How to Improve your English Vocabulary for the CAE Exam

In our article 'Vocabulary used in the CAE exam', I explained that for doing well in the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English (CAE) exam you need to both improve your knowledge and English vocabulary of a wide variety of different topics and to learn advanced words and phrases used for doing specific types of things (e.g. vocabulary for expressing feelings etc...).

In this article, I'm going to explain where you can find the right material to learn this and similar vocabulary from and the best way in my opinion for you to both learn and remember it.

Reading is better

In my experience, the quickest and the best way to learn new words and phrases is through reading. This can be by reading articles or by doing specially designed vocabulary exercises.

Although you can learn new vocabulary through listening to podcasts, watching TV and YouTube videos, they are not as effective as reading. Listening to podcasts and watching TV and YouTube videos is good for hearing or seeing vocabulary you already know being used, but not for learning new words and phrases.

The more you see vocabulary, the more you will understand what it means

The more times that you see or hear a word or phrase being used in English, the more likely you are to understand what it means and in what situations it is used in. So, the more you read in English the better your knowledge of English vocabulary will be.

So get into the habit of regularly reading in English (two or three times a week). This is in addition to what you are doing in class (if you are doing one).

To learn some advanced synonyms for common words which you can use in the exam, read our article called 'Vocabulary to Improve your Writing and Speaking in the CAE Exam'.

Read articles and essays, not novels and books

For the CAE exam you need to improve your knowledge of English vocabulary for a variety of topics (e.g. the environment, work, music etc...), and it is slower to do that by reading novels or books (which are generally on one topic). It is better to read articles (and also reviews and essays) to widen/broaden your vocabulary on different topics. Articles are shorter, so you can read more of them than you can books/novels.

In addition to reading articles, you should also do English vocabulary exercises (either online or in books) on the different topics you read or on specific types of vocabulary you need to improve (e.g. expressing probability, feelings etc...). Do vocabulary exercises which are for an upper-intermediate level of English.

Finding material to use and read

On the internet you will be able to find articles in English on any topic that you want to improve your knowledge and vocabulary of. However, if your English level is right for the CAE exam, you are going to have a problem.

You'll find that the majority of articles on the internet which have been designed for English learners are going to be too easy for you (so you don't really improve your vocabulary), while a lot of articles meant for native English-speaking adults will be just a little too difficult and confusing for you.

But there is one website which I recommend that you use to improve knowledge and vocabulary of the topics you may find on the CAE exam. And fortunately it has a lot of material which are on very different types of topics:


Although all the articles on the BBC have been written for native speakers, unlike the majority of other websites which provide similar material, they have been written so that the majority of people would have no problem to understand them. This is ideal for people who are studying for the CAE exam.

Even though most people know the BBC for its news, the website has some other sections which have longer articles on a variety of different topics. For example:

Unfortunately, there are no vocabulary exercises to help you improve specific vocabulary in these articles. So, in addition to the above website I recommend that you use something which does. It is our eBook of articles for CAE. It is an eBook which contains 60 articles and vocabulary exercises which we created to help students who are studying for the CAE exam.

A book for vocabulary

In addition to using the above resources for improving your knowledge and vocabulary on a variety of topics, I would also recommend you do specially designed vocabulary exercises as well.

Although Cambridge has a vocabulary book for the CAE exam, I don't particularly like it. One book I would recommend that you use is a non-CAE book from Cambridge called 'English Vocabulary in Use Upper-intermediate'. It contains a lot of vocabulary which you will find and can use in the exam.

Make a list of the topics and vocabulary you need to learn

Because you have to broaden your knowledge of and vocabulary used for a large number of different topics, it is important to both plan and keep a record of what topics and vocabulary you have read and learnt about and when. I would recommend you keep a list on a spreadsheet or a word document of what topics you have read and learnt the vocabulary for and which you still have to do.

If you don't, it is easy to forget which you have done and you could end up doing a topic again which have already done and missing topics and vocabulary that will help you when you do the exam.

Click here to see some of the topics which I recommend that you do and don't cover for the CAE exam

Read articles on topics you have already covered

I would recommend that a couple of months after reading an article and learning the vocabulary for a specific topic (e.g. climate change) that you read another article (not the same one) on the same topic again. The reason why you do this is to help you remember the vocabulary you have learnt.

If you have made a list of the topics and vocabulary you have covered, this should be very easy to do. And when you have done it, make sure that you mark down that you have on the list.

Ways to make you remember English better

From just reading or hearing English vocabulary, you will in time improve your level of English vocabulary. But it will take time.

In order to understand and remember new vocabulary quicker, when you see a new word or phrase you should focus on guessing what it means from the context where you read it. After doing this, make sure you are right by checking in a dictionary and then use it by making a sentence with the word.

I have created a method which explains how to do this (and which I use with my students). To learn this method, read my article called 'A method for remembering vocabulary in English' on our other English learning website.

When to start reading regularly

Improving your English vocabulary is not something which is quick to do. It is not something which you can start doing a month before you do the actual exam and expect to see a dramatic improvement in. You need to start regularly reading to improve your English vocabulary as soon as you can. I would recommend starting regularly reading articles on different topics in English and learning new vocabulary at least 9 months before you do the exam.

In addition to doing this, I would also recommend that you regularly listen to podcasts which are right for your level once or twice a week. As I said before, podcasts are not the best way to learn new vocabulary, but they are good for helping you to remember the meaning and use of vocabulary that you already know.