red heart on a old opened book

Did you know that if you read 15 minutes a day, you will read over one million words per year?


High School scholars are exposed to a plethora of vocabulary through:

  • Using vocabulary in speaking
  • Using vocabulary words in sentences
  • Using vocabulary in context
  • Using vocabulary knowledge for effective reading
  • Using vocabulary knowledge for effective writing purposes

For those of our students taking SATs or AP English or IGCSE/GCSE exams – whatever question, a candidate chooses – vocabulary will need to be appropriate. Through using language imaginatively, so that it seems original, a student can be rewarded with high marks.

As an experienced GCSE and IGCSE Examiner at English Literature and English Language respectively, I am permitted to give full marks to written essays that meet the highest grade descriptors of the mark scheme.

Certainly, correct use of vocabulary is essential in any High School class. Whether an English Teacher uses a traditional vocabulary programme through visual techniques – flash cards, wall charts, realia, visual techniques, using illustrative situations like synonyms; or modern methods which highlight a student-centred approach focusing on individual students, group work or paired work, vocabulary remains a cog in High School English lessons. Why?

What is Research Saying About Vocabulary Acquisition?

Of particular concern to educators is the development of academic language. Although we learn oral language that enables us to speak to one another fairly easily, learning academic language is more complex because it involves abstract literacy tasks and language not customarily used in oral speech. Academic language is a second language, because all literate people must learn it to enable them to access academic content.

Direct vocabulary instruction is essential, but research indicates that students with well-developed vocabulary learn many more words indirectly through reading than from instruction (Cunningham & Stanovich, 2001). Two strategies that encourage children to read widely and deeply are to provide an array of reading materials that capitalize on their interests and to set aside time for reading during the school day and at home (Trelease, 2006). Conversations about their reading with adults and peers also strengthen students’ word learning (Biemiller & Boote, 2006).


HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS use vocabulary in a variety of ways: for writing purposes; in their everyday speech in both formal and informal situation. In all cases, students must learn to use vocabulary suited to purpose and audience. For instance, if you are writing a business letter, the language should be formal. On the other hand, a letter written to friends or relatives might be informal. In all cases, a student is never encouraged to use text language in all academic circles.

The typical 21st century high school student communicates via email and text message. Consequently, many of today’s high school students need to find ways to expand their vocabulary skills. High school students who want to learn how to improve vocabulary skills, can start by making the decision to read more. It’s best if students choose books and magazines that interest them. If the reading material interests them, they are more likely to maintain the reading habit.

blur book close up dataLANGUAGE REGISTER

It is the level and style of writing and should be appropriate for the situation one is in. The appropriate language register tends to depend mostly on the 4 W’s scenario:

  • The audience (Who?)
  • The topic (What?)
  • The purpose (Why?)
  • Location (Where?)

LANGUAGE REGISTER is the level of formality with which you speak. Different situations and people call for different registers. In short, the language register determines the vocabulary structure and some grammatical usage of any given writing task.

There are five language registers or styles we are all exposed to in our writing tasks:

  1. Formal Register: It is mainly appropriate for professional writing, as in speeches, e.g. sermons or announcements; letters to your boss or strangers.
  2. Informal Register: This is also called casual or intimate register used by peers or friends. It is conversational in nature, as in slang or colloquialisms and spoken by buddies, teammates, email chats and text messages, or letters to friends.
  3. Static Register: This type of register rarely or never changes. It is “frozen” in time and content. The common examples include the Lord’s Prayer, the laws passed by governments, bibliography/reference.
  4. Consultative Register: This is a standard form of communication where users engage in mutually formal and according to societal expectations. It uses professional discourse as in teacher and student situation; when strangers meet, or a lawyer and a client.
  5. Intimate Register: It is private in nature reserved for close family members or intimate people. The husband and wife, or parent and children conversations are good examples.


The core to earning a top grade mark involves the mastery of an array of skills, chief among which is using extensive vocabulary. This means students must never ever try to make their writing look more academic by using “clever” words for their own sake. Instead, always understand that there is a difference between a person’s passive vocabulary (the words s/he understands) and a person’s active vocabulary (the words s/he actually uses).

To overcome this dilemma, students must be encouraged to:

  • Avoid repetition and aim for variety. For example, replacing the word “serious” with “grave” or “important”. Something bad may be replaced by such words “terrible, awful, tragic, mind-numbing, shattering, and cataclysmic”.
  • Use words appropriate to the context. Unless it is necessary, using informal language like contractions (shortened words with missing letters from the original); slang words (casual word conversations); abbreviation (shortened forms of words or phrases); clichés (overused expressions or ideas); colloquialisms (words, phrases, ideas or expressions characteristics of ordinary or familiar conversations) should be avoided.
  • Being aware of commonly misused words. Some words are commonly misused thereby making the meaning the vague and ambiguous, eg: accept vs. except, affect vs. effect
  • Choose specific verbs. When analyzing or reporting information or ideas gathered from reading, it is important to use a variety of words that suit your purpose. Rather than using words such as “say”, “show” or “report” all the time, one can use more specific verbs in academic reporting, eg: denotes, alleges, challenges.
  • Increase your vocabulary by learning to use CONTEXT CLUES – hints that an author gives to help define a difficult or unusual word. The clue may appear within the same sentence as the word to which it refers, or it may follow in a preceding sentence – so that you can teach yourself new words every time you read.
  • Increase your vocabulary by learning to use WORD PARTS so that you can figure out word meaning by looking at their prefixes, siffixes and roots, eg:

Prefixes – When a group of letters having a special meaning appears at the beginning of a word, we call that group of letters a prefix. Following is a list of the most frequently used prefixes that account for 97% of prefixed words in printed English.

Prefix Meaning Example
dis- opposite defrost
in-, im-, il-, ir- not injustice, impossible
re- again return
un- not unfriendly

Roots – Word roots are the words from other languages that are the origin of many English words. About 60% of all English words have Latin or Greek origins. Roots give words their fixed meaning. Prefixes and suffixes can then be attached to the roots to form new words.

Root Meaning Example
bio life biology, biography
chron time chronology, sychronize
fer carry transfer, inference
geo earth geography, geode
nom name nominate, nomenclature
tele distant telegraph, telepathy

Suffixes – A group of letters with a special meaning appearing at the end of a word is called a suffix. Here is a list of 6 important suffixes. Following is a list of the 6 most frequently used suffixes that account for 97% of prefixed words in printed English.

Suffix Meaning Example
-ed past-tense verbs hopped
-ing verb form/present participle running
-ly characteristic of quickly
-s, -es more than one books, boxes
-able, -ible able to be manageable, defensible
-ful full of wishful
  • Choosing strong verbs. Academic writers prefer strong verbs to phrasal verbs (verb + preposition), e.g:
    • Establish instead of set up
    • Produce instead of churn out
    • Tolerate instead of put up with
    • Assemble instead of put together
  • Use appropriate transitions – Connectives or transitions are important in the development of an academic essay. They develop a sense of coherence and provide signposting for the reader to follow the writer’s thread of thought.          By using transitions to join paragraphs and ideas together, a writer can use    them to clarify ideas, eg:
    • To order ideas, e.g: Firstly, …, Finally . . . , To begin with . . .
    • To give reasons, e.g: Therefore, . . . , Consequently, . . . ; As a result . . .
    • To offer alternatives, e.g: On the other hand, . . . ,
    • To develop a train of thought, e.g: Yet, . . . , Nevertheless, . . . .
  • Avoid redundancy. Being concise is the key. To write an effective essay is never easy; it requires a lot of practice. So always aim to write precisely and concisely, using only as many words as are necessary to convey what you want to say, eg: e.g., Blatantly obvious: Things that are blatant are obvious. Close proximity: To be in proximity to something is to be close to it. Try close to or in proximity to instead.
  • Try using synonyms – a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase. You should aim to use these in your writing instead of relying on the same words all of the time, eg: Do — execute, enact, carry out, finish, conclude, effect, accomplish, achieve, attain; Decide — determine, settle, choose, resolve
  • Read widely, read a variety of things so that you will exposed to thousands of new words each month. Keep a vocabulary journal to record that interesting words you find, or make word cards so that you can see your vocabulary growing. Reading a variety of materials is a fundamental way for students to boost their vocabulary skills. For instance, reading books written in different time periods is one of the best ways to improve vocabulary. For the high school student who wants to improve vocabulary skills, he or she can begin to read the literary classics.
  • Look for word games and puzzles online, eg: Interactive Word Games:;
  • Test yourself and have fun at the same time, eg: SAT Vocabulary Tests on offers the eager student ready to learn, free vocabulary tests, which are the best way to boost your verbal skills.
  • Reading works by unfamiliar authors – A great way to gaining exposure to new words, improving vocabulary and making it a point to look up any unfamiliar words you encounter.
  • Use your new words from time to time in conversations.
  • Learn vocabulary through a specific academic subject – For instance, when I want to improve my vocabulary in the subject of history I read biographies of famous historical figures. The vocabulary words in those works can be very helpful in understanding the material in a history course. Alternatively, I can improve my vocabulary in math by reading about famous mathematicians.
  • Use the library to find other resources for building your vocabulary. The bookstores have “Word for Today” calendars, crossword puzzles, and vocabulary word card boxes.
  • You can also use Online Flash Cards (Most are free) at;;

The top tip is to practice where you feel short. That way you will see yourself getting better every day.

I wish you the best in all your endeavours.

As of old: Be EMPOWERED and EXCEL!


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