Eleven Steps to Improve Your English Writing Skills II. Building Vocabulary and Using a Dictionary

II. Building Vocabulary and Using a Dictionary

by Owen Fourie

Steps 3 – 4

In Part One, Steps 1 and 2 dealt with reading English and listening to it being spoken.

Step 3: Develop your vocabulary

As you read English and listen to it being spoken, you will come across words that are unfamiliar to you and words whose meaning you do not know.

If you are to improve your English usage and writing skills, you would be wise to make every effort to learn such words and to increase your vocabulary.

You can build vocabulary lists on paper or on computer. It might be easier to do so on paper, in notebooks, so the following remarks will be with this method in mind, but it is easily adapted on computer if that is your preference.

Preparing your notebook

  1. Open your notebook so that you have a left-side page and a right-side page in front of you.
  2. On the left-side page, if there is no margin, rule a vertical line no more than a centimeter from the left edge.
  3. In this margin, you can give numbers to the words you enter – 1, 2, 3, and so on.
  4. Draw another vertical line about three or four centimeters from the previous line.
  5. This new column will carry the vocabulary words you enter there.
  6. The remaining column on the left-side page will be where you should enter the meaning of each new word.
  7. The right side page can be used to write a sentence alongside each new word to bring out its meaning.
  8. Repeat this procedure with each set of left and right pages in the rest of the notebook.
Left-side page Right-side page
# Word Meaning Sentence
1 anachronism something out of place for its time To some, a paper notebook is an anachronism today, but it can still serve a useful purpose.
2 sedulous diligent, assiduous, devoted to a task A sedulous student will do whatever is necessary to build a good vocabulary.

Using your notebook

  1. Always keep your notebook readily available. Whenever you read or hear a word that is new to you or a word that you have come across previously but do not understand, write it down in your notebook.
  2. If you have heard the word and do not know how to spell it, simply do your best to write it the way it sounds. A dictionary will help you later.
  3. Your notebook helps you to record the words that you need to know. One benefit is that you do not have to interrupt your reading or listening to consult a dictionary each time you encounter such a word.
  4. Instead, you carry on reading or listening while you try to work out the meaning of the unknown word by its context—what is written or spoken before and after that word.
  5. Once you have completed your reading or listening time, use your dictionary to find the words you have recorded in your notebook.
  6. Write down the meaning of each word, and compose a sentence that will bring out the meaning.
  7. Review all these words regularly, and include them in your speaking and in your writing, whenever there is occasion to use them correctly.

Even the best users of English employ only a fraction of its vast vocabulary. This means that increasing our vocabulary is something we should all do.

If you put these things into practice, you will be taking a major step to improve your English usage and your writing skills.

Step 4: Use a dictionary

A dictionary is an essential tool. If you are serious about learning English, you must have a dictionary. Even people whose business is the English language—writers, copywriters, editors, proofreaders, journalists, teachers—use dictionaries every day.

Buy a good English dictionary, and use it daily as you read and write and work on your vocabulary list. Your librarian or any reputable bookstore will be able to recommend one that you can purchase at the bookstore or on the Internet.

Printed dictionaries

You should have at least one printed dictionary. Two that I recommend are

  • Concise Oxford English Dictionary;
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Online dictionaries

Bookmark one or two online dictionaries too. Three that I recommend are at these links:


A thesaurus is a prehistoric dictionary. 🙂 jk (just kidding)!

At two of the above links to online dictionaries, you will see that thesauruses (or thesauri) are available.

A thesaurus is a useful tool that will help you to find synonyms (and antonyms) for a word. This is helpful when you don’t want to use a word repetitively in a paragraph.

Not every synonym you find will be suitable, so you have to go back to a dictionary to check the meaning to be absolutely sure. Of course, you must also be sure that the synonym is the same part of speech as the word you are replacing.

In Part Three, we’ll look at the next two steps that are needed if you are to improve your writing skills.


Developing your vocabulary and using a dictionary are basic steps to follow if you wish to improve your English writing skills. Are there other points about these two steps that should have been mentioned here? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

Copyright © 2011 by English Essay Writing Tips www.englishessaywritingtips.com


2 pings

    • Jonathan Sinyinza on February 3, 2012 at 10:02

    i am very much impressed by this site and i would like to learn more on grammer and puctuation or any other interesting book that talks about improving in eglish, please send me more in my e-mail.
    Thank you.

    1. Jonathan Sinyinza: Thank you for your comment.

      If you click on the “Follow Me” button that you will see on the right side of this web page, you will find an option to subscribe to the English Essay Writing Tips’ feed by clicking on “RSS”. In this way, you will always know when there is a new item on the blog.

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