When you’re new to speaking a language, it is common to find yourself struggling to find the best word to express a particular meaning or thought. The solution is to expand your vocabulary. English is an extremely rich language that affords fluent speakers the ability to convey nuance by choosing the proper words. Having a good vocabulary is essential to performing well on the TOEFL.

The only way to grow your vocabulary is to expose yourself to new words in a variety of contexts. Here are some ways to do that.

Read as Much as Possible

The first thing you can do to build your vocabulary is to read as much as you can. While the majority of the work you do on the TOEFL will be focused on academic reading and writing, to be fluent, you must read a variety of things. Here are some things to read:

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Academic books and journals
  • Fiction (novels and short stories)

The more you read, the more new vocabulary you will learn. However, since the TOEFL exam is centered around academic subjects, you will want to minimize the time you spend reading fiction, and maximize your time reading academic literature.

Familiarize Yourself with Common TOEFL Words

English has thousands of words, but you don’t need to know all of them to score high on the TOEFL. However, there are some words that are more common than others, and you do need to learn them.

Use a TOEFL vocabulary list like the one on this website to learn the most common words you’ll need. Some you may know already. Any that you don’t know will require additional study.

Define and Use Unfamiliar Words

One of the best ways to grow your vocabulary is to make sure that you remember new words as you learn them. As you read and speak throughout the day, make a list of the new words you encounter. You might not be in a position to look them up at the time, but you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do so when you have the chance.

As you look up each word, make sure that you understand all of its definitions. It is not uncommon for English words to be used in more than one way. The same word may be used as both a verb and a noun, and it may have slightly different meanings depending on how you use it.

Once you have looked up the word, take a few minutes to write sentences that express each of its meanings. The act of using a word helps it to take root in your brain so you will be able to remember it when you need it.

Say New Vocabulary Words Out Loud

It’s not enough to know the meaning of a word. If you want to be able to use it, you must know how to pronounce it properly. English pronunciation can seem arbitrary (i.e. like guesswork, random) to people who are just learning the language. Here are some things that can help you:

  1. Type the word into Google Translate and listen to the pronunciation. Practice until you get it right.
  2. Watch lectures and videos and follow along with a transcript. For example, many TED talks are available on YouTube and the transcript is included with the video. Listening in this way can help you familiarize yourself with new words and their pronunciation.
  3. In addition to using your new vocabulary words in written sentences, practice using them in conversation. You may find that native speakers are very happy to explain new words to you or to help you understand why a particular usage is wrong if you make a mistake.

The key when it comes to growing your vocabulary is to use words. Studying flashcards might help you when you are studying, but the TOEFL is more than just a vocabulary test. You must be able to use the words you learn properly if you want to do well.


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