The Guide to English Vocabulary Exercises: How to Grow Your Vocabulary and Improve Your English
Are you ready to exercise your vocabulary-learning muscles?
An article on the BBC website states that if you know 800 English words, you will be able to understand 75% of what is said in everyday conversations.
I am not sure how they measured this exactly, but as a language teacher myself, and someone who has been studying English for over 30 years, I can honestly say that the more words you know, the better.
You might not want to become the next Shakespeare, but learning vocabulary is something every language learner will have to do sooner or later.
Let’s take the first step in our journey by looking at some ways in which you can use English vocabulary exercises to improve your knowledge of English words, one word (or more) at a time.
How Many English Words Should I Learn?
English has over 470,000 words.
Are you ready to learn them all?
Well, you already know that for basic conversations, you really only need about 800 words.
And actually, you only need around 1,000 to “graduate” from the beginner level.
Or 4,000 to consider yourself a skillful intermediate learner.
If you want to describe yourself as totally fluent, the number goes up to 16,000.
But I guess you still have a long way ahead of you until you reach that, so let’s start from the beginning.
“Webster’s Third New International Dictionary” includes around 470,000 entries (together with its 1993 Addenda Section).
That means that in reality, there are many more words in English, since dictionaries normally include only the base form of a word (for example, there is an entry for the verb to like, but no separate entries for likes, liking and liked.
However, we are not here to learn about dictionaries. We are here to learn about English vocabulary and how exercises can help us with that.
Vocabulary is important in every language, including our own native language.
It would be impossible to say anything without words, even if you knew all the grammar rules in existence.
Pointing to people, animals and objects can only get you so far, but what happens later?
Imagine you want to buy some cheese but you do not know the word cheese.
You do not know words like milk, cow, farm and dairy, either. How in the world are you going to buy it?
Good morning. I would like to buy some coagulated (changed into a solid) yellow thing.
I do not think people will understand you. Ever.
Maybe this is an extreme example, but it shows the importance of vocabulary, especially when we are learning a foreign language.
They say practice makes perfect—that is, regular exercise of a skill is how you become proficient in it.
For that reason, doing English vocabulary exercises seems the best way to remember all those new words you need to communicate with other people in this language.
So let’s cover everything there is to know about learning words.
Get ready for the ride of your life.
English vocabulary exercises, here we go!
How Exercises Can Help You Improve Your English Vocabulary
You may be asking yourself why exercises are so amazing when it comes to learning new English vocabulary.
Depending on where you are in your studies, exercises might be very useful or just a little useful.
Either way, vocabulary exercises are worth your time (valuable, important) for many reasons:
They help you remember words and expressions more easily
If you have a list of just words and their translations in front of you and you read it many times, you will get bored very fast and you will only learn a few of the words.
But if you try to learn the same list of words with the help of exercises, you will have more fun and learn many more new words.
When you learn new words in context, with full sentences or with games, you enjoy what you are doing and have a greater chance of reaching your goal of learning English vocabulary.
They help you improve all the main language skills at once
As you will see later, there are many types of exercises for learning vocabulary.
This means you will have the opportunity to practice all the four major language skills when trying to learn new words:
- Listening: There are exercises like dictations or fill-in-the-gaps that can be done with audio.
- Writing: The majority of exercises available will need you to write words or full sentences.
- Reading: Reading is a great way to learn vocabulary in context, and reading comprehension exercises will give you plenty of new English words to fall in love with.
- Speaking: The best way to make sure you remember what you have learned is by using it. There are exercises that make you repeat words or create your own sentences and repeat them out loud. There are even apps and websites with speech recognition!
They help you break the infamous (famous for being terrible) “Intermediate Plateau”
The intermediate plateau, also known as the “language learning plateau” is a stage of learning almost every student of every language has to experience on their way to fluency.
It is that period of time during the intermediate level when we do not seem to learn that fast (or at all).
It happens to nearly every learner! It is easy to get frustrated and start thinking about giving up.
But it is during this time when we need to do the most and try our hardest.
Exercises and, more specifically, vocabulary exercises, are one of the best methods to break the plateau and go to the next level.
Normally, it is the lack of vocabulary that makes us stay longer in the intermediate plateau.
We focus too much on grammar, and we forget that we cannot possibly use grammar rules if we do not have the necessary words.
If you are going through your own personal intermediate plateau, make sure to add vocabulary exercises to your learning routine and you will be surprised at the wonderful results.
They help you take the fast lane (move more quickly) to fluency
This is related to the previous point.
Imagine you start using exercises to learn English vocabulary from the very beginning of your language journey.
You will have so much work done when you reach the intermediate level!
Your learning plateau will be much shorter, and you will be able to go into the advanced level much faster.
The advanced level is one step before fluency, so you will just need one last effort to reach your final goal.
Tips for Learning with English Vocabulary Exercises
We already know that English vocabulary exercises can be wonderful if they are used properly, but how exactly can we use them?
What can we do to make the most (get the maximum advantage) out of them?
Here are some useful tips to help you remember a ton of words:
Keep a notebook
If you are similar to me, you like to have everything related to the language you are learning in a notebook.
That includes new vocabulary and exercises.
I am a huge fan of writing new words in a notebook and creating sentences with them. This is a superb (great) exercise that will help you practice vocabulary and grammar at the same time. Plus, you will be writing, which is one of the four major language skills.
Another way you can use a notebook to help you remember new words is to actually handwrite the exercises you do online or in your grammar book.
Writing helps us remember a lot more information, so you can be sure that by the end of your learning session, you will have memorized a majority of the new words.
Choose the right level of exercise for you
There are three main levels in every language: beginner, intermediate and advanced.
We can also divide language levels into beginner, elementary, intermediate, upper-intermediate, advanced and proficient.
If you are an elementary learner, it would be crazy and detrimental (harmful) to try to do advanced exercises.
You will not understand almost anything, and you will just waste your time.
The same would happen if you are an upper-intermediate user of English and spend one hour doing beginner exercises.
Do you think you will be learning anything useful for your level? Probably not.
It is crucial (very important) to choose vocabulary exercises that are right for your level.
If you are feeling brave, you can even go for exercises that are one level above yours, but not more than that.
Learning a language means experimenting, trying, failing and succeeding a thousand times, but when it comes to the level of your exercises, it is best to keep it safe (not to take many risks).
Use the newly learned words in context
Context is everything.
What is the point of learning a new word if you do not know how or when you can use it?
English vocabulary exercises will help you add some context to your boring lists of words.
Practice your newly learned words with exercises and you will remember them for longer (or forever!).
Here’s a tip: Use FluentU if you are looking for an engaging and fun way of learning new words in context and practicing them with exercises. We will talk a little more about FluentU later in this post, so keep reading!
Mix things up!
Learning new vocabulary can get boring after a while if you always do the same kind of exercise.
There are plenty of ways to fight boredom and make your learning interesting.
Here are some ideas:
- Learn English vocabulary with memes. Fun is guaranteed, believe me!
- Play “Taboo” or “Scrabble” in English with your friends.
- Choose five words for the day and use them when greeting your friends and family.
- Forbid yourself from using certain words every day. You will constantly think about them, so you will learn them that way!
Basically, learning vocabulary will be more effective if you do it in a fun way, so do not be afraid of being creative in your learning.
Create your own vocabulary exercises
If you enjoy being creative, you can always make your own English vocabulary exercises.
You just need a list of words, a type of exercise (it can be one invented by you) and some imagination.
The tips presented here and the exercises you will find below are just examples of things you can do to learn new words, but they are not everything there is out there.
Maybe you know a method for learning vocabulary that always works for you, or you have seen or heard about a cool type of exercise that is not included in this post.
If so, go for it and use them.
Remember, you don’t have to be afraid about experimenting to find what works for you!
What Are the Different Types of English Vocabulary Exercises?
I like to think there are as many types of exercises as there are learners of English.
But that is just a thought.
The truth is that there are certain types of exercises that tend to appear more often than others when we learn a new language, whether it is English, Spanish, Russian or Swahili.
This section will guide you through all of them, both traditional and “less traditional,” so if you want to find out (discover) the best ways of learning English vocabulary for you, keep on reading.
Traditional English vocabulary exercises
When I say traditional English vocabulary exercises, I am referring to those exercises we all know from school, the ones we have all done at least once in our lives during our primary or secondary education.
There are many traditional vocabulary exercises, and all of them are amazing. However, some are more appropriate for beginners, others for intermediate learners and some others for advanced learners of English.
For that reason, I have added the words Beginner, Intermediate and/or Advanced at the end of each type of exercise:
- Multiple-choice exercises. As their name suggests, you are given some options and you have to choose the correct one. (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced.)
- Matching words and pictures/definitions/translations exercises. Matching exercises are very popular among children. These exercises ask the learner to match a word with its picture, English definition or translation into their native language. (Beginner.)
- Odd-one-out exercises. This type of exercise gives you several words and you have to guess which one does not belong with the others. (Beginner.)
- Word rearranging exercises. This type of exercise gives you some words and you have to rearrange them to form a correct sentence. (Beginner.)
- Word building. In word-building exercises, you are given the base form of a word (for example, hydrate) and you have to create a new word that fits the sentence (for example dehydration).
One variation of this type of exercise is word-category tables (you are given the noun (care), and you have to write its verb (to care), its adjective or adjectives (careful, careless) and its adverb or adverbs (carefully, carelessly).
Another variation is word families, a type of exercise in which you are given a word (to bake) and you have to write all the words related to it you can produce (baking, baked, baker, bakery, overbake, underbake, prebake, etc.). (Intermediate, Advanced.)
- Synonyms and antonyms exercises. There are different types of exercises for learning synonyms (words that have the same meaning) and antonyms (opposites, words that have opposite meanings). The most common way of learning words with this kind of exercise is by having a list of words and asking the learner to write an antonym for each of them (for example black-white, long-short, thin-fat, on-off, fast-slow,etc.). (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced.)
- Sentence translation exercises. Translating sentences is very helpful because you can put into practice not only your newly learned words, but also everything you know (such as grammar and sentence building rules). There are two main types of translation exercises: from English into your native language and vice versa (the other way around). (Intermediate, Advanced.)
- Fill-in-the-gaps exercises. In this type of exercise, there are one or more words missing in a sentence or text, and you have to guess which one(s). (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced.)
The image at the top of this section shows a multiple-choice, fill-in-the-gap exercise from our own FluentU program, and it is a great place to start if you are interested in those kinds of vocabulary exercises. FluentU lets you quiz yourself on any words that you add to your vocabulary lists, and you can practice your sentence translations thanks to the full transcripts and interactive subtitles.
Worksheets and printables
Worksheets and printables are files you can find online and download into your computer (for free or at a cost) or print directly from a website.
They normally contain exercises that can be categorized as pretty traditional (like the ones we mentioned in the previous section), but worksheets and printables are special because of a couple of characteristics:
- They normally focus on one specific topic at a time.
- They are created to be attractive to students (they normally include colors, drawings, pictures, etc.).
- They are designed to be done in one learning session.
- They include several types of exercises.
- They may include an answer sheet.
This type of resource can be used by learners of every level because there are worksheets about practically every topic and at every level of difficulty, but beginners and younger students will benefit the most from them.
SRS (Spaced repetition exercises)
In case you did not know, spaced repetition is a learning method where words (or whole lessons!) are revisited and reviewed with more and more time between them, until what we want to learn becomes stuck in our long-term memory.
The traditional exercise to put this method into practice are flashcards. For example, FluentU exercises use SRS, so any word (or phrase) you are reviewing will be shown to you at exactly the right time so you do not forget it.
But you can actually transform any type of exercise into an SRS experience.
If you do not have access to any program or system that tracks your progress automatically and tells you when you need to repeat an exercise, you can create your own spaced repetition schedule.
We normally forget newly learned words pretty easily, and that is what we want to avoid. For that reason, when you finish learning a set of new words, you will have to go back to them time and time again until you can remember them without hesitation (doubt or delay).
You can choose the number of intervals you want to have and how far in time they will be. As a language learner myself, my advice is that you use what I call the “double-time technique.”
This technique is very simple to apply. Start with repeating the words 12 hours after you first learn them. Then, repeat them after twice that time has passed (one day), then double the time again (two days), and so on and so forth. If you use this technique, you should be repeating the words after 12 hours, one day, two days, four days, eight days, etc. have passed since you started.
The same can be done with whole exercises. Choose three to five vocabulary exercises that are challenging (difficult) for you, and do them again after 12 hours, one day, two days and so on.
You will be very impressed with the results!
This learning system is so awesome that it is recommended for every single student out there, no matter their English level.
Crosswords and word-search puzzles
Another type of exercise you can do in order to learn new words or review words you have already learned are crosswords and word-search puzzles.
If you are a beginner learner, you should start with word-search puzzles. They are easy to do (you are normally given the words you need to find), and they can be done in a short amount of time.
One variation of this kind of exercise is the word-search puzzle in which you are not given the words but a category (like the months of the year or verbs starting with the letter S). This will take a little bit more of your time, especially if you have not learned the vocabulary just yet, but finding the words in the ocean of letters feels amazing.
If you are an intermediate or advanced learner, you can try doing some crosswords in English. There are literally thousands of places where you can find these.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of crosswords: the ones created with the language learner in mind, which are perfect if you have an intermediate level of English, and the ones created for native speakers of English. Give them a try if you are an advanced learner!
One of my favorite ways of practicing my vocabulary when I am learning a new language is with the help of word games.
I know not everybody likes this type of exercise, but if you happen to enjoy this kind of pastime, you already know how effective and helpful it can be.
There are many different types of word games available. Some come in the form of board games (like “Scrabble”), others can be either played online or downloaded into your computer or tablet (like Spellbound), and others are apps that you can download into your phone (like CodyCross).
If you are serious about putting into practice the vocabulary you learn, you should definitely give word games a try, no matter your level of English.
Where to Find English Vocabulary Exercises
Where can you find all these amazing English vocabulary exercises I cannot stop talking about?
The number of choices is big. No, huge!
But I do not want you to get overwhelmed and start freaking out (reacting irrationally or crazily).
There is no need for that.
I have made a list of the best places to find vocabulary exercises so you can choose what you want from the menu depending on your learning style.
Each of us has a preferred way of learning.
Some of us like books (like me), others love learning English with puzzles and games, while others prefer the good old flashcard system.
Whatever you choose, all of us have something in common: We want to enjoy the process of learning.
FluentU has many features that can help you learn English vocabulary without even realizing you are actually studying.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Every video comes with subtitles that are interactive and contextual. That means all you have to do is move your mouse over or tap on any word or expression and to get its translation. This will save you a lot of time because you will not have to look words up in a dictionary.
Besides, the information the subtitles give you is related to the context of the video you are watching. If a word has different meanings, you will get the one related to the video you are studying.
Next, you can personalize your learning to study only the vocabulary you want to learn. Just use the search bar to find what you need.
But that is not all!
If you need more information about any word, just click on it while you are watching a video. This will open the interactive flashcard system.
FluentU’s flashcards include information such as the different meanings of a word, grammar info, audio recorded by native speakers, sample sentences with audio to see and listen to the word in context and a list of videos where you can find the word being used by native users of English. These flashcards will be all you need if you want to learn everything about any word you hear in the videos.
As we mentioned earlier in this post, each video comes with exercises that use spaced repetition and include fill-in-the-gaps and translation exercises that learn with you.
If you do not know FluentU yet, give it a try for free and see for yourself!
Whether you are looking for an English vocabulary app for Android or your iOS device, you can find plenty of English vocabulary apps ready to be downloaded.
Some of them are free, while others come with premium subscriptions or special extras for a price.
I suggest you always have two language apps on your phone, one that is paid and one that is free.
This way, you will get twice as much practice, twice as many words and twice as much fun.
The greatest advantage of using apps for doing English vocabulary exercises is that you can take your learning tools with you wherever you go.
Flashcard and SRS programs
You know already that spaced repetition and flashcards are amazing ways to learn new words and practice them later.
If you are a fan of this method, I have good news for you: There are many English flashcard apps and programs (many available for free) that you can use to learn English vocabulary.
This kind of tool is very personalizable, so you will be able to add your own words and learn what you really need or want, but you will also find programs that have decks of flashcards already available on many different topics. Choose the one(s) you like and start learning.
The advantage of using this method is that you can create your own exercises and your own spaced repetition schedule as explained before in the post.
Quizzes and tests
Another great way of practicing English vocabulary is in the form of quizzes and tests.
You will normally want to take a quiz or a test after you have learned the necessary vocabulary.
This kind of exercise can be easily found online, and it will be the perfect way to tell how much you know already and how much more you need to study.
The advantage of this method is that you can practice with real English vocabulary quizzes and tests. This will give you a taste of what a real test looks like, allowing you to deal with exam stress much better next time you sit an English test.
The internet has so much information that we are literally one click away from millions of websites with English vocabulary exercises.
You can find practically everything you need online. All you have to do is phrase your search to get the best results.
My advice is to look for specific vocabulary topics and pages that include ready-made exercises. Most of the time, the exercises are interactive and you will get immediate feedback after you finish them.
This option is the best for learners with access to a printer because the best place to find worksheets and printables is on websites.
Books and workbooks
For those who love books, there are also hundreds upon hundreds of options available.
Many grammar books come with an accompanying workbook full of exercises to practice.
They normally contain more grammar than vocabulary, but they are a good option to learn new English words.
There are also many books specifically designed to teach you vocabulary.
They are the perfect solution if you want to focus just on improving your English vocabulary by doing exercises.
This is possibly the most traditional way of getting your vocabulary practice, but I can assure you that once you try it, you will fall in love with it. A screen will never substitute a real book.
With all this information, you are now ready to find English vocabulary exercises and use them in such a way that will allow you to get the most out of them and learn English vocabulary in an entertaining and effective way.
As you can see, the options are almost endless. You just have to choose the methods and techniques that work best for you.
Remember that learning English vocabulary can be fun and enjoyable if you do it correctly.
Use the tips included in this post and you will feel the difference.
Happy English vocabulary learning!
English professor and freelance translator, Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He is a proud polyglot, and you will normally find him learning a new language, teaching students or just reading in a foreign language. He has been writing for FluentU for many years and has recently become one of their Staff Writers.