Almost all of the people that I teach or coach say that one of the things they’d like to improve about their English is their vocabulary. There are two main mistakes that I see very often.

The first is that they invest a lot of time trying to learn vocabulary that they’ll never need when speaking. In our first language, we all understand many more words than we actually use. In other words, our passive vocabulary is much bigger than our active vocabulary.

When we come across new vocabulary, we need to make the decision whether just understanding is enough, or if we really need to learn it by heart. Filtering ‘active’ vocabulary will make the task of learning much more manageable. If you need to, subdivide new ‘active’ vocabulary into ‘words I need every week’ and ‘words I need every month’.

The second mistake is relying on translation. Translating new vocabulary can help you to understand the meaning, but it shouldn’t be the only method you use.

If you’re reading this, your English is good enough to use an English-to-English dictionary (there are many which are available online for free). This will help you to understand the different uses of words and, more importantly, give you an idea of how to explain this word if you forget it later (your plan B, if you like).

Look for typical word combinations, too. So, if you want to learn the word ‘contract’, for example, you could also learn ‘to sign a contract’ and ‘a permanent contract’ (as long as these are going to be ‘active’, of course!)

And to help you remember these, make a sentence that you are likely to use in the future, such as: “I would like to read the contract before I sign it.”

The good thing about useful vocabulary is that you’ll hear it again and again. If you don’t, maybe it’s not that important anyway!