Four TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement Tips

If you develop a command of TOEFL vocabulary, you will dramatically increase your chances of scoring higher on the TOEFL exam. Moreover, having adequate TOEFL vocabulary will help you to succeed in your academic and professional situations; therefore, follow the TOEFL vocabulary improvement tips on this web page:

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement Tip 1: Rely less on translation dictionaries

Sometimes, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do when you are seeking TOEFL vocabulary improvement.  For example, as you advance your academic English language proficiency, you should rely less and less on translation dictionaries while you aim for TOEFL vocabulary improvement.  If you need to check the meaning of a vocabulary word, use an English dictionary so that you can get a simpler understanding of the word.  For example, suppose you saw the word “gregarious” in a reading passage in a newspaper.  Indeed, “gregarious” is not a common word, especially in informal conversations.

Therefore, instead of trying to get a translation of the word from your own language, you will find that an English dictionary will define the word as “someone who is fond of others; sociable.”  In this case, you have probably heard of the word “sociable,” so there is no need to try to get an exact definition.  By using an English dictionary to understand the word, you are getting more exposure to English by 1) reading a sample sentence using the word, 2) seeing synonyms and antonyms of the word, and 3) understanding what part of speech the word is so you know how it works grammatically within a sentence. If you had used a translation dictionary, you would have missed these three important language-use opportunities

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement Tip 2: Rely less on English dictionaries and use the context more

Another important factor in your TOEFL vocabulary improvement is you that use the context more to understand the unfamiliar words that you come across. This is your most important goal since, when you take the TOEFL exam, you will not see or hear definitions of unfamiliar words during the TOEFL exam as you encounter the often conceptually-dense reading and listening passages.  Therefore, during your TOEFL vocabulary improvement study, aim to use vocabulary-in-context strategies to get a sense of the unfamiliar words you are encountering:

Adjective clauses: In some cases, adjective clauses can give you additional information to unfamiliar nouns in reading or listening passages:

Photosynthesis, which is the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy, occurs in most terrestrial and marine plants.”

In this case the adjective clause  defines “photosynthesis” so there is no need to use a dictionary to find the meaning.

Examples: In other cases,  examples in the reading passage may help you to understand the meaning of unfamiliar words:

“The friend I met at the party is a gregarious person. For instance, I noticed that the person really likes meeting and talking to new people.” 

The example after the first sentence illustrates what a gregarious person is by saying that s/he likes being around people. Therefore, it can be inferred that “gregarious” is similar in meaning to “sociable.”

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement: additional contextual clues

Other words in a sentence: In addition to paying attention to adjective clauses and examples as contextual clues, looking at other words in the sentence(s) might also help you to guess at the meaning of unfamiliar words:

“California has building codes requiring older buildings to be seismically retrofitted so that the buildings have additional steel fittings and concrete columns to make the structures more resistant to damage after moderate to large earthquakes.”

Other words in the previous sentence make it easier to understand what “seismically retrofitted” means.

Appositives: Appositives, nouns phrases used to modify other nouns within a sentence, can also help you identify the meaning of unfamiliar words. Did you notice that I used an appositive “noun phrases” to identify the meaning of appositives in the previous sentence?  If that is too confusing, pay attention the following sentence:

“Meiosis, a type of cell division, occurs among single-celled plants and micro-organisms.”

An appositive is used to identify “meiosis.”

Be verb: In some cases, the “be” verb is a clue to unknown words in a sentence:  Biology is the study of living organisms. Since the “be” verb introduces subjective compliments, which give further information about the subject of the sentence, you can guess the meaning of “biology.”

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement Tip 3: Increase your exposure to academic reading and listening passages

Now you know that using the context to understand new vocabulary is important;  hence, you should make an effort to read and listen to academic passages for about 90 minutes daily while you prepare for the rigorous TOEFL exam which contains almost five hours of academic reading and listening content.

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement: Increase exposure to reading passages

For your reading practice, find newspapers, magazines, and books, and spend 45 minutes reading and taking notes on the main and most important points of the information. Do not stop when you see unfamiliar words. Keep reading and concentrating on the passages for the full 45 minutes. When you are finished, go back to some of the unfamiliar words and try to use contextual clues mentioned on this web page to help you understand. If that fails, then use an English dictionary or web site to understand the meaning.

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement: Increase exposure to listening passages

Similarly, for your listening practice, spend about 45 minutes listening to news, documentary, science, and history programs. Break up to listening practice to short 5-7 audio segments of information.  As you practice, take notes on the main and most important points in the passages.

For both your reading and listening practice, you should now practice your language use, an important piece of the puzzle that will help you to acquire basic and advanced grammar for the long term. Therefore, use your  notes from the reading and listening passages to deliver 60-90 second recorded responses. In addition, use your notes from the reading and listening passages to write 250 word responses.  Obviously, speaking and writing about these reading and listening passages helps you improve your TOEFL integrated speaking and writing proficiencies. More importantly, however, speaking and writing about the passages using your notes helps you to use the vocabulary and grammar that you are reading and listening to, which really helps you to cement these new grammar structures and vocabulary words into your brain, in other words, helping you to learn academic English.

TOEFL Vocabulary Improvement Tip 4: Develop a long-term study plan to acquire these 1,700 TOEFL vocabulary words

So far I have said nothing of vocabulary lists because I want you to see that using the context and having regular reading, listening, and language-use practice eclipses the importance of memorization. Nevertheless, assuming that you are willing to engage in reading and listening practice each day, you should study new vocabularies so that you can see how these new words or being used in the passages that you are studying.  Get your free comprehensive list for TOEFL vocabulary improvement by going here:

To learn this vocabulary list, do the following:

  1.  Record yourself speaking each word three times. Listen to the audio files of the words on your phone or tablet.
  2. Put each word onto a 4 x 6 inch note-card, with the word written in large bold letters on one side and a definition (no translations!), sample sentence, parts of speech information, and examples of synonyms and antonyms on the other side.
  3. Separate the note-cards into stacks of 100 initially, but then begin separating the vocabulary into two stacks: the words that you can easily remember and the words that you are having trouble remembering.
  4. Study your vocabulary words regularly making sure that you cycle through ALL of the words every few weeks.

Following these five steps in your memorization will eventually ensure that you will 1) start using the words in your speaking more, 2)begin using these words in your writing more frequently, and 3) begin recognizing these new words as you complete your reading and listening practice daily.

Good luck!

Michael Buckhoff, founder, owner, and materials writer for the Online TOEFL Course “The 7-Step System to Pass the TOEFL iBT