Active Vocabulary

Friendly classes in English as a foreign language

English Vocabulary

Speaking of English

Building Vocabulary

His Master's Voice: listening practice!

My students very often ask, "What's the best way to learn vocabulary?" Sometimes the question is more specific: "I work hard to learn new vocabulary, but the new words don't stay in my memory. What can I do?" It's a difficult question to answer, because different people's minds work in different ways, so a method that works for one person doesn't necessarily work for another.

What are your interests?

But it's safe to say that we're more likely to remember things that are connected with topics that we are really interested in, whether that means bicycles, baskets or Batman. One problem for English teachers like me is finding interesting texts for students to read and study. A text about global warming that one student might find absolutely fascinating can be complete boredom to another. And if a text bores us, it's unlikely that we'll remember much of it when we've finished with it.

So here's a thought: don't wait to see if your English teacher can find material that interests you. Find your own! Do you like photography? Read about that. Does football light your fire? There's no shortage of soccer-related material. Do you spend your free moments dreaming of travelling to exotic places? Why not read about them all in English? Detective stories? You have everything from Father Brown to Philip Marlowe to Hercule Poirot to John Rebus. But do make sure that it's not too difficult. Start with something quite simple. You can move to more advanced texts very soon!

But how can you use the material to expand your knowledge of vocabulary and expressions?

How do you use texts to build your vocabulary?

The traditional way is to look up every new word in the dictionary, and make a list of all the English words and their equivalents in your language. Later, you go back to your list and test yourself, until you have memorised all the new vocabulary and expressions. I've used this method, and it works! But there are one or two disadvantages of working this way.

The most important disadvantage is that you don't know which new words are common – and useful – and which are rare. So you might spend a lot of time learning words that are not so useful to you in everyday life.

Another disadvantage is that learning vocabulary in simple pairs (English word = non-English word) is difficult and rather inefficient. It's easier for some people than for others; if your brain is very good with text, this system might not be so difficult for you. But it's still inefficient. Why?

Let's think in chunks!

When they are talking, native speakers (of English, or any other language) don't think in single words; they think in chunks of words. Let me give you an example. Let's imagine I want to tell you about an unusual person that I saw when I was travelling to work by bus. What words do I need? Let's try these: "yesterday", "go", "work", "see", "strange", "man", "bus". OK, so I can just put all these words together to make a grammatically correct sentence that tells you all the necessary information. Using my knowledge of English grammar, I can build a sentence as follows: "Yesterday, when I was travelling to work, I saw a strange man on the bus." And – you know what? – it works! It's a correct sentence. So, where's the problem?

Well, remember that we are having a conversation. While I am choosing the right words and putting them together according to the rules of grammar, you are waiting for me to say something! I know this, but I have a lot to think about all at the same time: vocabulary, grammar, phrasal verbs, idioms … oh! and let's not forget that I also have to decide exactly what I want to say to you! So, I try to say something quickly, and I probably make mistakes. I needed more time to produce a correct statement.

But that's not even what native speakers do! How would a native speaker decide how to tell you about the strange guy on the bus? They think in chunks, or blocks, of words. So, instead of thinking of the words "yesterday", "go", "work", "see", "strange", "man", "bus", a native speaker thinks of: "yesterday", "I was travelling", "to work", "I saw", "a strange man", "on the bus". These phrases are already familiar. And now it takes much less time to put them together to make a sentence. And not only that! They are already correct! The speaker doesn't have to work so hard to think about correct grammar.

What can we learn from this? Simply this: instead of making lists of single words, write short sentences that show the meaning of each word, and study these. If you need to find some more examples of correct sentences, try looking for the word in online dictionaries, such as and They often give examples.

Be active!

There is another difficulty when learning vocabulary. It's the difference between "passive vocabulary" and "active vocabulary". What do these terms mean? Passive vocabulary is the words that you recognise and understand when you read them or hear them. Active vocabulary is the words that you use yourself in your speech and writing. We all understand a certain number of words when we see or hear them, but the number of words that we can remember when we want to speak is smaller. That is, our active vocabulary is always smaller than our passive vocabulary – sometimes much smaller!

When we make lists of words from a book, a story or an article, and memorise them, we are expanding our passive vocabulary. This is great and useful, but you will often find that you still can't bring these words into your mind and use them when you're speaking. This is because the mental process of listening and understanding is very different from the process of speaking. And this is why, even though we may have a fantastic store of interesting and useful words in our brains, we can still find it very difficult to speak! What we need to do is activities that help to copy these words from our passive vocabulary to our active vocabulary, where we can access them much more quickly and easily. What activities are those? Well, practice, practice and practice. Practice works for your brain like oil for a bicycle; it makes everything go more smoothly and with less effort.

Good, old-fashioned talking is the best practice

I know what you're thinking: oh yes, that's easy for this guy to say – but to practise speaking, I need to have someone to talk to. And, of course, you're right! These days, the internet has many, many resources that you can use to practise passive skills, such as reading and listening; but practising the active skills – speaking and writing – is not so easy. By far the best way to practise active skills is to have conversations – preferably about topics that interest you, and with people whose level of English is good. The good news is that even this is possible on the internet; for example, you can find people to talk to on The bad news is that it may take time to find someone suitable; unfortunately, the internet is full of people with all kinds of different reasons for being there, and you need to be careful who you talk to, and what information you give them. And many people who claim to speak English don't in fact speak the language well – even some native speakers! Finding a professional native-English teacher, on for example, is a good option. It may not be free, but it's usually effective.

Even without a language partner to practise speaking with, there are some things you can do to oil that brain and get it working more smoothly.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall …

Talk to yourself! Some people say that talking to yourself is a sign of madness. I don't agree; I do it all the time! Anyway, don't worry about what other people say; you'll "have the last laugh", as we say, when you're speaking English super-fluently! Try this: read a story, or a chapter of a book, or an interesting article – not too long, ideally. Now, imagine you're going to tell someone else all about this text. Take some time to make a note of any interesting words and phrases that you might need in order to talk about the text.

Next, with your notes in your hand, stand in front of a mirror, look yourself in the eye, and tell the story of the text you've just read. Try not to look at your notes, unless it's really necessary. Try to speak confidently. If you're not sure how to express something, check your notes. If you're still not sure, make a note of the problem; later, you can go back and look at the text to help you. When you finish your "story", if you had to look at your notes, tell the story again, and see if you can do it without looking at the notes.

That's great. The only problem is that tomorrow, you probably won't remember everything you learned today. So tomorrow … tell yourself the story again, with the same text! And again three days later; and again ten days later; and again a month later. This will help to transfer the new material into your long-term memory.


The best way to build your active vocabulary is simply to practise speaking. And the best kind of speaking for this purpose is using English for some real purpose of communication, such as in a work environment or some other situation where communicating really matters and is important to you. It's the best way to fix the language structures into your brain.

But, of course, this isn't usually an option for most students. So, the next-best solution is to talk to native or advanced speakers. If there is a language club near you, perhaps one that meets every week to practise English as a group, this can work.

Next, there is talking online. There are resources, such as italki, where you can do this. You may need to choose carefully who to talk to, because it's best to practise with someone who has a good level of English.

You might also like to try dictation as a technique for improving your active vocabulary. Have a look here for more information.