Active Vocabulary

Friendly classes in English as a foreign language

English Vocabulary

Speaking of English

Improving Your Active Vocabulary on Your Own

Writing by hand
Be a producer!

If you want to improve your active vocabulary, you need to practise the "productive skills", in other words, speaking and writing. The internet is full of resources that let you practise the "passive skills" (reading and listening); but if you want to practise your speaking, you really need a partner – preferably a native speaker or, at least, someone with a very good level of English.

Writing is also a valuable way of practising the productive skills. When you write something, you have words on a page, so it's easier to analyse any problems that you might have. You can write free-form texts about anything you like, but you really need to be able to get feedback on your writing to get the maximum value from it.

Be a great dictator!

There is another way of practising writing that can also be very useful, and that you can do without a partner: dictation. Your teacher probably made you do this when you were at school; he or she read a text and you had to write it down. In your native language, it was a way of improving your spelling and your punctuation. Well, it's also a useful way of practising a foreign language, because you have to listen and understand what you are hearing. But here's the important part: your brain has to think about how to convert what you hear into written words. How is that word written? Is it a verb or a noun? Is it singular or plural? Was that "travels" or "travelled"? Which word makes sense in this situation? Was that "who's" or "whose"? "Its" or "it's"? "His" or "he's"? "Lives" or "leaves"? "Have" or "has"? "Do" or "does"? "Go" or "goes"? And so on. Your brain has to think about English actively in order to write it correctly. The activity of listening and writing down what you hear has two effects: first, it makes you think about the details of the language, which makes you more likely to remember things; and second, you hear those language "chunks" over and over again, concentrating on them, which means that you are more likely to remember those chunks when you need them – just like a native speaker. But where can you find these dictation exercises?

DIY dictation

First, you can make them yourself! All you need is a microphone connected to your computer. An ordinary computer headset is just fine. If you haven't already got a program that allows you to record your own voice, I recommend Audacity. It's a freely downloadable program, which you can find at One advantage of making your own dictation audios is that the work of creating the audio is also good language practice – so you get extra value!

But if you want to save time, you are also welcome to download and use the sample dictation audios that I will be adding to this website from time to time. Keep coming back to check for the latest audios.

Walk before you run!

What texts should you use in order to create your dictation exercises? Well, why not choose texts about topics that are interesting for you, whether it's a hobby, music, films or politics?

But wait a minute! Unfortunately, we have to learn to walk before we can run. So, yes, try to find material that interests you, but don't choose something that is far above your current level of English. If the language is too advanced for you, you will find it very difficult to study and probably lose your motivation. Ideally, the text that you choose should be just a little above your present level. That way, it will 'stretch' you and train your brain's language skills, but it will still be fun. If you are patient, and choose simpler texts to begin with, you will soon find that your level increases and that you can start to study more-difficult – and, yes, more-interesting – texts.

Creating your dictation audio

How long should a dictation be? Don't make it too long. About 120 words is probably a good length, so that the dictation exercise doesn't take too long to complete. Also, you're more likely to remember words and phrases from the text if it isn't too long.

What should your dictation recording consist of? I suggest this structure:

  1. Read the full passage at normal speed;
  2. Read each "chunk" twice, allowing time for the chunk to be written down.
  3. Read the full passage again at normal speed.
First reading at normal speed

Here, you read the whole text at normal speed, without pausing. Later, when you are actually doing the dictation exercise, you will just listen to this section without writing anything; this listening gives you good idea of the context of the whole passage. (Remember, you might do this exercise a long time after you make the recording, so you might need this reminder of the contents.)

Second reading, in chunks

This is the part that you will use later for the actual writing practice. For this part, you need to break the passage up into short chunks of words; try to make the words in each chunk go logically together. For example, think of the chunks from our example sentence above: "Yesterday," "when I was travelling to work,", "I saw a strange man", "on the bus". For comparison, here is a bad way to divide the sentence into chunks, because the words in each chunk do not go logically together: "Yesterday, when I", "was travelling to", "work, I saw a", "strange man on the", "bus"!

Now that you have your chunks, read the first chunk slowly and clearly into the microphone. As you read, imagine yourself writing the words, and give yourself enough time to write the whole chunk. Read each chunk twice, and pause between each reading before going on to the next chunk. By using pauses in the recording in this way, you won't have to keep clicking on the pause button while you're doing the dictation exercise in order to give yourself enough time to write, which would be very inconvenient and distracting.

Try to vary the tone of your voice while you're reading. You can even exaggerate the changes in tone a little, as if you were reading a story to a child. Perhaps it feels a bit silly but it has two important objectives: firstly, it makes the material sound more interesting; but secondly, and more importantly, you're going to listen to this recording many times. You will find that the way you read the phrases, the different tones of your voice, will stay in your memory. The variations in your tone will help you to remember the phrases. Nobody else is going to listen to it (or are they?!), so you don't have to worry about feeling silly.

Third reading, again at normal speed

In the third part of your recording, just read the whole text again at normal speed. This will make it easier for you to read through your dictation exercise again and check for mistakes.

Sample dictation audio

I've made a sample dictation audio as an example that you can follow. Of course, you can do this as an actual dictation exercise, if you want! You can see the full text here, so you can check your work.

Using your dictation audios

When you've finished your dictation exercise, compare it carefully with the transcript to find your mistakes. Don't worry about them! Mistakes are good; mistakes are how we learn. (And I should know – I make lots) of mistakes!) For each mistake, think carefully about what went wrong. Was it just a simple spelling mistake, or was it a grammatical error? If it was a spelling mistake, make a note of the correct spelling and test yourself on it from time to time. If it was a grammatical error, did you just forget about that point of grammar during the dictation, or is it something you need to revise?

Most importantly, go back and repeat this dictation from time to time. That way, you keep the vocabulary fresh in your mind. Also very importantly, each time you hear the "chunks" of language from the dictation passage, it is more likely that your brain will remember the chunks as complete groups of words that you can use when you are speaking.

With a little time and effort, you'll build up a collection of home-made dictation exercises, full of super-useful chunks of language that you will soon be able to use for yourself almost without thinking about it. Do the exercises again from time to time, when you have a few spare minutes. They will start to sound so familiar to you that you will know what is coming next. Congratulations! You are adding very useful chunks to your active vocabulary!