Skip to main content

Are you making the most of the vocabulary available to you?

By 14 October 2017Language Tips
Show off your vocabulary

Show off your vocabulary

I love vocabulary.

As a teacher it’s one of my favourite things to teach. I always find time in every lesson to pick out words that are new to my students and elicit what they know of the meaning and how it is used in English. Did you know, for example that we have around 100 adjectives to describe pain? That’s amazing because it allows us to describe the pain by the way it feels to us: dull, burning, stabbing, twisting. It’s also difficult for non-native speakers to learn so many words. A patient in pain is someone who wants to be helped to feel better. If you don’t immediately understand what they are telling you, they can quickly become frustrated.

Using vocabulary appropriately

As healthcare professionals, you need to be able to ‘translate’ your vocabulary up and down. What I mean is you need to understand what the patient is saying in non-medical terms and translate this up when communicating this information to a colleague (for example when writing). You also need to be able to translate down medical terms to explain them in words a patient will understand.

Let’s look at a few examples:

A patient, Mrs X, says to you:

“I can’t always get to the toilet in time.”

In a letter or when reporting this to a colleague you might translate this up to:

“Mrs X is having problems with incontinence.”

On the other hand, you need to tell the mother of Dan this information:

“Dan needs to have a tonsillectomy”.

When speaking to Dan’s mother, you would translate this down to:

“Dan needs to have his tonsils out”


“Dan needs to have an operation to remove his tonsils.”

Why this is important

This is important when it comes to recording and learning new vocabulary. If you come across a new medical term, it’s important to stop and think, what’s the alternative I would use with a patient? And vice versa. So, for example, a couple of weeks ago our word of the week was ‘catch’. Patients often use ‘catch’ to explain that they have picked up a viral infection such as flu or a cold. When recording this, it will be important to note that this word is an irregular, informal verb. Writing down an example sentence will remind you how to use it. It is also important though to record the formal equivalent of ‘catch’ which you are more likely to hear from colleagues: ‘contract’.

‘Contract’ is a really interesting example. Many second language learners know it in its noun form to mean the document you sign when you start a new job. However, they are unfamiliar with its formal medical verb form. They are also usually unaware that the noun and verb forms are pronounced differently. Contract the noun is pronounced ‘contract (the stress on the first syllable) while contract the verb is pronounced con’tract (the stress on the second syllable). And so the segment of my lessons on vocabulary would go!

Show the OET Assessors what vocabulary you know

Assessors also love vocabulary. Demonstrating a range of appropriate vocabulary in your writing and speaking will make you stand out from other candidates and impress your assessors. Healthcare has a lot of its own specialist vocabulary. I don’t just mean technical terms but also verbs, nouns, adjectives, phrasal verbs which are well-known by patients. Using this healthcare vocabulary in the right place at the right time will demonstrate a level of mastery in test and real-life situations.

How to increase your vocabulary

In summary, there are a few things you should do to make sure you expand and use a good range of vocabulary:

  • Notice new words when you read, listen or speak to people. A good English-English dictionary (or a native friend/teacher if you don’t know how to spell the word) will tell you how common the word is and whether it’s useful to record and learn.
  • When recording new words, don’t just write down the word and it’s definition or translation, expand the details to include how you would use it and how it can be translated up or down.
  • Challenge yourself to use 3-4 words you have recently recorded in your communication each day. Using words = learning words as they become part of your everyday vocabulary.
  • Show off your vocabulary to your patients, colleagues and assessors. You have access to a whole group of words that the rest of the population don’t (everyday at least). You have earned the right to use them so go ahead!