Read a book.

“How can I increase my vocabulary,” is a frequently-asked-question for English as a Second Language teachers, along with “how can I get better at grammar?” For my part, the answer to both questions is one and the same: read a book. Throughout my career as an English teacher, I’ve observed that students who excel at expressing themselves in both written and spoken language are invariably the readers. Of course there are countless internet-based resources with both online exercises and printable worksheets, but how truly effective are they? The third method described by Bo Lundahl as “deliberate/intentional vocabulary learning”[1] is the most straightforward method, as one simply, “[studies] words and phrases and [tries] to learn them.“ (Lundahl 2012: 338) This was the method used when I was in high school. We were required to buy a vocabulary book containing lists of words that we were expected to memorize the spelling, definitions, and the usage of, and which we would be tested on every week. It was an unreservedly and relentlessly dull way to learn the vocabulary we needed to know for the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).[2] These were words like microcosm, demonstrative, problematize and other words that are almost never used outside of academia and which we would forget one nanosecond after the exam was over.

Leo Van Lier would certainly agree that this deliberate/intentional method is an inauthentic (read: unnatural) way of learning vocabulary. In his chapter concerning authenticity, Van Lier clarifies that in order for the classroom to “become more ‘natural,’ [it] must try to be less like a classroom, and more like some other place.” (Van Lier 1996: 123) What, then, would be considered an authentic way of learning vocabulary? The answer is, once again, read a book. Read books written in English. Read them in some other place besides the classroom and read them often. The more you see the English language written in its correct form, with correct spelling, usage, and context, the better you will get at both English vocabulary and English grammar. Adding listening into the mix incorporates the elements of pronunciation and intonation, leading further to total mastery of the language. This is Lundahl’s number one vocabulary learning method, described as “listening and reading when the focus is on the content (learning vocabulary from meaning-focused input).” (Lundahl 2012: 338) Using text-to-speech while simultaneously reading a text is the way I personally read online Swedish texts. (Unfortunately, this method does not work very well with printed books.)

Lundahl’s second method of learning vocabulary is described as “talking and writing when the focus is on the content (learning vocabulary from meaning-focused output)” (Lundahl 2012: 338). In other words, this is a dialectical/discussion based method of learning new vocabulary and concepts. The teaching methodology I trained in originally focused on this kind of learning, so I used this method extensively during my first years of teaching undergraduates. I would assign the students a text, for which we would have a guided discussion during lessons. After a couple of weeks of this process, the students would write a short argumentative paper relating to the topics we had covered. Inciting critical thinking skills was a part of the curriculum so this method served that requirement well. Of course these students were all native speakers at the university level, so it is important to keep in mind that this method is perhaps a little too advanced for younger students. However, I have used this method with great success in more advanced levels. (English C/D/E and English 7) It really stimulates and engages the students and gets them thinking.

In Ulrika Tornberg’s chapter on memory and the learning of words (Chapter 7) she goes a step further than Lundahl’s three methods of learning new words and concepts, and discusses specific methods for assimilating new vocabulary. According to Tornberg, “the fact that we understand a word with the help of clues or dictionaries does not mean that we also know it. The knowledge we have today about how our memory works leads to the realization that word learning is a creative process with several steps. The word must first be coded in a conscious way in order to then be able to pick it up again.” (Tornberg 2020: 140) To continue with the computer analogy, the only way to truly know a new word is to program it into the brain in a way that leads to its retention, unlike the deliberate/intentional method, which does not lead to retention because (for which I ask your forgiveness) retention is not the intention.

In order to determine the ideal way of programming one’s brain, it’s important to be aware of one’s individual learning aptitudes or intelligences. Torberg lists these as:

  1. Linguistic intelligence
  2. Logistical/mathematical intelligence
  3. Visual/spatial intelligence
  4. Musical intelligence
  5. Kinesthetic intelligence  (Tornberg 2020: 141)

There are plenty of online surveys/quizzes designed to reveal one’s intelligence aptitudes.[3] I discovered that I have a high degree of musical intelligence, followed closely by linguistic intelligence. This makes perfect sense because I’ve been musical my entire life, and I’m always humming/singing/whistling, and making up songs about my cat. According to Tornberg, a person with a high degree of musical intelligence “might encode words using music or by rapping or rhyming.” (Tornberg 2020: 141) Incorporating music and movement into lessons is of course a well-established pedagogical practice, but it is mostly used for small children. If an ESL student is really struggling with learning new vocabulary, I would suggest singing it, even if it feels childish. I asked my Swedish husband about a particularly effective teacher he had, and he mentioned his high school German teacher. She told them at the start of the term that she was going to teach them like they were small children, which I’m sure some of them were not entirely comfortable with, but her methods ended up being extraordinarily effective. So, why not try a few songs, rhymes, and games for third year upper-secondary students – after reassuring them that, look, you know it seems weird, but trust you, it works.


Lundahl, B. Engelsk språkdidaktik: texter, kommunikation, språkutveckling. 3:e uppl. Lund: Studentlitteratur. 2012

Tornberg, U. Språkdidaktik. 6:e uppl. Malmö: Gleerups. 2020

Van Lier, Leo. “Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy, and authenticity.” Applied linguistics and language study. London: Longman. 1996

[1] All citations from Lundahl and Tornberg are translated.

[2] The satirical dictionary website Urban Dictionary defines SAT, among other ways, as: 1) A bullshit exam which doesn’t test anything, be it IQ, creativity, personality, or potential college performance” and 3) Is a major cause of teenage suicide in America.

[3] This is the one I used:

Words, words, glorious words! Give me all of your words!

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