Easy Self-study: Contextualized Vocabulary Learning with Dictionaries, Corpora, and More

Before you read: The below lead-in contains a lot of vocabulary items for a challenge at the end of the blog. At the moment, ignore the unfamiliar words and phrases (if you have). Go back when I tell you to do so.

As a non-native English speaker and a newbie EFL teacher, I am no stranger to the importance and challenges of vocabulary acquisition. While some learners swear by the traditional method of memorizing endless lists of words and definitions, I find it to be an uninspiring and often futile exercise. Let’s face it, trying to understand the true meaning of a word out of context can be like trying to navigate a foreign city without a map. But fear not, fellow word warriors! I have discovered a much more effective and enjoyable approach: immersing myself in the language and relishing the rich context in which words come to life – “contextualized vocabulary learning” (Godwin-Jones, 2018). So, if you’re tired of trudging through boring lists, it’s time to toss that old-school approach out the window and embrace the beauty of contextualized vocabulary learning!

So what is “context” when it comes to learning vocabulary? To put it simply, context is the information that surrounds a word, including the words and sentences that come before and after it. In describing discourse analysis in language teaching, Olshtain & Celce-Murcia pointed out that “the intended and complete meaning of a word can only be derived from the combination of a given dictionary meaning and the contextual frame within which the word appears” (2001, p. 715). Accordingly, context can help you understand the meaning of the word and how it’s used in a particular situation.

In EFL coursebooks nowadays, words are commonly presented in relevant context, through various activities. Students are instructed to use context to deduce the meaning of vocabulary, instead of using dictionary. Below is an example from the coursebook I’m using for my B1 learners.

An example of contextualized vocabulary learning activities. From Pathways: Reading, Writing and Critical Thinking 2 (2nd Edition) by Laurie Blass and Mari Vargo.

Now, big questions! Can we, as language learners, take our contextualized vocabulary learning beyond the confines of the classroom? Is this approach only viable under the watchful eye of a teacher? Before you start scratching your head and pondering these weighty matters, allow me to offer a few suggestions.

1. Decipher first, verify later

Before consulting dictionaries, it’s crucial to attempt to infer a word’s meaning from context. By employing context clues to determine a word’s meaning when we come across an unfamiliar word, we can read the surrounding text more attentively and determine the author’s intended meaning. This process not only strengthens our understanding of the current passage, but it also enhances our ability to comprehend future texts by making connections between ideas and concepts. Also, using a dictionary too often might slow down our reading rate and interfere with our comprehension of the material as a whole. Therefore, attempting to deduce the meaning of unknown words based on context should be the first step in the process of learning new vocabulary through the materials we read.

The next step is to verify our understanding by checking a dictionary or another reliable source. Once we have a rough idea of what the word means based on the context in which it appears, we can use a dictionary to confirm or refine our understanding of its meaning. Dictionaries can provide us with the precise definition of the word, followed by relevant examples (though in some case, examples are limited), various connotations, synonyms, and antonyms. These give us a more nuanced understanding of the word’s meaning and its usage.

2. Look it up, but not in dictionaries

Remember my previous blog on corpora? Now, it’s time to expand the application of corpora. For those who have never heard of corpora, they are large collections of written or spoken texts that have been assembled for research purposes, and they can be a useful tool for learning vocabulary. Corpora can help us see how words are used in context. By searching for a word in a corpus, we can see how it is used in a variety of texts, facilitating a better understanding of the word’s meaning and usage. Have a look at the expanded contexts of “exorbitant” I have found in the TV Corpus on https://www.english-corpora.org/ as below.

Natural examples of language use are essential for us to develop a deeper understanding of the nuances of meaning and usage of words. Corpora provide a rich source of such natural examples, which allow us to see how words are used in different contexts and with different meanings. These examples are often more authentic than what a dictionary definition can provide, as they reflect the actual language used in the real world.

3. A blend of situations, dictionaries and corpora

Another helpful resource for learning vocabulary in context is vocabulary.com. This website not only provides definitions for words, but also explains them through various situations and contexts. That’s why I can gladly refer to it as a blend of both of the aforementioned suggestions. Observe my screenshot for the entry of “exorbitant” on vocabulary.com below.

As you can see, vocabulary.com exhibits interesting ways of introducing the meanings of words. Instead of simply providing a definition, it offers various situations where the word can appear, allowing us to figure out its meaning by context. The website also contains definitions and synonyms (and sometimes antonyms) like a dictionary. This makes it easy to get a quick definition and understand the different meanings of a word. Another great thing about vocabulary.com is the wide range of examples it provides. These examples are derived from a variety of texts, and the sources can be chosen, making it easy to go through various real-life situations where the word is used. However, it is worth noting that the words on vocabulary.com are mostly based on American English, as the website is primarily developed for students in the US. Despite this, the website still offers a valuable platform for anyone looking to improve their vocabulary skills. And of course, there are more about vocabulary.com that you can explore on your own. For the purpose of this blog, I have only focused on one feature of the website.

Remember my lead-in? Now, can you just go back, read it again and try applying my suggestions into learning unfamiliar words and phrases? Enjoy!

I would say learning vocabulary from context can make the process of building your English language skills much more engaging and rewarding. Personally, unlocking new words through context is like discovering hidden treasures – it makes learning vocabulary an exciting and fulfilling journey.


Elite, & Marianne. (2001). Discourse analysis and language teaching. In D. Schiffrin, D. Tannen, & H. E. Hamilton (Eds.), The handbook of discourse analysis (pp. 707–724). Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Godwin-Jones, R. (2018). Contextualized vocabulary learning. Language Learning & Technology, 22(3), 1–19. https://doi.org/10125/4465

Vargo, M., & Blass, L. (2018). Pathways: Reading, writing, and critical thinking 2 (2nd ed.). Heinle ELT.

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