Lost for Words

The Problem: New Words

You decide that you have the energy to study English and sit down to read a newspaper article or a book. Within minutes there are several words which you have not understood. Or maybe you are in class and you come across a new word. What do you do?

The Usual Solution

A lot of people tend to do one of two things: ignore or translate. Both of these strategies have their advantages. If you can understand the main idea of the sentence is it really that important that you don’t know a word? Not really I would say. Translation gives you the meaning in a quick and easy way. But what’s the disadvantage of translating? Well, often one word can have several meanings. Another problem is that context and surrounding words can give a word a particular meaning which you can’t find in the dictionary. Translation limits your learning and we want to do the opposite. Also what is the use of translating the word if you then can’t remember it?! Instead of using a bilingual dictionary, buy a monolingual learner dictionary e.g. Collins Cobuild Intermediate Dictionary or Macmillan Advanced Learners Dictionary.

Ten Tips

Here are ten suggestions to help you improve your vocabulary:

  1. Write the word in an example sentence (and check it with your teacher!).
  2. Write the word as part of a typical short phrase or expression, for example not just trip but go on a business trip.
  3. Think about the grammar of the word. Is it a verb or a noun etc.?
  4. Also think about the pronunciation. Think of words that rhyme or use phonemes if you know them. If your learner dictionary also has a CD ROM or you look online you will even be able to hear the words.
  5. Attach a drawing or a picture associated to the meaning.
  6. Think about using colour to reinforce the word or its meaning.
  7. Think of other words you know which have the same or very similar meanings.
  8. Find a word which has the opposite meaning.
  9. Think about other words with the same origin.
  10. Also think about words or phrases which could confuse, for example words from your own language which sound similar but have a different meaning.


Translating is OK but limiting. If you follow the tips above you can learn six or seven new words every time you come across a word or phrase that you don’t understand.

An Example

Please try the ten tips on the word heroic. Read below for the answer. The answer:

  1. He tried to save the girl from the fire. It was a heroic effort.
  2. a heroic effort; heroic battles
  3. to be heroic (adjective)
  4. heroic (3 syllables with the stress on ‘ro’ syllable);  /hɪˈʊɪk/
  5. It was a heroic effort
  6. It is similar to  brave or courageous (more formal)
  7. It is the opposite of cowardly
  8. Hero is the root word
  • A hero is the person – man or woman (noun).
  • A heroine is the woman – often to describe the lead character in a book.
  • Heroism is the characteristic (noun).
  • Heroically is the adverb e.g. He fought heroically. This depends on your language.

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