Learning English vocabulary problems and solutions

Learning English vocabulary problems and solutions

11 practical ways to solve typical issues with memorising and using English words and phrases

Learning vocabulary is perhaps the most important part of improving your ability to understand and produce English. This article gives solutions to eleven of the most common problems people have with learning English words and expressions.

I’m not sure which vocabulary I should learn

Vocabulary which is probably not worth learning includes words starting with capital letters, words and expressions which are defined in the text, and vocabulary which is not in a dictionary which is designed for people of your level, e.g. that not in a “learner’s dictionary” if you are about Intermediate level/ B1 level. The last of those tips means that a paper dictionary is still very useful, because the internet will define everything that you try to look up and so not filter out the less useful things to learn. Paper dictionaries also often have a system to show which words are really important to learn such as dark blue text for the 500 most common words in English.

You can also make the vocabulary that you come across more likely to be useful by using mainly materials which are written especially for people of your level, e.g. reading Level 2 graded readers if you are Elementary level.


I can’t remember vocabulary that I know I looked up before

You need some kind of system for reviewing the vocabulary at least three or four times such as checking what things you looked up before (with an electronic dictionary memory button, etc), making a list of vocabulary to learn, using flashcards, or using a flashcard app.


I’ve forgotten vocabulary which I memorised before

There is no good system for revising vocabulary which you learnt last month, last year, etc. Instead, you should make sure that you do lots of other listening to and (especially) reading English in order to see the same vocabulary again before you completely forget it. You can also make coming across the same words more likely by choosing similar things to read and listen to, e.g. watching a whole drama series, reading the same genre of book, or reading something by the same author.

If you find that the similar and/ or graded materials have vocabulary which you know you learnt before but have now forgotten, add it to your vocabulary list but do so in a different way to last time, preferably in a more challenging way. For example, if you only tried to learn the meaning last time, this time put the definition or translation into L1 and try to remember what the English word or expression is.


I have too much vocabulary to learn/ My vocabulary list is too long

First of all, you need a system of learning vocabulary in which the words and expressions which you have learnt come off the list of vocabulary to learn. For example, you could dispose of vocabulary flashcards when you have successfully remembered them four times in a row. If the list of vocabulary still gets too long, you can sometimes throw away the whole set of vocabulary to learn and start again. You then need to make sure that you do lots more English listening and particularly reading so that it comes around again without the need for longer lists.

You can also make sure that not too much goes on the list in the first place. For example, you could read a graded reader until you have looked up ten vocabulary items (instead of stopping after a certain number of pages or after ten minutes), then try again the next day.


I never look at my vocabulary lists

The tips above should help with this, as ticking things off makes the process of looking at lists more dynamic and so motivating, and it should never become so long that it puts you off.


I get bored if I stop to look up what vocabulary means

Even if this doesn’t bore you, it’s best not to stop every time that there is something you don’t know in a graded reader, English subtitles of the movie that you are watching, etc. Instead, underline or note down the vocabulary while you are reading or listening, then stop after a page, after five minutes, after a chapter, after you have ten things that you want to look up, etc. You can then spend a few minutes with a dictionary before you carry on.


It's difficult to learn phrasal verbs

There are two opposite approaches which can both help with phrasal verbs. The first is to not panic and just treat “get on with” and “run up debts” just like any other piece of vocabulary, remembering that you know “look after my dog” without ever worrying about it being a multiword verb.

The opposite approach is to spend a bit of time learning what some phrasal verbs have in common, e.g. that many with “up” have a connecting to fully completing something.


I want to avoid translation, but I’m not sure how to learn vocabulary without it

Ways of using a list of vocabulary to learn without (too much) of your own language include definitions, gapped example sentences, synonyms, opposites, and wrong collocations such as idioms to correct. Using an English-English dictionary can help coming up with such things. However, don’t be shy about sometimes using L1 if that is the easiest way of writing what something really means.


I find it hard to use an English-English dictionary

First of all, you need to find a dictionary that is suitable for your level, e.g. an “elementary learner’s dictionary” if you are A1 level or A2 level. Make sure that you read the introduction to the dictionary when you buy it, as that will explain the symbols etc that will make the dictionary easier to understand and more useful. It may be useful to photocopy such guides at the front of the dictionary so that you can easily check what things mean as you look vocabulary up. Also, don’t be shy about using a bilingual dictionary when you need to, e.g. using an English-French dictionary if you can’t understand an English definition.


Most of the things that I don’t understand are not in a dictionary

This may be a sign that you are reading something that is too difficult. However, it may be that your vocabulary is getting good enough that cultural knowledge is becoming more of a problem, in which case you can use a simple encyclopaedia alongside a paper dictionary. For example, by my second year in Spain I had both a dictionary and Spanish encyclopaedia for teens next to my bed.


I can’t use the vocabulary that I know when I speak

This is natural, and can be seen in young children who understand hundreds of words but can produce few or even no words. Ways to speed up the process include firstly trying to use such vocabulary in writing such as diary entries, asking a private teacher or conversation partner to cover topics related to vocabulary that you have recently learnt, and choosing one or two of your recent vocabulary items to try to use in conversation in the next few days.

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word: