12 learning vocabulary challenges

12 learning vocabulary challenges

A dozen motivating and realistic targets to help you improve your knowledge of words and phrases

Vocabulary is much more important than grammar in production and (especially) comprehension of English, but it can seem overwhelming because of how many useful words and phrases there are to learn. This article gives a dozen targets to set yourself to make learning vocabulary both manageable and motivating, with optional numbers given in brackets () to help you set your own ambitious but realistic goals.


Learn (ten) words from reading every day

Aiming to learn a certain number of words from written texts will provide a useful amount of new vocabulary in the kind of context that makes it easy to learn. In addition, it will mean that you can read more and more every day as your knowledge of vocabulary increases, and that you will be able to reach the same goal either by reading a lot of easy text or with a little bit of more difficult reading.


Learn (five) words from subtitles every day

It is very useful to naturally work out new vocabulary from context while you watch English movies and TV series for pleasure. However, it is sometimes good to pause the video to look up vocabulary such as words which have been repeated, words which are important to know what is going on in the story, and words which you have studied before but can’t remember.


Use up one set of flashcards per week

One of the most demotivating parts of learning vocabulary is that the lists of things to learn can get longer and longer and longer. You should therefore aim to reach a goal, throw that list away, then start again with a new set of words to learn. One way to do this is to buy or make a set of small paper flashcards, use those to learn thirty to fifty vocabulary items, tear off each card as you are sure you know that vocabulary now, then start again with another set of blank flashcards when that set has been used up.


Learn two pages of new vocabulary every week

This can be done by ticking off the vocabulary that you now know, and crossing that item off the list when you have done so four times. When most of the vocabulary has been crossed off of that page, any vocabulary that still needs more memorisation can be transferred to the next page, and that old page can be thrown away.


Use a new word or phrase every day

Choose one of the vocabulary items that you have been studying and which could be useful in your English communication, and try to use it in writing and/ or speaking in the next 24 hours. For example, you could choose one of the idioms that you heard in a podcast and try to use it in your next English class or in one of your English emails. Then pick another vocabulary item and try to do the same.


Five new words and phrases in every piece of writing

After you finish a Cambridge Advanced review, TOEFL essay, etc, check how many vocabulary items you have put in that you have never tried to use before. Then use a dictionary to add more new vocabulary so that you can really expand your range of English.


Learn a whole list of vocabulary (in a month)

Useful lists of vocabulary to learn include the dictionary at the back of phrasebooks, the GSL (General Service List of the 500 most common words in English), Academic Word List of common academic words which are not in the GSL, lists of trends language for IELTS Writing Task 1, and lists of vocabulary related to your work such as the most important English HR words and phrases.


Review (twenty) dictionary entries every day

If you can’t make a list or flashcards to learn vocabulary from (for example because you are standing on a train), you can use the memory function on a dictionary app or an electronic dictionary to look back at words and phrases that have been worth looking up recently. Some websites also automatically display your recent searches (if you allow cookies), or you could scan your recent browser history for times you searched for vocabulary meanings.


More English-English dictionary use every week/ Almost all English-English dictionary use within a year

Advantages of an English-English dictionary include better explanations of words that don’t translate well into other languages, other useful English words and expressions in the dictionary definitions and example sentences, giving a good example of how to explain vocabulary that the other person doesn’t understand, and hopefully eventually leading to less translating in your head and so faster use of English.


Less translation on your vocabulary lists every week/ Almost all English on your vocabulary lists within a year

This has similar advantages to the English-English dictionary tip above. It can be done by using English definitions, gapped sentences, synonyms, opposites, etc on your vocabulary lists or flashcards (instead of using translations).


Stop making one vocabulary mistake for a week

It is very difficult to work on every vocabulary error that you could make. Instead of that, you could choose one particular problem you have such as always saying “put off my clothes” or confusing some false friends. After trying to avoid that mistake for seven days, you can choose another common mistake to do the same thing with.


Improve your vocabulary test score by ten percent

There are exam tasks such as Cambridge Use of English Part One that your test your understanding of the meaning of words and/ or their collocations, so these can be a very useful source of new vocabulary. In addition, you can check your progress through the score that you get after you check your answers. Although this mark will obviously fluctuate somewhat, you should see the average score creeping up over the weeks and months. If not, it might be a sign that you should use different tips from above.

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word: