Page from the vocabulary journal I used in college.
I’ve been a teacher now for just about two decades, and one of the most commonly-asked questions is How can I learn more vocabulary words? I hear various comments over and over: I can’t remember the words I learn, I don’t know a lot of the hard vocabulary words that I see in my reading, I don’t know most of “the SAT vocabulary words”, and on and on and on. So, how to build your vocab? I’ll have to be honest–it’s not easy, nor is it quick. But it’s entirely doable. And for those of you in a hurry, here’s the simple solution: Read a lot. Use a dictionary. Look up words. Be inquisitive. Think about what you’re doing. Take notes. Write lots of things down. Understand that knowledge is acquired in a myriad of ways, and as a learner, you should try to acquire new knowledge using a good number of different methods. There is a place for memorization, of course, but generally, it’s best to learn in context, while you’re doing something, reading something, or learning something. It’s important to hear things, to see things written, to see things done, to say things, to struggle to write. It’s all important, and it all contributes to your learning.
And now the long answer. When I was studying English literature in college, I found that I was almost daily presented with new vocabulary words that I had never seen before (or at least couldn’t remember seeing before, but more on that later), much less knew the definition of. I’m not embarrassed to say that in college, I didn’t know the words balustrade (a type of handrail), gainsay (to dispute), dun (to ask for payment, a word that has become one of my favorites), or dissemble (to deceive). I didn’t know the words, and I was tired of seeing words I didn’t know; it’s a very disempowering feeling not to be able to understanding something that you read, but it’s a feeling that many of us don’t need to become accustomed to. So I set a goal for myself–to learn every word that I possibly could. I decided that I’d do whatever was necessary to improve my vocabulary, at least within my limitations. (Meaning I wasn’t going to cram vocab words all day and all night; I was looking for natural, gradual improvement.)
A quick note: In this article, I discuss one way to learn vocabulary, but not necessarily the only way. The only time I will mention flashcards or mnemonics, for example, is in this very sentence.
1. Buy a good (English) dictionary
Your dictionary will be your primary tool, so choose this carefully. Don’t worry about price too much, but choose a dictionary that you like. There is actually a lot more to choosing a dictionary than a lot of people realize, so I wrote up a review of various English dictionaries, which you will want to read if you’re serious about getting a great English dictionary. (Yes, I realize that I probably get more excited about dictionaries than do most people). Read the rest of this entry →