Building your vocabulary is an essential part of learning a language.
Research shows that vocabulary size is one of the most reliable indicators of overall language level. So how can you make the best use of your time and effort when learning vocabulary?
How do I choose the words to learn?
This is where word lists come in. It’s important to realize that some words are just much more useful than others. This is because they occur much more frequently, so you are likely to meet them again and again when you are reading or listening. Time spent learning these words will really increase both your understanding and your fluency. To know which words these are, use Oxford Learner’s Word Lists at www.oxford3000.com. There are two main lists: the Oxford 3000 covers the most important words from A1 (beginner) level up to B2 (upper-intermediate) level. The Oxford 5000 contains 2,000 more words for upper-intermediate and advanced learners (B2-C1).
Other words – in fact, most words – are much less frequent. You will want to learn some of these too, but you need to pick and choose. Don’t expect to learn every unfamiliar word that you meet. Choose these words according to your own particular needs and interests.
How do I find words at the right level?
Our main word list, the Oxford 3000, contains (obviously!) the 3,000 most important words to learn in English. But 3,000 words is still a lot of words! If you are reading this blog, you are probably not a complete beginner, but are you A2 (pre-intermediate), B1 (intermediate) or B2 (upper-intermediate) or above? Go to www.oxford3000.com, choose the Oxford 3000 and filter on one of these levels. Take a section of the list, scroll down and tick off the words:
⎷⎷I know this word.
⎷I recognize this word but I am not exactly sure what it means.
? This word is new for me.
If you get mostly ⎷⎷words, go up a level. If you get mostly ?, try one level lower. If you are getting a mixture of all three, then this is probably the right level for you. Concentrate on the ⎷words first, before moving on to the ? words.
How can I learn the words?
Little and often
Set aside some time every week or, better still, every day to study vocabulary. 15 minutes a day is more effective than 2 hours in one great chunk.
Learn words in context
Words are much more meaningful – and therefore much more memorable – if you meet them in context, not just in a list. So don’t just learn the word and its translation. Look at the entry in Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online and study the example sentences, which show you how the word is actually used. Choose one that seems useful to you and add it to the entry that you have just created in your vocabulary notebook.
Keep a vocabulary notebook
This can be a physical notebook or one you create electronically. Note down the word, its meaning and one or two example sentences. Look out for this word when you are reading and return to your notebook entry to add further notes – for example, what preposition do you use it with? – as you learn more about it.
Revise and recycle
Review your vocabulary notebook on a regular basis. Set yourself a target list of words to learn each week – maybe three per day. At the end of the week, test yourself. Tick off the words that you feel you have learned. The ones you have not securely learned get recycled into next week’s list.
Test yourself again on all the words at the end of the month. Don’t just say the words but write them down, preferably in a sentence. If you have Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries premium access, you can use the My Word Lists feature to create lists of words and test yourself on their meanings. And look out for other vocabulary-related posts on Learning English with Oxford. Many contain fun quizzes such as this one on words related to culture in the Oxford 3000
Take a look at our full range of Oxford Learner’s Word Lists to build your vocabulary, graded by CEFR level:
Oxford 3000 and Oxford 5000 – the most important words to learn in English.
OPAL (Oxford Phrasal Academic Lexicon) – the essential vocabulary for academic writing and speaking.
Oxford Phrase List – the most important phrases to learn in English.
Topic dictionaries – build your topic vocabulary with our mini-dictionaries.
Diana Lea taught English to learners and trainee teachers in Czechoslovakia, Poland and the UK before joining Oxford University Press in 1994, where she works in the English Language Teaching Division on dictionaries and other vocabulary resources for learners of English. She is the editor of the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English. Most recently she has been working on Oxford Learner’s Word Lists and preparing the tenth edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, published in January 2020.