Building vocabulary is a powerful way to enhance your life and career
Learning how to build a better vocabulary can be a pleasurable and profitable investment of both your time and effort. At least fifteen minutes a day of concentrated study on a regular basis can bring about a rapid improvement in your vocabulary skills, which in turn can increase your ability to communicate by writing, conversing, or making speeches. Acquiring a large vocabulary can benefit you in school, at work, and socially. It will enable you to understand others’ ideas better and to have the satisfaction of getting your thoughts and ideas across more effectively.
Of course, you already know thousands of words, and you will continue to learn more whether you work at it or not. The fact is that many of the words you know were probably learned simply by coming across them often enough in your reading, in conversation, and even while watching television. But increasing the pace of your learning requires a consistent, dedicated approach. If you learned only one new word a day for the next three years, you would have over a thousand new words in your vocabulary. However, if you decided right now to learn ten new words a day, in one year you would have added over three thousand to what you already know, and probably have established a lifetime habit of learning and self-improvement.
Four basic steps to a better vocabulary
While there are not any magic shortcuts to learning words, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. So your learning speed, or pace, should increase as your vocabulary grows. There are four basic steps to building your vocabulary:
1. Be Aware of Words
Many people are surprised when they are told they have small vocabularies. “But I read all the time!” they protest. This shows that reading alone may not be enough to make you learn new words. When we read a novel, for instance, there is usually a strong urge to get on with the story and skip over unfamiliar or perhaps vaguely known words. But while it is obvious when a word is totally unknown to you, you have to be especially aware of words that seem familiar to you but whose precise meanings you may not really know.
Instead of avoiding these words, you will need to take a closer look at them. First, try to guess at a word’s meaning from its context—that is, the sense of the passage in which it appears; second, if you have a dictionary on hand, look up the word’s meaning immediately. This may slow down your reading somewhat, but your improved understanding of each new word will eventually speed your learning of other words, making reading easier. Make a daily practice of noting words of interest to you for further study whenever you are reading, listening to the radio, talking to friends, or watching television.
When you have become more aware of words, reading is the next important step to increasing your knowledge of words, because that is how you will find most of the words you should be learning. It is also the best way to check on words you have already learned. When you come across a word you have recently studied, and you understand it, that proves you have learned its meaning.
What should you read? Whatever interests you—whatever makes you want to read. If you like sports, read the sports page of the newspapers; read magazines like Sports Illustrated; read books about your favorite athletes. If you are interested in interior decorating, read a magazine like House Beautiful—read it, don’t just look at the photographs.
Often people with very low vocabularies don’t enjoy reading at all. It’s more of a chore for them than a pleasure because they don’t understand many of the words. If this is the way you feel about reading, try reading easier things. Newspapers are usually easier than magazines; a magazine like Reader’s Digest is easier to read than The Atlantic Monthly. There is no point in trying to read something you simply are not able to understand or are not interested in. The important idea is to find things to read you can enjoy, and to read as often and as much as possible with the idea of learning new words always in mind.
3. Use a Dictionary
Most people know how to use a dictionary to look up a word’s meaning. Here are some pointers on how to do this as a part of a vocabulary-building program:
- Have your own dictionary: Keep it where you usually do your reading at home. You are more likely to use it if you do not have to get it from another room. At work, there may be a good dictionary available for your use. At home, most people do not have a big, unabridged dictionary; however, one of the smaller collegiate dictionaries would be fine to start with.
- Circle the words you look up: After you have done this for a while, your eye will naturally move to the words you have circled whenever you flip through the dictionary. This will give you a quick form of review.
- Read the entire entry for the word you look up: Remember, words can have more than one meaning, and the meaning you need for the word you are looking up may not be the first one given in your dictionary. Even if it is, the other meanings of the word will help you understand the different ways the word is used. Also, the word’s history, usually given near the beginning of the entry, can often give a fascinating picture of the way the word has developed its current meaning. This will add to the pleasure of learning the word as well as help you remember it.
4. Study and Review Regularly
Once you have begun looking up words and you know which ones to study, vocabulary building is simply a matter of reviewing the words regularly until you fix them in your memory. This is best done by setting aside a specific amount of time each day for vocabulary study. During that time you can look up new words you have noted during the day and review old words you are in the process of learning. Set a goal for the number of words you would like to learn and by what date, and arrange your schedule accordingly. Fifteen minutes a day will bring better results than half an hour once a week or so. However, if half an hour a week is all the time you have to spare, start with that. You may find more time later on, and you will be moving in the right direction.
In order to review words effectively, all the information on a word should be kept in one place—in a notebook, for example, or on an index card. Index cards are convenient because the words can be placed in alphabetical order, which makes them easy to find when reviewing; and the cards can be carried around with you, so you can study them anywhere. You should try to be systematic about studying, so that you are sure to review each word at least once every couple of weeks.
Do not throw cards away, though; you can get a great feeling of accomplishment by looking at the growing stack of words you have learned and by occasionally glancing at an old card and thinking, “Once I actually didn’t know the meaning of this word!”
Other vocabulary building materials
The steps we have just discussed do not involve the use of vocabulary-building aids such as books, tapes, or CDs; all that is required is a dictionary. But what about such materials? Are they worth using? We say yes.
The first advantage of vocabulary-building books is that they present you with words generally considered important to know, thus saving you time. Another advantage of many of these books is that they will use the words in several sentences, so that you can see the words in different contexts. A third advantage is that they usually have exercises that test what you have learned, which gives you a clear sense of progress.
The major disadvantage of many of these books is that the words in them may sometimes be too difficult for the person who does not have a large vocabulary. Such a person would have a hard time learning these words and could quickly become discouraged. We suggest, therefore, that you scan the materials you are interested in before buying. If most of the words are totally unfamiliar to you, you will probably not get very much out of it. If, however, you recognize many of the words but do not quite know them, then the material is probably at the right level for you.
Many books approach vocabulary building by teaching you word parts—prefixes, suffixes and roots—and showing you how these parts can go together to form many different words. You might find this approach useful, because it will make you sensitive to how words are formed, and this can often be a help in figuring out a word’s meaning from its context.
The important thing to keep in mind is that these materials are not a complete substitute for the process we have been talking about. One book will not give you all the words you need to know. Besides, you are establishing a lifetime interest in building your vocabulary, and just selecting one way to approach it may not be enough. However, the use of vocabulary-study materials as a supplement to the “Four Basic Steps” will reinforce your learning and speed your progress immediately.
Perhaps the most important factor in a successful vocabulary-building program is motivation. It will be very difficult for you to study words month after month without a strong feeling that it is worth doing, that a larger vocabulary will help you in school and on the job, and that it can well lead to a more exciting and fulfilling life. We certainly feel that this is true, for nothing we measure at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation contributes more to success in life more than vocabulary. Your time could not be better spent.
We know you can expand your vocabulary almost as fast as you wish. There are countless examples of people who have done so. Remember, you started out in life knowing no words, and now you know thousands. You can learn many more. Why not start today?
The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation created a vocabulary-building program of 1,440 words based on the results of studies of over 15,000 public and private school students. You can access this free, online tool on our Wordbook page.