… and do this instead
Many English students rely on these huge great book stuffed full of lists of English words. It is just the worst way to learn new vocabulary.
In the following article, I outline why it is a waste of time and what English students should do to improve their English vocabulary.
Learn 1000 new words every day!
The essential list of English words!
3000 words you need right now!!!
You must have seen these slogans. On YouTube videos, on blogs… and on the cover of those awful vocabulary books.
Who dreams this stuff up?
It is impossible for the human brain to absorb that much new information in a short space of time. No one can learn 1000 new words in a day. Please don’t believe all the lies these people tell you.
They are like snake oil salesmen in one of those old travelling sideshows.
Whatever happened to doing something the good old-fashioned way? You know, through a certain amount of hard work and commitment and dedication.
But people want short-cuts….
I don’t want to do any work. I just want the magic pill that gives me everything I want right now.
It ain’t gonna happen, chum.
If you want your English vocabulary to improve, to expand, then you need to do some work.
Do not expect to learn 1000 words a day. It will be much less than that. But do expect that over time your vocabulary will get better, bigger and bolder.
Let’s dive in, young warriors!
Get Rid of the Lists
I’ve said this before many times. I have lost count of the times I have seen students — on the subway, in a quiet classroom, in McDonald’s — a look of sheer stress on their face and their head buried in a huge book.
On the cover: All the English words you need to know.
And inside the book — 400 pages of lists. Lists of words with little context, a very basic definition and nothing else.
What use is that to any student of English?
I have a real personal vendetta against the publishers of these books. They are just preying on the needs of English students. They know they have a big test coming up, or they are under strict authority to improve their English. So they buy these stupid books with the impression it will magically help them.
Newsflash: These books will not help you.
The problem with these massive books with lists of words is that they provide very little context. You never really learn the true meaning of the words.
Because English words can be tricky…
The Weird World of English Words
Take a word like jam.
Many people associate the word with a sweet, sticky substance made from fruit we put on toast in the morning for breakfast. But for many other people — car drivers especially — it means a long line of traffic that has them pulling their own hair out.
It could also mean you are having a lot of pressure at work — I’m in a real jam at the moment.
I suppose the last meaning comes from the second meaning but the point is the English language isn’t as simple as it may look.
And this is where books filled with lists of vocabulary fail.
They have very little context and so we may have only one meaning — or even the wrong meaning.
You read a sentence that says: No way I’m gonna get through this jam in time for work.
And you might have an entirely different understanding.
The English language uses words the same way that a jazz musician uses his piano.
I could use this note, but then again I could easily play this one or this one, or all of these ones here.
And every version is right.
Still with me?
Reading books is the best thing you can do to improve your English vocabulary
Let me say that again so we’re all clear: Reading books is the best thing you can do to improve your English vocabulary.
But few students want to do this.
Reading? Reading books? What are you, a sadist?
They associate reading with work, with homework, with studying and assignments and all the other un-fun stuff that teachers hand out with a look of malicious glee.
But the fact is, books really are the best way to expand your vocabulary at a rocket rate.
All the time you spend gazing at lists of words on the bus on your way home from school or university could be spent reading something you actually enjoy. Reading something you want to read because it is interesting or engaging or funny.
Now you are reading in context. Now you are seeing English words used exactly as they should be used in a sentence. And not just once, but again and again and again.
So you read a book about a taxi driver who witnesses a murder. You will read many phrases where English words are used in connection to driving a taxi.
I picked up this fare
I pulled over to the curb
The guy paid the flat rate, no tip
Three drunk guys got in the back, giving me the usual lip
I saw as the woman pulled out a weapon
She pulled the trigger three times
Gunshots rang out across the street blending with car horns, the screech of tires, people laughing and shouting
The look of fear — and hate — scrawled across her pale face
And you are not reading some simplistic, puerile ESL-style sentence. You are reading much more complex sentence structures and uses of words. The kind of English you just don’t see in any Big List of English Words.
So my advice to you is to throw out your vocabulary books.
They just don’t really help you that much — if at all.
Read other books. Read novels or reference books or biographies or memoirs. Read cookery books or books about making furniture.
Whatever your interest or whatever you like to read — that is what you should read.
If you want to see huge improvements in your English vocabulary, this is the best way to do it.