How to Improve your English Vocabulary for the CPE Exam

In our article 'Vocabulary used in the CPE exam', I explained that for doing well in the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) exam you need to both improve your knowledge and English vocabulary of a wide variety of different topics and to learn some specific types of advanced words and phrases (e.g. vocabulary for expressing feelings, English expressions 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 (of which there are few for CPE level unfortunately).

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 (at least two or three times a week). This is in addition to what you are doing in class (if you are doing one).

Read articles and essays, not novels and books

For the CPE 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.

Although to make the most of your time I would not recommend you read novels, it would be beneficial for you if you also also read some short stories. The reason why is that they sometimes use an excerpt (a part) from a novel as one of the text in the Reading/UOE part of the exam, so it's good to be used to the style of writing used in them. But only read very short short stories (no more than 3,000 words long).

Read interviews with famous people as well

In the Listening part of the exam you'll often hear people being interviewed, so you need to learn the phrases, expressions and words that are used when people are having a conversation. The best way to learn this is to read interviews with famous people. You should be able to find these on every news website.

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. And if you have a CPE level of English you should be able to read any article in English you find.

However, for improving your vocabulary for the CPE exam, you should only read articles which are written specifically for native speakers who have a high educational level (university degree level or above). This is due to them using more intellectual vocabulary (which you will find used in the exam).

Fortunately, there are quite websites on the internet where you can find such articles. And because of the type of people they write the article for (university graduates and professionals), you'll be able to find articles on most of the topics which you will find used in the exam.

I personally recommend that you use the following 4 websites for your reading:

The Conversation


The Atlantic

The Guardian

For the Guardian, I would recommend that you read the articles in their opinion section (you'll find the section in their menu bar on the website). In these the authors express their opinions on things or events and use colourful and descriptive language to do so.

Avoid reading the BBC

Although I personally love the BBC and read articles and news from its website every day, I would recommend that you don't for improving your vocabulary for the exam. The reason why is that the articles it contains are written to be easily understandable by a general audience (not only intellectuals or graduates). As a result, they generally use more simple vocabulary in the articles. And to do well in the CPE exam, you need to have a good knowledge of much more advanced than you will find used there.

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 CPE 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.