Vocabulary is often overlooked by those who don’t write. As well as improving your quality of written work, whether that is school and college essays or novels and poems, extending your vocabulary will also improve your confidence with spoken language and day-to-day conversations.
No matter your age or occupation, you should always seek ways to extend your back-catalogue of words.
What is a vocabulary?
Your vocabulary (or wordstock) is a set of words that you are familiar with. A vocabulary may also be specific to a particular field of knowledge. For example, a scientist will have a set of words they use every day that the general public won’t necessarily be familiar with; most adults have a vocabulary range of 20,000 to 35,000 words that they can actively use, read and understand[i].
Vocabulary can be split into three tiers[ii]:
Tier 1: Basic, everyday words most children will understand and use before reaching school age. These are words like ‘girl’, ‘swim’ and ‘cold’.
Tier 2: Words that aren’t used often and are usually only learned when there is a specific need to know them, e.g., if taking a science lesson, a child will learn the word ‘photosynthesis.’
Tier 3: Some words are used more often in written text than conversation but can be applied to many different settings. These are words like ‘auspicious,’ ‘articulate,’ and ‘summarise.’
Although the tiers are useful when it comes to understanding the development of one’s vocabulary and how advanced it is, educators tend to split the language into four groups:
- Listening vocabulary – words you know that help you understand what you hear
- Speaking vocabulary – words you’re able to say within the context of a sentence
- Reading vocabulary – terms you need to know to understand what you read; generally, you need to understand 95% of words in a text to read it effectively
- Writing vocabulary – this includes the words we use within our writing
Why your vocabulary is important
Throughout your life, your vocabulary is one of the essential tools in your communication toolbox. Without knowing it, you unconsciously use it for all aspects of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. These are the core reasons for its importance[iii]:
- helps you to communicate your thoughts and ideas in a way that people understand.
- It improves your reading comprehension or your level of understanding of what you are reading.
- A broad vocabulary increases your chance of success within your working life.
- You can better express yourself through writing when you have a substantial vocabulary.
How does the vocabulary develop?
Vocabulary generally grows as you age. As a child, the extent of your vocabulary will depend on many factors such as how you are socialised, the people you grow up around, the level of education you receive, and what you read and watch on TV.
Children will begin to form proper words around 12 months into their lives, and from there, they will always be trying and learning new words. Depending on the circumstances in which they grow up, children can learn anything from 750 to a massive 3000 words per year[iv].
By the time a child is 6, they will be able to use 2,600 words in speech and understand 20,000 to 24,000 words. This can grow to about 50,000 words by the time they are 12[v].
How to tell if you have a weak vocabulary
A ‘weak’ vocabulary is where someone doesn’t understand or use as many words as most people within their age group. A delay in vocabulary growth can happen for many reasons, and it’s easier to spot in others than it would be to spot within yourself.
If someone has a weak vocabulary, they may experience the following.
- Feeling confused after reading a book or piece of text – they often do not understand what they’ve just read.
- Misinterpreting messages from friends or important letters.
- Misusing common words or using the wrong word to describe something.
- Frustration when having a conversation because the other person doesn’t quite get the point they’re trying to make.
- A lack of confidence with conversation, letter writing and public speaking.
- Feeling unable to get involved in politics or to express their opinion on a political matter openly. Although they know what they think or feel, they worry people could perceive their inability to get their point across effectively as ‘stupidity’.
Improving your vocabulary
Adults will learn one new word a day until they reach middle age, where natural vocabulary growth tends to stop [vi]. However, no matter what age you are, you can improve and grow your vocabulary if you take active steps. We’ve compiled a list of techniques that will help you to strengthen your vocabulary to improve your writing, reading, speaking, and listening skills across the board.
Play word games
This is an easy and fun way to absorb new words. You could play traditional word games like Scrabble, take time to complete the crossword in the daily newspaper, or download a few apps on your phone that you can play when you have a spare 5 minutes. This will get the cogs in your brain turning.
Learn a new word every day
Make it a challenge to learn a new word every day and try to use it at least five times within conversation. Repetition is one of the best ways to add a word to your vocabulary as it helps your brain recall it in the future. There are dozens of resources to help you pick a new word, but here are a couple of our favourites:
- Merriam-Webster – Word of the Day
- Oxford Dictionary – Word of the Day Email Service (This one you have to sign up to, but all links work)
- com – Word of the Day
Alternatively, pick up a dictionary or thesaurus, flip it to a random page and pick your word. The more difficult it is, the better!
This may seem simple enough, but reading daily can be difficult if you haven’t read regularly since your school days. Reading will help you to not only pick up new words but to understand how they’re used in context.
You don’t have to start off reading long, compilated novels. Take it step by step, start reading magazines, newspapers, and progress to books you think you’ll enjoy (this could be on a topic you like or even a celebrity’s autobiography).
Refer to the dictionary or thesaurus
If you find yourself struggling to understand words often, keep a dictionary on hand. Although it may be easier to Google it, leafing through the pages of a dictionary to find the meaning of a word will help you commit it to your memory.
Do the same if you’ve noticed you use a word or a set of words too often in emails or messages; could you use more exciting language instead?
Take an online course
School may seem like it was a lifetime ago, but if you re-visit English in a learning capacity, it will accelerate your vocabulary growth. There are hundreds of English courses online if you don’t want to go to a college or learning centre, from subject-specific lessons to English GCSE courses.
Use new words in writing
While completing the activities above, start a list of new words you have learned. At the end of the day or week, sit down and write something that includes all of these words. This is another excellent technique that will help your memory recall of the word, and who knows – it might spark a passion for writing.
It’s never too late to grow your vocabulary
Whichever way you decide to get started, make sure you take it a step at a time. In a few months, you’re sure to notice a difference in your confidence with conversation and the variety of words you use daily.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G. & Kucan, L., n.d. BRINGING WORDS TO LIFE. [Online] Available at: https://bep.education/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Bringing-Words-to-Life-Booklet.pdf [Accessed February 2021].
Huld, L., n.d. How Many Words Does the Average Person Know?. [Online] Available at: https://wordcounter.io/blog/how-many-words-does-the-average-person-know/ [Accessed February 2021].
Loraine, S., 2008. Vocabulary Development. [Online] Available at: https://www.superduperinc.com/handouts/pdf/149_VocabularyDevelopment.pdf [Accessed 2021].
Merriam-Webster, n.d. vocabulary. [Online] Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vocabulary [Accessed February 2021].
R.L.G, 2013. Lexical facts. [Online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/johnson/2013/05/29/lexical-facts [Accessed February 2021].
Seifert, D., 2016. Top 5 Reasons Why Vocabulary Matters. [Online] Available at: https://infercabulary.com/top-5-reasons-why-vocabulary-matters/ [Accessed February 2021].
Sprenger, M., 2013. Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core. [Online] Available at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/113040/chapters/What-Does-the-Research-Say-About-Vocabulary%C2%A2.aspx [Accessed February 2021].