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Studying vocabulary What is important

A mistake many learners make when starting to study new vocabulary is to translate every word and create big lists. By doing this, they are focusing solely on meaning. This is fine if all you need to do is understand the word when you encounter it in a reading text. But what if you want to use it in your writing? Or your speaking? Or understand it when you hear it? In that case, you need to study much more than just the meaning of the word.

What to study

What aspects of a word you study will depend on how you want to use it. If you want to use it in your writing, you will need to understand about:

If you want to use it when speaking, or understand it when you hear it, then you will also need to know:

Other aspects which are important are:

  • the word family, so that you can use it more flexibly in your writing or speaking (especially useful for paraphrasing)
  • how common the word is (you cannot study every single word!)
  • whether the word is an academic (formal) word or not

Each of these aspects of vocabulary is considered more fully, with examples, in the next section.


The following checklist summarises the information you need to know, and what skills they apply to (grey highlighting means it does not apply to that skill).

What to study Writing Reading Speaking Listening
Meaning. What does this word mean?
Spelling. How do you spell it?
Part of speech. Is it a noun, a verb, (both?), an adjective, etc.?
Usage. How do you use it in a sentence? Is it followed by -ing form verb, 'at', 'of', etc.?
Collocation. What other words commonly go with this word?
Pronunciation. How do you pronounce this word?
Word family. What are the noun, verb, adjective, adverb forms of this word?
Common/uncommon. Is it a common word/phrase?
Academic. Is it an academic (formal) word/phrase, or is it informal?

Next section

Read more about the features of vocabulary in the next section.

Previous section

Read the previous article about learning vocabulary.


Author: Sheldon Smith. Last modified: 03 March 2017.


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