The smart way to learn English vocabulary -5 tips

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

You may be familiar with this proverb… I’ve mentioned it in my videos before. I think it’s particularly relevant when talking about how to learn vocabulary. The YouTube videos I make and the flash cards I share are the “fish” in this analogy: they’re useful and will help you in the short term, but what you’ll really benefit from in the long term is undestanding how to learn new words and phrases.

So, here are some tips.

1. Context

Context is key in vocabulary learning. Just finding the definition of a word or the translation into your own language is simply not enough. You need to find examples of the word/phrase used in context in order to get a deeper understanding of the usage of collocations, prepositions and grammar around the word and its various possible meanings.

Google the word and look up the results in the news section… do the same in Twitter to see how different people have used the words in different situations… ask Chat GPT to give examples… there are myriad ways to see vocabulary in context nowadays. And, most importantly, READ regulary!

2. Emotional Connection

I repeat this all the time in my videos for a reason… it works! When you make an emotional connection with something you’re trying to learn, you have a much better chance of remembering it. So, when you come up with your own example for a word/phrase, make it personal. 

Compare: “The student was elated when the teacher gave her the book.” and “My girlfriend (even better if you use her real name) was elated when I gave her the ring that she saw in the shop on our first date.”

Which example will give help you remember the word “elated”? 

3. Be Selective

Let’s be honest, you’re not going to learn every word in the Oxford English dictionary, let alone the idioms, fixed phrases and technical jargon. So, you’ll need to be selective. Don’t waste time and energy on words and phrases that you’re probably never going to use in your life. If you read a particularly technical article on a very specific topic, use your common sense to decide which words are worth making an effort to learn and which are not. Extra tip: Use Google Ngram Viewer to check the usage of different words over time.

4. Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a technique which has been scientifically proven to increase you chances of remembering new words and phrases. In fact, many popular language learning apps use this method in their programs.

The basic idea is to revise the words you’ve learnt over fixed time intervals in order to cement them in your memory. The length of the interval extends the more you revise the given words (eg, 2 days, 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 months etc) and words that you struggle to remember the most should be repeated more regularly. The most important and fundamental take away from this is that learning a new word once and never seeing it again makes it highly unlikely that you remember it in the long term.

5. Use it or Lose it!

Obvious? Perhaps. But very important and it’s possible that you’re not doing it enough. “But I don’t have anyone to practise my English with!”. Then, write! Using vocabulary is not only about speaking… you can write short stories or articles for yourself to practise using the vocabulary in context. Or, write comments in forums or in the YouTube comments section. Be proactive and look for opportunites!

And… one last tip: Enjoy it!

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Should you take an English Exam?

Many students are surprised by my initial answer to this question.

But it’s not that simple… of course.

Maybe you’ve already registered for an exam and you’re in the middle of your preparation. If that’s the case, I’m sure you had a valid reason for embarking on the exam preparation journey. But, for many people it’s not that simple and they often struggle to take the decision, which is understandable as there are obvious advantages and disadvantages that have to be taken into consideration. In fact, one the most common questions I get asked is “Should I take an English exam?” and many people are surprised (given the fact that a lot of my videos and courses are on Cambridge English exam preparation) that my first response is “No” quickly followed by “unless…”

I say “no” because learning a language shouldn’t be about passing exams or getting certificates. First and foremost, it should be about communication, and exam preparation can often interrupt the learning process rather than contribute to it. So, if you feel you have a good relationship with English and you’re happy with your progress, maybe you should think twice before signing up for that exam.

However, I always add “unless” because there are many valid reasons why you might want to take an English exam, including;

  • Personal Development: Exam preparation can be a rewarding and motivating experience, and some individuals see English exam preparation as a personal goal to measure their language progress and get a sense of accomplishment. I would say that this is the most common reason for the majority of my C2 Proficiency (CPE) students.
  • Organisation and Structure to your Studies: Many language learners find it difficult to organise their studies and find themselves simply watching a couple of episodes of their favourite series a week or listening to a podcast every now and then and nothing more. English exam preparation can encourage you focus in a more systematic way and really help you reach the next level.
  • Academic and Educational Purposes: Many students and professionals take English exams as part of their academic requirements or to apply for educational opportunities abroad, such as enroling in a university or pursuing a degree programme in an English-speaking country
  • Employment and Career Opportunities: Taking an English exam can enhance job prospects and career opportunities, especially in multinational companies or industries that require English proficiency.
  • Immigration and Visa Requirements: Some countries have English language proficiency requirements for individuals seeking immigration or work visas. An English exam certificate can serve as proof of language skills for visa applications.
  • Study Abroad and Exchange Programs: If someone is interested in participating in a study abroad or student exchange program, they may need to demonstrate their English language proficiency through an English exam.
  • Certification and Standardization: English exams are designed to assess language skills based on standardised criteria, providing a consistent measure of proficiency that is recognised internationally.

If any of those apply to you, you may want to contact your nearest exam centre. But… bear in mind exams should be short term goals and the moment you start to feel overwhelmed by the process, I recommend you consider another path which is more sustainable. 

Feel free to contact me if you have a questions regarding English exam preparation or you need more information about my online Cambridge exam courses.

Ben Gill

English teacher

C1 Advanced preparation (CAE) – Book recommendations

Exam preparation can be overwhelming at the beginning because it’s difficult to know where to start and how to organise your studies. There are many books available to help you with your C1 Advanced (CAE) Cambridge English exam preparation, but you may need some guidance to make sure your getting the best value for your money.

So, here are my top three books for self-study preparation for the C1 Advanced Cambirdge English exam. (See the Amazon links at the end of the article to buy the books)

  1. Advanced Trainer – Cambridge University Press

With six practice tests with answers and tips for each part of the exam, this book is the one to go for if you can only buy one. It’s paramount that you do many sample papers in order to really get a good understanding of the format and to work out the best time management strategy for you. This is a Cambridge University Press publication… and they should know what they’re doing!

2. Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced – Cambridge Univesity Press

The C1 Advanced exam tests all the language skills, but students particulary benefit from expanding their range of vocabulary and revising all the grammar areas. This book covers the topics and structures that will be useful, although you can never know exactly what vocabulary you’ll need on exam day.

3. Advanced 2 (also available 1, 3 & 4) – Cambridge University Press

I promise, I don’t work for Cambridge! But, I always recommend their publications for exam preparation because the questions and tasks are written in a particular way which is very difficult to copy. In this case, Advanced 2 includes 4 complete authentic past examination papers which are useful for practise.

Spain; Advanced Trainer: Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced: Advanced 2 (exam papers):

Italy; Advanced Trainer: Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced: Advanced 2 (exam papers):

France; Advanced Trainer: Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced: Advanced 2 (exam papers):

Germany; Advanced Trainer: Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced: Advanced 2 (exam papers):

UK: Advanced Trainer: Grammar and Vocabulary for Advanced: Advanced 2 (exam papers):

How to prepare for the Cambridge English Exams – 6 essential tips

B2 First, C1 Advanced, C2 Proficiency (FCE, CAE, CPE)

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to take exams. People would just study to gain knowledge for practical use and enjoy the process.

But, in the real world, there are situations in which it is necessary to demonstrate your English level (job interviews, university applications, immigration processes) and exam certificates are often required. The Cambridge English exams (specifically the B2 First, C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency levels) are particularly prestigious and sought after, so getting one of these qualification can be very valuable.

I’ve been helping students prepare for the Cambridge English exams for almost two decades now and these preparation tips are based on my experience and observations over those years.

1. Get to know the exam (like the back of your hand!)

I’ve had students who didn’t really have an advanced level of English but they passed the C1 exam because they prepared so well. They really got to know the exam. And, on the other hand, I’ve known people who had a very high level, maybe even C2, but they took the advanced exam and failed because they were a little bit too cocky… a little bit too confident and they didn’t really know what the exam was asking of them. So, that is the number one tip, and it’s the most important: get to know the exam like the back of your hand.

2. Start preparing early

Start your preparation early! I recommend at least two months preparation, six months would be great… why not a year? If you’re thinking of taking the exam next year, start preparing now. You can’t really have too much time preparing for this exam because it’s not really just about learning a few grammar areas a little bit of vocabulary and practicing your speaking. These are big and difficult exams; even the B2 First is a tough exam, so you need to improve your level of English in general. Don’t leave it until the last minute, you’ll soon realise that you need more time.

3. Dig out your old grammar notes

This is very useful and practical tip. You’ve probably studied a lot of grammar at school and you’re probably bored with it, but that grammar will be extremely useful in the exam. You have studied it, you know it, so you need to revise it, You need to refresh your memory of all that grammar you have studied over the years. So, dig out your old notes. Your own notes are the best notes because you wrote them and you’ll remember what you were thinking when you wrote those notes and you’ll have a connection to that time, so it’s better than just reading a book that somebody else has written. Your own notes are more valuable.

4. Immerse yourself in English

Immerse yourself in the language. Surround yourself with english. This should be pretty obvious. These are not easy exams so to prepare you really need to expose yourself to as much input of the language as possible. Very obvious activities like watching films and series in English, Youtube videos in English, joining Facebook groups where you can chat to people in English, reading in English (different books if possible or just internet articles on various subjects). You need to expand your vocabulary as much as possible for the exam, and there’s a lot of text to read in little time. Generally, immerse yourself in the language as much as possible… and that leads me on to tip number five.

5. Pay attention!

It’s all well and good immersing yourself in the language, surrounding yourself with all this input… but, if you don’t pay attention, you’re not going to get the full benefit from it. You can read a book and enjoy the book, and that’s great… if you’re not preparing for an exam. But you are preparing for an exam, so you need to pay attention to the grammar that is used, the vocabulary, the punctuation, etc. When you finish the exam, I recommend that you do the opposite, I recommend you just do things in english for fun, but as you’re preparing for an exam, you need to pay attention.

6. Find a study buddy

Find a partner you can study with. Ask around… ask your friends, your family, your colleagues at work, your classmates. Try to find somebody who’s also studying for the same exam. If you can’t find anyone, look further afield. Get on the internet and find relevant Facebook groups, Discord channels, Telegram communities, and so on. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are studying for these exams, so there are a lot of people that really need to practise and find a partner like you. The advantages of finding a study partner are numerous, not only for the speaking paper of the exam (practising the speaking paper is extremely useful) but also for sharing resources, motivation and accountability purposes. Also, if you have a partner who’s taking the same exam as you, you can actually do the speaking part of the exam together, which is so valuable.

If you follow these tips, you’ll stand a much better chance of passing your exam and getting your desired score.

Want to pass with the best score possible? Check out my online preparation courses for detailed tips on how to approach every part of the B2 First, C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency Cambridge English Exams.

Ben Gill

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

B2 First Preparation Course

In my Complete B2 First Cambridge English exam preparation course I share all of my 20 years of experience helping students prepare for and pass this exam. The information and tips you need in order to get the best score possible are presented in video form so I can explain exactly what's required for each part of every paper. We'll also look at sample tasks for all the parts so that you get a real understanding how to implement my tips in practice.

Regular quizzes will help to reinforce the strategies you learn and make sure you don't forget the most important aspects of the lessons.

When you purchase the course, you'll receive an email from me inviting you to join my TTP Exam Academy Telegram group where you'll have the option of asking me and your fellow members questions on the exam and/or the preparation process.

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