Learning New Words, Increasing Your Vocabulary

What are the best ways to learn new words (including, obviously, signing up for Dictionary.com's Word of the Day)? Once you have learned new words, how can you retain them?

If you want to learn new words, you have to take a couple of things into consideration. What is your reason for wanting to improve your vocabulary - for a purpose, like the SAT, or for fun and general self-improvement? If you have a goal, it is good to read about different approaches toward achieving the goal. For example, there are books specifically written with methods for increasing one's vocabulary for SAT test-taking.

Also, you can examine how you learn best, especially word-based information. Some people need to use what they learn in order for it to stick - as in conversation and writing. Others succeed by taking quizzes. Still others are good at memorizing.

The word-of-the-day offerings of Web sites like Dictionary.com and the page-a-day calendars are most beneficial for those who are learning for fun and self-improvement. It is a low-key approach but a great habit to get into. However, just reading about a word does not make it "stick." The best method for learning a word-of-the-day is to use it - for example, by writing about it to someone, jotting it down in a new-word notebook, making a flash card, or telling others at the dinner table about the word. If you pick the new-word notebook approach, each day you could choose a new word from the notebook and use it when talking or find a way to write about it.

We tend to remember words more easily when we read about them in meaningful context, when we see that they are useful and worth remembering, and also when they have been fully explained. Knowing how to use a word is just as important as knowing its meaning. Most word-of-the-day offerings supply the definition as well as an example sentence or two.

Studies have shown that a new word will stay in your vocabulary if it is regularly reinforced through use and reading. Taking word quizzes is a fun way to spend a few minutes learning words. It is great to have a quiz book with you when you have to wait in places like a dentist's office. Keeping a quiz book in the car and on the bedside table is good, too.

Is reading in general a good way to expand one's vocabulary? Can you trust that you will pick up unfamiliar words by osmosis, or should you always look things up?

Your hobbies and educational background play a part in how you expand your vocabulary. Someone who reads for a couple of hours every day is going to pick up a larger vocabulary than someone who watches television. When you read, you see how words are actually used - you see them in context. It is the same reason that many dictionaries offer example phrases or sentences within the entries. Seeing how a word is used is as important as learning the definitions. We have all experienced seeing unfamiliar words in a book or newspaper, but many times we can pick up the general meaning of these words because we understand their usage in the text.

When you use a dictionary, it is tempting to get the information you need and close the book - but then you are not reaping the benefits of what a dictionary has to offer. The example phrases and sentences are key. But there are many other pieces of information that can make the word "stick" - the etymology or word history, the other definitions for the word, the derivatives of the word, and even synonyms and cross-references. It is also true in many cases that the entries just before and after the word you look up are related through their etymology. The more information you get about a word, the more likely you will remember it and use it in proper context.

Let's say you are unsure what spasmodic means. You check the dictionary and it says:

spasmodic adj.

  1. Relating to, affected by, or having the character of a spasm; convulsive.
  2. Happening intermittently; fitful: spasmodic rifle fire; spasmodic attempts to climb the mountain.
  3. Given to sudden outbursts of energy or feeling; excitable.
spasmodically adv.

The meanings are usually listed chronologically, that is, when they came into use in English. That means the oldest meaning of the word is given first, then the newer or more technical meanings. It is important to read all of the meanings and the word's use in a phrase or sentence.

When you encounter a new word, it is also a good idea to look carefully at the words that come before or after it in the text. In, "The animal expert talked about herons, cranes, and ibises," you may find that ibis is a new word for you. If you know that herons and cranes are large wading birds, you may gather that ibises are probably large wading birds, too. Looking ibis up in a dictionary will confirm that.

The thing is, it is good for your brain to learn new words. A new word is not just "dumped in" but part of a great process in which the brain creates neural connections between the new word and others in your mental lexicon. This helps you develop new perceptions and concepts, which increase the chances of your remembering the new word. Also, when you improve your vocabulary, you enhance your ability to think and to share your thoughts.

Are there any word games that are particularly effective at expanding a vocabulary?

There are many word games out there and any that you find fun are effective! Scrabble, Boggle, Upwords, and crossword puzzles are hugely popular. Word searches, hangman, and anagrams have loads of fans.

Any classes one can take to expand one's vocabulary?

Yes, there are SAT preparation courses for vocabulary as well as courses in books, such as The Princeton Review's Word Smart series. There are books called Vocabulary Cartoons which teach through mnemonics, illustrations, and example sentences. There are novels like Tooth and Nail and The Wizard of Oz Vocabulary Builder which feature hundreds of highlighted words for the SAT. Other educational publishers offer vocabulary-building books with definitions, sample sentences, quizzes, and practice exercises. The books written for the SAT are great for anyone trying to learn more words that are especially useful in everyday life.

Is randomly flipping through the dictionary a good way to learn new words or should one be more systematic?

We recommend reading a dictionary - seriously! Buy the best dictionary (and thesaurus) you can afford. Make notes in them; use a highlighting pencil! You can comb the dictionary for words that will be useful to you. You can set a goal like reading four pages of a dictionary each day. If you love words, it will be a very rewarding experience.

A thesaurus has synonyms - words that mean almost the same thing presented in groups. It is important to use a thesaurus with a dictionary since most thesauri do not give individual definitions for the words. Another key to choosing the right word for your sentence is to substitute the word in the sentence. Does it sound right? Does it convey the meaning you intended?

Also, learning the roots of words helps you figure out the meaning of new words. Learning the meaning of common prefixes and suffixes also aids understanding. Here is an example: with unicyclist: cycl 'wheel' is the root, uni 'one' is the prefix, and ist 'someone who does something' is the suffix. They come together to mean 'someone who rides a cycle with one wheel'. By studying the parts of a word, it is possible to understand the meaning of the word.

This also means that learning related words boosts vocabulary. Related words are those which share a root or prefix or suffix (or maybe two of those). Related words are also those considered synonymous. Many books of synonyms and collegiate dictionaries offer synonym paragraphs or word clusters that discriminate among words that are often confused but are related by a theme or meaning. Distinctions in usage and connotation are made more apparent in these synonym studies.

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