How to Improve your English Vocabulary for the FCE Exam

In our article 'Vocabulary Used in the FCE Exam', I explained that for doing well in the Cambridge First Certificate of English (FCE) exam you should focus on learning both specific types of vocabulary (e.g. vocabulary for expressing feelings etc..) and the vocabulary for specific topics (e.g. movies, education 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 or watching YouTube videos, they are not as effective as reading. Listening to podcasts and watching 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 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 FCE Exam'.

Read articles and essays, not novels and books

For the FCE exam you need to improve your knowledge of English vocabulary for a variety of topics (e.g. the environment, work, music etc...), 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.

When choosing articles to read, focus on the topics which I explained in the article 'Vocabulary Used in the FCE Exam' which are most commonly used in the exam. By doing this, you will increase the possibility that the vocabulary you have learnt will be in the exam.

In addition to reading articles, you can also do vocabulary exercises (either online or in books). But like with articles, do exercises on the topics and types of vocabulary which are commonly used (e.g. animals, expressing feelings etc...) in the exam.

Finding material to use and read

Finding articles to read in English on the common topics used in the exam is not difficult. But what is difficult is finding things which are at the right level for both you and the exam. You shouldn't read things which are written for native English-speaking adults (it will be too difficult for you and you'll get confused and frustrated).

You can either read things which are especially designed for people studying for the FCE exam, things which are designed for students with intermediate level of English (which is very similar to the FCE level) or things which are written for or by English-speaking young teenagers (13 and 14-year-olds). In these, they won't be too difficult to read and you'll learn vocabulary which you will likely find in the exam.

Below are some websites and resources for reading material you can use:

  • VOA: This website has a lot of articles on things in the news. Many of them are a little boring, but they contain good vocabulary. Read the articles for level 2.
  • Teen Ink: This is a website with lots of articles, stories and essays written by young English speaking teenagers. The level of language used is right for the FCE exam.
  • Breaking News English: Lots of different articles on news stories. The articles are a little too short and sometimes not very interesting. Read the articles for level 2.
  • Our eBook of articles for FCE: An eBook of 50 articles and vocabulary exercises which we created to help students who are studying for FCE exam.

Although most of these (except Teen Ink) contain vocabulary exercises which you can do after reading the articles, I would also recommend you do specially designed vocabulary exercises as well.

Although Cambridge has a vocabulary book for the FCE exam, I don't particularly like it. One book I would recommend that you use is a non-FCE book from Cambridge called 'English Vocabulary in Use Pre-intermediate and Intermediate'. Although some of the vocabulary in the book is a little basic, you'll also find a lot of vocabulary which is essential to know for the exam.

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 in English

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 in English and learning new vocabulary about 9 months (or at least 5 to 6 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 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.