Tip 3: Learn Words and Expressions in Context
Learning in Context
Learning long vocabulary lists is fine if you enjoy doing it; however, it takes a lot of time and effort and can get boring after a while. Make it easier on yourself by learning words in context whenever possible.
There is a reason language textbooks generally introduce vocabulary in dialogs or reading passages rather than word lists. The authors present the new words in context so students see how words are actually used in the language.
In addition, you are more likely to remember words you learned in context. In fact, you can even understand words you have never seen because you can get their meaning from the context.
When you read or hear new words in context, you can figure out their meanings, know how they are used, and remember them more easily later.
Where to Find Vocabulary in Context
You can find vocabulary in context through active and passive engagement. Opportunities for active learning engagement are those in which you use vocabulary yourself. In passive engagement, you are exposed to the vocabulary others use. Here are some ways to find vocabulary used in context:
Generally passive engagement
- Studying your language textbook or any textbooks you choose to use;
- Reading materials you choose (web sites, blogs, novels, the news, and so on);
- Watching materials you choose (movies, documentaries, the news on TV, YouTube videos, and so on);
- Listening to materials you choose (podcasts, talk radio, music, and so on);
Generally active engagement
- Speaking about a variety of topics, paying attention to the vocabulary people use, and trying to use the new vocabulary yourself when the opportunity presents itself.
- Writing about topics you choose whenever possible (e.g., keeping a journal, writing a blog, creating short stories, using social media platforms, and so on). Make sure you use the words you are learning and look up words you do not know to express your ideas accurately.
- (Whatever you do, just make sure focus on communicating your ideas as well as you can; do not get obsessed with vocabulary.)
Nothing is always completely active or completely passive. For example, you can not only passively listen to a podcast but also engage actively by
- taking notes,
- writing down sentences using words you did not know,
- summarizing the information in writing,
- discussin the content with others,
- and so on.
Snap Language (and Snap Language Learner) is building a collection of materials for English-language learners. Take a look at our reading materials and YouTube videos. They can be a good source of activities to engage in the language learning process.
Vocabulary as Expressions
You can learn some simple words by themselves (for example, dog, storm, or desk). However, words are usually part of expressions or phrases.
For example, you should learn the verb “prevent” and the noun “interest” the way they are used:
to prevent something from happening
an interest in something or someone.
Then you can create sentences such as these:
Bad weather prevented us from having the concert outdoors.
How can we prevent young people from losing interest in math and science?
When learning words that are parts of expressions such as those above, you should always learn the whole construction. Likewise when you learn a new adjective, learn its comparative and superlative forms; when you learn a new noun, learn its singular and plural form and any prepositions that go with it; and so on.
You can usually find this type of information in a good dictionary, which should include examples of how to use the word in context. (We will discuss that in Tip 5 later.)