The Truth About Learning Vocabulary – 3 essential steps

It’s impossible to reach a truly advanced level of English without living in an English-speaking country.

What a load of CODSWALLOP! I’ve heard that so often over the years and it’s something that really frustrates and annoys me because it’s a form of defeatism. You’re basically admitting defeat before you’ve ever really tried. It’s also a bit of an excuse and, actually it’s just not true.

I’ve had many students over the years who have reached a C2 level and passed the C2 proficiency Cambridge English exam, for example, without ever having visited an English-speaking country, let alone lived there. And the opposite can also happen: it’s possible to live in a country which speaks your target language but never reach an advanced level. You’re not guaranteed to learn the language just because you live in the country that speaks that language, it doesn’t happen by osmosis. It’s all about attitude.

However, having said that, of course there are many advantages of living in an English-speaking country if you want to learn English, but a lot of those advantages can be recreated or simulated without ever having to even set foot in an English-speaking country. But you have to be proactive, especially when it comes to learning and expanding our vocabulary.

So, I’m going to explain the three steps you need to take in order to really expand your vocabulary and reach that advanced level of English.


Of course, one of the biggest advantages of living in an English-speaking country if you’re trying to learn English is that you’re exposed to vocabulary all the time. Everywhere you go and everything you do you find English vocabulary, because you’re in that country. So if you’re not living in an English-speaking country you need to find other ways of getting that input. And that’s the first step: where do you find the vocabulary? What are your sources of vocabulary?

Now, of course, all good English teachers will encourage you to read books in English, read articles in English, watch films in English, listen to podcasts… do everything in English in order to to get that input That’s where it comes from, those materials and sources.

We are really lucky… there has never been a better time in history to learn a language because it’s so easy to get this input. We have so many resources available to us now at the click of a mouse or the touch of a button. Of course, it’s not exactly the same as living in an English-speaking country where you’re naturally surrounded by this vocabulary, but you can recreate it and simulate it if you are proactive and make the effort.

Another thing that many English teachers will tell you is to read books, watch films, watch series listen to podcasts that you find interesting, that you enjoy. That’s fine but, if you only read books and articles about things you find interesting, your vocabulary in that area is going to expand, but not in other areas.

So, if you’re if you’re into photography, for example, you can build your vocabulary on photography because you’re motivated to read books and watch documentaries and just expose yourself to as much vocabulary about photography as possible. But, if you need to speak about gardening one day, or maybe you’re taking an English exam and there’s a part where you need to write or speak about gardening, you’re not going to have any idea because all your vocabulary is about photography.

So, occasionally, you need to read things, maybe not books, but perhaps articles on areas which you wouldn’t normally choose to read because that’s the way you’rereally truly going to expand a wide range of vocabulary. You’re not just going to expand a very limited area of vocabulary which you find interesting.

That brings me on to the second stepyou need to take and that’s related to the fact that you can’t learn all the vocabulary in the English language .I don’t know the vocabulary in the inthe English language and I’m a native English speaker and you don’t know all the vocabulary in your own language… so you have to learn to be selective.

Be Selective

It’s about selectivity. You have to understand that some vocabulary you learn you will never use. Continuing my example with photography: if you’re a budding photographer, the term chromatic aberration is probably useful and important to you, but if you’re not interested in photography, if you don’t plan to work in photography, you’re probably never going to need to use it. So, you shouldn’t waste time and energy on vocabulary that is not going to be really useful to you. Of course, this happens naturally when you’re living in a country which speaks your target language. You will be encountering vocabulary that is useful to you just because the fact that you encounter it regularly proves that it must be useful. So, you need to really practice the vocabulary that you think or know is going to be more useful to you. Maybe it’s for your job, your studies, or even your social life.

So, you have your input, you’ve been reading alot, you’ve been watching everything in English, listening to podcasts in English and so on. And you’ve been selective you haven’t just been trying to learn every word that you come across. You’ve been selecting the words that you feel will be more useful for you. Now it’s time to use it!


Use it or lose it… When you’re living in an English-speaking country that will just be natural. Every day, you will have to use the vocabulary you’re learning so it will be really reinforced in your in your brain just by going to the bank, to the supermarket, to a restaurant, meeting with friends at work, at University. You’re going to be exposed to the language and then you’re going to have opportunities to use it. So that’s all about output, which is the third step to effectively learning vocabulary.

You need to use the vocabulary you’re learning: if not, you will forget it. I know many of you are thinking, “Well I don’t have any opportunities to use my English. I don’t have anybody to speak to in English. I’m never in a situation where I need to use English, so I can’t do it.” But that’s not really true, is it? That’s a little bit of an excuse because with the internet now you can find people to interact with: Facebook groups or Instagram accounts, Discord channels, Telegram groups… find other people who are learning English. Or maybe you don’t need to find people who are learning English, you can just find a Facebook group on photography, to continue that example, and you can just chat about photography in that group. And then maybe you find another Facebook group on gardening and you chat about gardening in that group. If you are proactive, you can find opportunities

Another big tip for output is to write. Write more. I’m not referring to writing essays necessarily or reports (if you are preparing for an exam then you do need to be doing that) but if you just want to practice the vocabulary you’ve learned in context then write short stories, write in a journal, write about what you’ve done today or what you saw in a recent film… summarize a chapter of a book, rewrite the the plot in a different way using your own words or using the words you have learned from the book but without actually copying the the text. Try to remember and include the vocabulary.

There are many ways to use English in a proactive way but the output is extremely important. Without the output, it’s verydifficult to not only remember but really understand how to use the vocabulary in context.

So really the big question at the end of the day is: How serious are you about improving your English? It does take effort and you do need to be proactive.

Ben Gill

5 Grammatical Structures For Better Writing

If you’re preparing for one of the Cambridge English exams (B2 First, C1 Advanced, C2 Proficiency), another English exam like IELTS, TOEFL, and TOEIC, or even if you’re not preparing for any exam, it’s useful to learn how to write better. Generally, language learners don’t practise writing as much as they should and it’s usually the one skill they’ll find any excuse to avoid.

Although we spend a lot of our time chatting on Whatsapp and other messaging apps, frantically typing and texting, we rarely sit down and write a complete, well constructed composition. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students really struggle with this part of the Cambridge English exams and often the biggest problem they have is that their compositions are a little bit too basic. A little bit too simple The examiners are looking for complex sentences and these five tips that I’m going to share with you now will help you to level up your writings… and it’s not as complicated as you may think!

1. Compound sentences

The first tip is very quite simple but very effective. As I mentioned, a lot of my students tend to form quite basic sentences in their writings. They tend to write paragraphs with five, six or even seven short, simple sentences and what you need to be able to do is link those sentences by forming compound sentences. A compound sentence is simply a sentence with two or more subjects. So, basically, it’s two independent clauses which you link together, or you connect, with a linking word of some kind (but, so, yet, nor, or, for).


“The first text discusses issues of technology in modern society. It doesn’t mention social media.” These are two simple sentences but you can easily link them by using “but”:

“The first text discusses the issue of technology in modern society BUT it doesn’t mention social media.” You think that’s too simple? Well, maybe substitute “but” for “yet”. “The first text discusses the issue of technology in modern society YET it doesn’t mention social media” – “Yet” in this context is a synonym of “but”.

This may seem like quite an obvious tip, but it’s so easy to include in your compositions and very often overlooked.

2. Relative clauses

Tip number two is to use more relative clauses in your compositions. The examiners in the Cambridge English exams are looking for a wide range of grammatical structures so this is a very simple way of forming complex sentences and using another grammatical structure.

With relative clauses we use one of these words: who, whose, that, which, where and when. They can be defining relative clauses or non-defining relative clauses – don’t worry too much about the the terminology and the grammar, when you see the examples, it will be clear and you’ll see that it’s not so complicated and quite simple to add to your essays, reports or your articles to make them more advanced and sophisticated.

Example of a non-defining relative clause:

“Climate change, which has been an issue for many decades, will continue to be a problem.” Here we have “Climate change will continue to be a problem.” That’s a sentence on its own, but if you include a non-defining relative clause in the middle between the commas then you’re adding extra, non-essential information. It’s not defining the subject, it’s just extra information.

Example of a defining relative clause:

“The issue which concerns most people nowadays is climate change.” Here, the relative clause is not between commas because it’s a defining relative clause, it’s defining “issue”, in this case. There are many “issues” but you need to define the “issue” with the clause. It’s essential information, it’s necessary for the sentence to make sense.

3. Inversion

Inversion is a grammartical structure that we don’t use that much in spoken English, especially not colloquial, day-to-day English. However, it’s very useful for your writings, above all the more formal compositions. Watch this video for a detailed explanation on how and when to use inversion. For the purposes of this article, I’ll give you an example sentence:

The normal sentence is. We can reduce our carbon footprint by taking public transport and eating less meat.” (You’ll have noticed that i use a lot of examples about climate change and the environment because it’s very common in the exams) That’s just a normal sentence but with the inversion structure it would be “Not only can we reduce our carbon footprint by taking public transport but also by eating less meat.”

Remember, with inversion the verb and the subject change places: they invert. If you can use one example of inversion in your essay, for example, you will get more marks because it’s what examiners are looking for: a range of grammatical structures

4. Cleft Sentences

Cleft sentences are also examples of complex sentences, so they contain more than one clause. The idea of a cleft sentence is to change the order of the information in the sentence in order to add emphasis or to focus on one particular piece of information in the sentence. Cleft sentences are similar to inversion in that way but they use a slightly different structure and with different clauses.

Example: The normal sentence would be “More investment needs to be made in education:” but as a cleft sentence you could say “It is education that needs more investment.”

So, here, you’re starting with “It is education”. It’s an extra clause and, although it contains the same information , it’s expressed in a different way. Again, the examiners are looking for that type of structure: somethingwhich can demonstrate to them that you understand and can use these more complex grammatical structures and form complex sentences.

5. The Passive Voice

My final tip is to use the passive voice. That may seem a quite basic tip but I’ve noticed with my students that they don’t use the passive voice enough, and it’s a very simple structure to use when you want to make a text more formal. This is particulary useful for the essay, the report, the proposal, some articles and reviews (depending on the target reader).

Example “Scientists believe that the earth is getting warmer.” That’s a normal, active sentence but if you change it to passive it looks like this: “It is believed that the earth is getting warmer.” In this case it’s not really necessary to specify that it’s scientists who believe this. You imagine if you’re writing an essay or a report or whatever that you know it’s some kind of an expert, so scientists are probably the ones who believe this, so it’s not necessary to mention the agent of the action. That’s a much more appropriate structure for a formal writing composition.

You should know how to construct the passive voice, it’s just about actively thinking about it and while you’re writing, or in your planning stages of writing, decide how you’re going to include it in your essay or whatever composition you’re writing.

Bonus tip – Use cohesive devices!

You really should be using a wide range of cohesive devices (linkers, connectors) because they are very important to help with the flow and organisation of the composition. They could be very basic linkers like “and, but, because, so” or they could be more advanced and sophisticated like “furthermore, moreover, nevertheless.” but you need to think about how your composition flows and how the reader is going to read it.

I correct dozens of of my students’ compositions every month and some are just nice and pleasant to read because they flow in a natural way whereas with others, I have to force myself to get through them because the cohesive devices are not used effectively or maybe not used at all. You can use cohesive devices to link sentences, to link ideas to present ideas or to contrast ideas and if you use them effectively it really will improve your your compositions.

Now… stop procrastinating and start writing!!!