How to build your HKDSE vocabulary (5 steps)

One of the major keys to success in the English DSE is the ability to understand, recall and use a wide variety of English words. In fact, I would say it is the determining factor in order to achieve a high score. Of course, there are other skills a top candidate needs in order to do well in the exam, but students with excellent vocabulary often learn them more quickly and easily. Let’s get on with the steps.

Simply English - How to build your HKDSE Vocabulary (5 Steps)
1. Create associations with new vocabulary

Understanding how vocabulary is retained and recalled is really the key to increasing it.

Growing your range of language is not easy. A lot of advice usually involves the phrase, “read more.” But is it really that easy? In reality, it isn’t for most people and definitely not for people who have a limited vocabulary. The kind of vocabulary needed for exams is at such a level that reading newspapers or academic articles are challenging for those who need it most. This is even more difficult when it’s a second or third language! So what is it that helps students learn more vocabulary? In one word – association. It is the idea that links the rest of these steps together.

What is vocabulary association? Basically, the way you should approach learning vocabulary is by creating associations of the word and its different forms and how they relate to other English words that are already part of your established vocabulary. This in turn helps you understand and use these words in the correct context. You may learn how to break down words into smaller ones, or create new words. For example, the noun pollution means to introduce contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change. We can change the word into the verb form (pollute) and the adjective form (polluted) and study their usage in the different parts of speech.

We can also create other associations that help us connect to our senses. You might visualize plastic bottles in country parks and oil spills in the seas to represent the noun form. You might think of industries leaking chemicals into a nearby river for the verb. You can imagine the smell of cigarettes on busy streets or feel the erratic weather from global warming. You can also think about if the word has any suffixes, prefixes, synonyms or antonyms.

All of these things help you to create associations that will help your retention, recall and usage for those new words.

2. Find at least one source of English entertainment, news and/or interest that you love.

Having interest in something you love motivates you to learn and as a result grows your vocabulary and knowledge.

Think about things you enjoy now. If it’s only video games, you need to put that controller down, move away from the mouse or turn off that phone. Instead become interested in a topic that is heavily based in the English language which is virtually everything. But if you need some ideas, here are some topics: sports, music, movies, literature/stories, anime, culture, art, technology, nature, space, fashion, design, toys and hobbies, collecting, gardening, writing and politics.

This form of passive learning is important as it creates opportunities to learn more vocabulary. Investing this time will help you learn the culture of English speakers and make you stronger in return. Without this interest, reading or listening to English becomes a chore, task or requirement. When that happens, students lose the desire to learn. 

Learn to love something in English. 

3. Actively learn and write down 5 useful words every day for at least 4-5 straight days.

Ever hear the phrase, “practice makes perfect”? It means regular exercise of an activity or skill is the way to become proficient in it. 

Learning language is a particularly hard skill, so in order to become more fluent, you need to practice. Aim to learn and write down five useful words every day. Learn the meanings of the words in both English and Chinese (or whatever your native language is). Write the words down with their definitions. Write sentences with these new words. Create the links/associations that we talked about in part 1, but most importantly, make sure you write it all down. You must invest time and brainpower into learning words just as you would any other knowledge or skill. At the end of the week, you’ll have 20-25 new words that you’ll need to retain. Make a quiz at the end of the week. There are online sites that can help you with that.  

Find words in the texts that we mentioned in step 2. Find words in the texts you already need to read at school. Find words in newspapers/magazines (online), blogs, and other academic papers since you should be reading about current news and social issues anyway in preparation for the three core subjects in the HKDSE (in both Chinese and English). 

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so grow your vocabulary gradually and contextually. After one month, you’ll have 80-100 new words ready to use. After 12 months, maybe 960-1200 words. That’s an amazing increase in vocabulary knowledge.

4.  Write everyday

Writing in a journal or diary provides the opportunity to use new vocabulary.

Now that you know all these new words after steps 1-3, you need a place to use it. Of course, oral usage is important, but the ability to create thoughts and put it in writing really hones your skill in using vocabulary. Daily writing trains you to look up definitions/synonyms/antonyms and usage of words you know and don’t know which refines and builds your increasingly excellent vocabulary list. Who knows? You might just like writing once you start doing it regularly.

Another important writing technique is learning how to paraphrase. Paraphrasing means rewriting a sentence to say/write it in another way. For example, look at this sentence: Giraffes like Acacia leaves and hay, and they can consume 75 pounds of food a day. It can be paraphrased into this sentence: A giraffe can eat up to 75 pounds of Acacia leaves and hay daily. Paraphrasing requires you to identify the keywords and then use vocabulary and possibly different structure to rewrite the sentence and maintian the same meaning.

Make sure you write everyday in order to give yourself the opportunity to use new vocabulary.

5. Use a set list of words to study

Vocabulary lists give learners goals.

After steps 1-4, if you still feel like you need more direction on what vocabulary to learn, then you can use set lists of vocabulary. I have a couple of lists to start you off. Simply English has created one that is an essential vocabulary list for HKDSE. The list is a collection of words that have appeared on two or more past DSE English papers between the years of 2012 and 2018. It’s only 113 words long, but even students with strong English ability won’t know 100% of the words. The list is a mixture of easy and medium words. You should try to identify if you know the words or not, so you can get a good idea of how strong your vocabulary is. For this list, knowing and understanding 90% or more of the words is considered strong.

Simply English also keeps a few articles that has lists of 30 words in them to learn. They come with easy to understand meanings, usage cases and examples. Check them out! Vocabulary List #1, Vocabulary List #2. Simply English provides another list for students which has over 1300 words that have been marked as important from the past papers. Students in our HKDSE classes get this list to study from.

Another good list to take a look at is something called the “New General Service List“. Basically, it gives you a list of about 1300 words that are considered “core words” used in English. You can read about the list and the methodology for choosing the words with this link and download the list in excel format for your own study.

There are more lists out there to learn, so I encourage you to do more research.

Well, that’s it for the five steps. I’m confident if you follow this advice, you’re English vocabulary is sure to improve!