How to Build TOEFL Vocab Skills…and Feed the World?


In helping students prepare for the TOEFL, I’ve been playing around with a great vocabulary game at, which has a very lofty and worthwhile goal. Welcome to  TOEFL Training blog. TOEFL vocabulary lists abound – I have used a great one in Clear Strategies & Tactics that has over 2000 words taken from old TOEFL exams. But this tool is not only a great way to practice your vocabulary and build your English skills. It helps to make the world a better place and raises a very nerdy linguistics issue. Proceed with caution! 

But allow me to use the title to expound a little on the subject of vocabulary.

Let’s look at the URL, freerice. Is rice being imprisoned, and this is a command to liberate it, or is someone giving away rice for no charge? 

What is going on in your brain when you see words out of context?

Ok, let me get nerdy here. First, when it comes to vocabulary, there are two categories – words we know and words we don’t know.

Simple enough. There are like 1,000,000 words in English, so most of us don’t know most words. 

Now, among the words you DO know, there is your ‘receptive vocabulary’ (words you understand when you hear them or read them) and your ‘productive vocabulary’ (words that you use in your speech and writing). We all have a much larger receptive vocab than a productive one.

But, among the words you DON’T know, you use some principles that are based on words that you DO know, or what you know about words in general, to divine meaning.

Following me so far?

So, what is going on in your brain when you encounter a new word? Basically, you are using two skills, your linguistic knowledge and your schematic knowledge. 

1. Linguistic Knowledge = morphological + syntactic awareness

Morphological awareness is your understanding of word parts. For example, root words, prefixes, suffixes, etc. – how words are formed.

Syntactic awareness involves your understanding or instinct of the word itself. For example, it’s a verb, adjective, etc.

2. Schematic Knowledge = common sense

The combination of your linguistic and schematic knowledge helps you make decisions about the word choices you make in the multiple-guess tasks presented on

The challenge on this site, of course, is that the words are not exactly synonyms, and they are not presented in context, so it makes the guesswork harder for the words that you don’t know.

That’s part of the fun

When you choose the correct answer to a word that is new to you, however, it is probably not by chance! You are using your deep understanding of how words are formed, and used, to make an educated guess.

In the URL above, we can infer that the word ‘free’ is an adjective (thank you, syntactic knowledge), meaning we don’t have to pay for the rice, rather than a verb commanding us to unshackle these poor nutritious grains from a life of insufferable servitude (here, our schematic knowledge kicks in too). We also know that ‘rice’ is not some guy named ‘Rice’ who is locked up in a jail somewhere, because (hello morphological knowledge) the uppercase ‘R’ on the site is titular and does not indicate a proper noun.

TOEFL Training

In TOEFL Clear Strategies & Tactics, I have a great lesson on building your vocabulary. Check it out here.

I also talk about solving TOEFL Vocabulary Questions – which account for 30% of TOEFL Reading questions! – inside the TOEFL. Check that lesson out here.

If you are interested in learning even more about TOEFL Training, check out my course Clear Strategies & Tactics

Thanks for checking out our blog. For more information about private TOEFL training or group rates, feel free to reach out to

27 Replies to “How to Build TOEFL Vocab Skills…and Feed the World?”

  1. When it comes to learning foreign langauage, expanding one’s vocabulary is crucial…and in terms of this it is useful information!!

  2. I really like this game!! It’s really helpful for gaining my vocabulary. Thank you for let me know this game John~~

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  4. 5/17/2019 @ 6:19:59 AM In my estimation, does a great job of dealing with subject matter of this sort. While often deliberately polemic, the information is in the main well researched and thought-provoking.

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