle or Fonetix also help you think about how English words are formed - which letters go together.

And best of all, they’re short, fun and require little effort. I recommend playing one of these word games at the end of your study period or when you feel like you need a break:

  1. Wordle is perhaps the most famous word game of the moment. There’s a new puzzle every day.
  2. Fonetix is a fast-paced and fun game where you form words with pairs of letters.
  3. Spelling Bee is another New York Times game. How many words can you make with the letters given?
  4. Scrabble is a classic game, but you need more than one player, right? Wrong! You can play against your computer here. You can also play against another player online.
  5. My final recommendation is Lexigo, where you form words from connected letters on a honeycomb grid.

Skills: Vocabulary
Tools: Websites recommended above
Time: Short
Effort Level: Easy

Activity 3 - Who said that?

If you want to broaden your vocabulary without wading through a long reading text, you can try reading famous quotes.

Check out these two from Albert Einstein:

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.

The first quote offers some interesting vocabulary - albeit and persistent.

The second quote perhaps doesn’t offer new words, but we can study the way the word “limit” is used. From this sentence, we learn that we can accept limits and go beyond limits.

The way to do this activity is simple:

  1. Go to a website that features quotes, such as this one.
  2. Browse and read through the quotes, noting down at least five vocabulary items or interesting phrases.
  3. Challenge yourself to use the new words or phrases. Either write them out into sentences, or try to use them in your speech.

Reading all those quotes from intelligent people is sure to make you sound smarter!

Skills: Vocabulary, collocations
Tools: BrainyQuote, Goodreads, or QuotesLyfe
Time: Short
Effort Level: Easy

Medium-effort activities

Activity 4 - Vocabulary hunt and write

Instead of simply reading and looking for new words, use a more systematic approach.

You have all the tools available online to find vocabulary, understand vocabulary, practise vocabulary and check your vocabulary.

Here are the steps for doing this:

  1. Find a news article OR a short story in English. It’s good to choose one with short sentences. You could choose an article from Reader’s Digest, for example.
  2. Go through the article and find between 5-10 new words or phrases.
  3. For each, copy the entire sentence into Google Docs, a Word document (or other text editor). Highlight the new word or phrase.
  4. Write out new sentences for each one.
  5. Use a grammar checker to check your writing. Alternatively, paste your sentences into Google and see what comes up. Have other people written similar sentences?

As an alternative activity, do the same thing, but with a podcast. Make sure it’s a podcast with a transcript, so you can copy and paste the sentences. If you do it this way, you will be practising four distinct skills: vocabulary, listening, reading and writing. 

Skills: Vocabulary, listening, reading, writing
Tools: Various websites
Time: Long
Effort Level: Medium

Activity 5 - The new word checklist

Here is an activity that you can do anytime you learn a new word.

The objective is to keep track of new words, remember them, and figure out which ones are the most useful. We can do so with a chart like this:

  1. When you learn a new vocabulary item, write it into the chart.
  2. If you see it written somewhere, tick Seen it!
  3. If you hear someone use it, tick Heard it!
  4. If you use it yourself, tick Used it!
  5. Review the chart from time to time to refresh your memory. If a word is never seen, heard or used, look it up again. Perhaps it is an unusual word which is not so important to learn. If a word has multiple ticks, it must be worth remembering!

Skills: Vocabulary
Tools: Google Docs, Microsoft Word or other text editor. Or good old fashioned pen and paper!
Time: Long
Effort Level: Medium

Activity 6 - Make your own vocabulary quiz

In English class at school, your teacher often gave you vocabulary quizzes. These quizzes are a great way of remembering words that were just starting to slip from your memory.

But as an independent learner, can you act as your own teacher and give yourself a quiz? Of course you can! It just takes a little bit of effort and imagination.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Choose an article where you can find short reading texts. For example, Voice of America has simplified news articles.
  2. Copy and paste your chosen article into Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or another text editor.
  3. Go through the article and highlight the new vocabulary. Try to guess the meaning from the context. Then use a dictionary to check yourself.
  4. Replace the new vocabulary items with blanks.
  5. Set the article aside, then later go back and try to insert the words again. Use the original article to check your work.

Tips:

  • Leave a day between steps 3 and 4, so you don’t end up memorising the answers.
  • You can add listening to the mix if you try this activity with a podcast that has a transcript. It’s a great way to practise multiple skills at one time.

Skills: Vocabulary, reading
Tools: Various websites
Time: Medium
Effort Level: Medium

Activity 7 - Matching prepositions

When you learn English vocabulary, there is more to learn about a word than just the meaning. For example, if it’s a verb, you’ll need to know the past tense before you can use it confidently.

Many English words - verbs and adjectives - match certain prepositions. For example, the word “indifferent” matches the preposition “to”. It’s worth spending some time practising this kind of collocation.

A quick and easy way to do this is to test yourself:

  1. Let’s say that you learn new vocabulary, from an article, like the ones on the BBC website.
  2. You will probably want to make a list of new vocabulary in your notebook.
  3. Keep an eye out for sentences like this: George was indifferent to attempts to get him to comply with the rules. If indifferent and comply are new words, note that they match particular prepositions.
  4. In your notebook, write down the new words with an asterisk (*) next to any that match certain prepositions.
  5. The next time you study, go back and see if you can remember which prepositions match. Write in the answers.
  6. Go back to the original article to check if you were right.

Tips:

  • Remember that there may be more than one preposition that matches a particular verb or adjective..
  • This page has a list of common adjectives/verbs and matching prepositions.

Skills: Vocabulary, prepositions
Tools: Various websites
Time: Medium
Effort Level: Medium

Activity 8 - Simple word challenge

Often, when scanning a text for new vocabulary, English learners skip the small words. These are words like get, come, do or put.

Everyone knows these simple, everyday words. However, in English, we often match these words with other words to create new meanings.

An example is phrasal verbs. Perhaps you skip over the phrasal verb pull off, because you already know the words “pull” and “off”. But did you know that pull off means “to achieve something difficult” (“pull off a bank robbery”).

Similarly, get is used in many interesting ways. Think about how people say, “get lost!” (go away!) or “get a move on” (hurry up!).

In our simple word challenge, the task is to force yourself to slow down and look more carefully at the words you might otherwise overlook:

  1. Choose an article that you can understand without too much difficulty. For example, The British Council has an online magazine with some interesting features.
  2. Search through the article, focusing on “simple words” and their collocations.
  3. Write down any that you find.
  4. Write out sentences with each one.
  5. Use a grammar checker to check your work.
  6. For “bonus points”, challenge yourself to use at least one of the phrases the next time you speak in English.

Skills: Vocabulary, grammar, reading, collocations
Tools: Various websites
Time: Medium
Effort Level: Medium

Hard or challenging activities

Activity 9 - The sales pitch

Advertisements are great for practising descriptive language. For example, BMW advertises its brand of car as “the ultimate driving machine”.

It’s fun to watch or read advertisements and analyse the language. Let’s turn this into an activity.

  1. Find a website that showcases advertisements, like this one.
  2. Choose an advertisement (in text or video format).
  3. Write down the descriptive words that you read or hear. Try to note down between 5-10 words.
  4. Use these words to write out an advertisement for a different product (or a different brand of the same product).
  5. Use a grammar checker to check that your sentences are correct.

Tips:

  • If the activity is too challenging, try listening multiple times or checking the script if it is available.

Skills: Vocabulary, listening, descriptive words, writing
Tools: Various websites, YouTube
Time: Medium
Effort Level: Hard

Activity 10 - Vocabulary deep dive

Often, you might learn a new word and then later discover that the most common meaning is not the one you learned.

Or you might learn a “new word” only to remember that you’ve come across the word before in a different form. For example, you learn the word “substantial” and you wonder if it must be related to the word “substance”, which you already know.

As your English proficiency improves, it is more important to see and explore these connections between words and meanings. How do you do that? With a vocabulary “deep dive”.

Here are my recommended steps:

  1. Take a word that you have recently learned from your vocabulary list. Let’s take the example “imminent”.
  2. Type define + word into Google (e.g. define imminent).
  3. Click more definitions and word origin.
  4. Here you can explore a fuller dataset. You’ll see all the different meanings. Imminent has an archaic meaning as well as a modern one.
  5. You can explore how widely used the word is. Interestingly, “imminent” became less popular in the 1950s and is now used more widely.
  6. You can explore the word roots. Imminent is from Latin, which means there are likely very close translations in French, Italian and Spanish.
  7. You can see a translation in your language of choice.
  8. Explore further with the Google search “imminent in a sentence” to see examples of how the word is used.
  9. Go to Google Ngrams to see how often the word is used in books, or compare it with other words.
  10. Search for “etymology of imminent” to learn about the history of the word.

Congratulations! You’re now a true word nerd!

Skills: Vocabulary
Tools: Google, various websites
Time: Long
Effort Level: Hard

Vocabulary is hard work!

With so many words out there, plus phrasal verbs, collocations and different meanings, learning vocabulary is hard work!

Fortunately, you have these ten activities to energise your vocabulary study.

Soon, your vocabulary notebook will fill up with wonderful and useful new words and expressions!

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