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Four steps to learning vocabulary effectively

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Note: This is a condensed version of Improve Your Vocabulary on Erin’s website urch.com.

To improve your vocabulary, you need to: Read good books. Use a good dictionary. Look up words you don’t know. Be an inquisitive, curious student. Think about what you’re doing. Write things down. Repeat.

“How can I learn more vocabulary words?”

A very common question. I started teaching in 1991, and I can tell you from these more than two decades of teaching that one of the most commonly-asked questions I hear from students is simply “How can I learn more vocabulary?” Students tend to make the same comments about the challenges and difficulties of vocabulary and of learning new words:

  • I don’t know a lot of the hard vocabulary words that I see in my reading.
  • It takes too long to look up words in the dictionary.
  • I don’t know a lot of the words in the definitions of the words I look up. (In other words, I don’t know the words that explain the words I don’t know!)
  • I can’t remember new vocabulary words, even after I look them up.

An so on. I’ll be honest–it’s not easy to improve your vocabulary, nor is it quick. But it’s entirely doable. And learning vocabulary is no different from any other skill–you simply need to put in the effort to reap the rewards.

“Garbage in, garbage out”

Very quickly, a word about memorizing word lists. Many people like to take a “brute force” approach to learning vocabulary by attempting to memorize vocabulary lists. Memorizing long lists of vocabulary words can actually be effective in some situations, for example, when preparing for a standardized test that is coming up very soon. However, there are many drawbacks to memorizing word lists – first, you are not likely to understand the subtleties of the vocabulary words; second, you will not likely remember the words for a long time; and finally, you will not have a “natural” understanding of the vocabulary word. Truly, the best way to learn vocabulary is to learn it in context, meaning learning the words while you’re reading good material.

Now the four main steps to this method of improving your vocabulary:

Step 1: Buy a good English dictionary

I usually recommend that students purchase two dictionaries. Dictionary #1 should be a small, paperback dictionary that you can carry around with you. Dictionary #2 should be a larger collegiate dictionary to keep at home. An advantage of having a small dictionary is that it is cheap, light, and easy to carry. However, the drawback is that the number of words is very limited, and the definitions tend to be shorter (and therefore less precise), often consisting of mere synonyms. To find more precise definitions, you should refer to your larger collegiate dictionary at home.

You can always opt to purchase an electronic collegiate dictionary, but those are a bit pricier. I greatly prefer paper dictionaries to electronic dictionaries because I enjoy browsing through the paper pages and happening upon words that catch my eye. I often find myself reading parts of the dictionary that I never planned to! (Dictionaries with lots of pictures are good for this!) That sort of thing doesn’t happen with electronic dictionaries, no matter how user-friendly they try to be. If you’re like me, you’ll end up learning more words down the road if you have a paper dictionary.

Note: In a future article, I will review my favorite (and least favorite) English dictionaries.

Step 2. Read a lot

To put it plainly: reading is brain exercise. Your brain as a muscle – you need to exercise it. Although checking out your friends’ Facebook statuses or reading manga or articles on Reddit is technically “reading”, we recommend that you select academically-challenging reading instead.

When choosing material to read, remember these guidelines:

  • Reading more is better than reading less. (Obviously.) Read every day.
  • Reading literary writing is better than reading “non-literary” writing. For example, the books your high school English teacher assigns most likely have more literary merit than random online posts do.
  • Reading and thinking about what you’re reading is vital. Think about what you’re reading, whether it makes sense, why the author holds those views, etc.
  • Reading a variety of material and writing styles is important.
  • Reading in any language improves your verbal reasoning skills.
  • Added benefit: Reading helps you become a better writer.

Step 3. Use your dictionary a lot

It’s important to develop a habit of using a dictionary. People frequently put off looking up words or just assume that the word means something or isn’t important. Good readers look up words they don’t know, and you should, too. Don’t worry, though – you will not need to look up so many words for the rest of your life. You will see that very soon (maybe in just a few months), you’ll be looking up words less and less because you already know many of the words that you encounter! This is a great feeling and will give you a sense of (deserved) accomplishment. Remember, you are building a solid foundation for a lifetime of learning.

Step 4. Keep a vocabulary journal

This is a procedure I highly recommend to all word-learners. It might sound a bit tedious, but I guarantee that it will help. As you read, circle, highlight, or underline all the unfamiliar words you don’t know. Then copy down the word and its definition in a notebook by hand. Finally, write down the sentence or context that the word shows up in. (You can also opt to copy down the definition in your book so it will be easier to review your reading.)

It is important not to simply copy and paste the definitions using an online dictionary. Part of the point of writing out these words and sentences by hand is simply to increase the amount of time you’re spending with the word, thinking about it, writing about it, defining it, etc. If you simply copy and paste, you’re not really learning as much because you’re simply not spending enough time with the word. With all of this different sensory input, chances are much better that you will retain the word.

Summary

To sum things up: Get a good book that you’re interested in. Read it every day. Pay attention to it. Keep a vocabulary journal. Look up unfamiliar words, and allow yourself to be engaged.

This is an excerpt of an original article written by our founder and Director, Erin Billy. Read Erin’s full article.

Comments

  1. Shohreh says:
    Hi Dear Erin:I graduated in maths at university but I do love English .I have been teaching English for about 4 years .I am going to continue my education in English(teaching).The MA English Entrance Examination in teaching is not easy especially General part (VOCAB AND GRAMMAR),but I feel better now after reading your tips.Thank you for new words that you send us .I hope to achieve my goal .THANK YOU SO MUCH AGAIN
    1. Erin says:
      My pleasure! Glad to hear you found the post helpful. :)