How to improve your vocabulary
2011-02-22 in English, Grammar, Vocabulary
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).
But my dictionary preferences are for the following:
- A nice paperback dictionary to carry around with you (e.g., with your other books in your bookbag). Small, portable dictionaries are smaller and shorter in several important ways. One, they tend to have fewer words defined than larger dictionaries. Two, each word tends to have fewer definitions. Finally, the definitions tend to be shorter and therefore less precise, often consisting of synonyms. But this is the trade-off, unless, of course, you get an electronic dictionary version of a collegiate dictionary. I should note that I generally do not like electronic dictionaries for learning; in my mind, nothing can compare to flipping through the pages of a paper dictionary. Have you ever looked up a word you didn’t know and seen another word on the page that attracted your attention? Or saw a picture you liked, and looked at it? Or found yourself reading parts of the dictionary you hadn’t planned to? 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.
- A larger “collegiate” dictionary to keep at home. For most people, this kind of dictionary serves as the reference that they keep at home on the bookshelf; they tend to be about eight centimeters thick, so you probably wouldn’t want to carry one around with you to school. There are several very nice American English dictionaries (including the Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage dictionaries). These dictionaries can be a joy to flip through leisurely while you’re reading and studying. I like both of the aforementioned dictionaries for different reasons, which I will detail in a later article.
- An unabridged English dictionary. If you’re a hard-core English-language learner, at some point, you will want to invest in a good unabridged dictionary. Remember, “unabridged” doesn’t mean “complete”, so an unabridged dictionary is simply the full version of the dictionary of a particular publisher. Widely considered the best, the ultimate, the standard by which all others are judged, the Oxford English dictionary (the “OED” (pronounced “oh ee dee”)) is the largest and most expensive English dictionary you can buy. It costs over $1,000, weighs over 40 kilograms, has more than 21,000 pages, and is (currently) divided into 20 volumes. No, I don’t have one, but I’d like to one day. For now, I have “only” the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, which I bought at a library sale in Fairfax, Virginia for $9, one of the best book purchases I’ve ever made. Note: Visiting your local library is a great habit to develop. If you don’t feel like shelling out the dough (spending the money) for an unabridged dictionary, try visiting the library to use theirs instead.
So, to summarize: To become a word-learner, I suggest:
- A small, light paperback dictionary to carry around with you
- A larger collegiate dictionary to keep at home
- (optional) An unabridged dictionary for more comprehensive definitions and word histories
Now that we have your dictionary chosen, let’s take a look at what you should be reading.
2. Read a lot
First, let’s try an analogy (like the old SAT and GRE questions).
READING : BRAIN ::
(A) curls : biceps
(B) calisthenics : concentration
(C) writing : book
(D) spinach : Popeye
(E) therapy : insanity
I’ll put it plainly: reading is brain exercise. Think of your brain as a muscle, and you’ll work it out more. Honestly, I never understand why some people don’t have a problem not being active readers in their lives but they won’t admit to being couch potatoes; just as a person in good shape needs to be physically active, so an intelligent person needs to be mentally active.
So, naturally you probably wonder what I mean by “a lot”. And you may wonder what I mean by “read.” I mean, we all read every day, right? At least a bit. We read stop signs, we read street signs, we read advertisements on the bus, we read email, and there are even a few who read Twitter and Facebook updates regularly. Unfortunately, this sort of reading doesn’t really build your brain as a muscle; this sort of reading helps you accomplish a task, but doesn’t really do much for improving your concentration or ability to think deeply.
First, let’s talk about the various types of reading you can and should do. Mind you, I will touch on a few categories here, but I don’t by any means mean this list to be comprehensive, as there are many other types of reading that you can do.
As a rule of thumb, the following tend to hold true:
- Reading more is better than reading less. If you read a book, you’ll learn more than you will if you read only a chapter in a book. But reading more at the expense of thinking about what you’re reading is a waste of time. (See the point below about reading critically.)
- Reading “literary” (i.e., quality) writing is better than reading “non-literary” writing. Reading the classics or (usually) the books assigned by English teachers is better than reading forums, blogs (yes, even this blog), social networking posts, texts, emails, and the like.
- Reading helps you become a better writer. Reading cannot exist without writing; the two are inextricably related. Doing one well naturally improves the other.
- Reading and thinking about what you’re reading is vital; you must concentrate and be sure to understand and even evaluate the reading. It’s not enough just to scan the words or lines of a page; you must absorb them and think about them. Your goal here is to be absorbed by the writing, to be “sucked into” the world that the author has created. The more engaged you are with the reading, the more real the writing seems, and the better the reading will be for you as a learner and thinker.
- Reading a variety of material and writing styles is important. It’s great to have read the entire Harry Potter series of books. But don’t read only Harry Potter, or even only fiction for “young adults”. Read some novels, some short stories, some poetry, friends’ essays, books from the 1600s, the 1700s, the 1800s, books translated from other languages, newspaper articles, text books, children’s books, etc. Oh, books with pictures rock.
- Reading in any language improves your verbal reasoning skills. As a teacher, I’ve noticed that people who read a lot, no matter the language, tend to have more advanced verbal skills in whatever language they’re speaking. It’s fascinating to me to think that reading in Chinese can, in a sense, improve your English, or that being a good writer in Portuguese helps you become a better writer in English.
- Reading something is better than reading nothing. Finally, if the above suggestions seem too onerous, just remember that it’s better to read something than nothing at all. Just read. Read everything–backs of cereal boxes, the labels on cans of tomatoes, restaurant menus, the “fine print”, everything.
In general, I personally like to read fiction. I find that reading fiction engages my mind in a way that no other writing does. I enjoy other types of writing, of course, but good fiction is able to place me squarely into an otherworldly situation more so than almost any other activity, although I find that music can also be similarly transportive.
You should also be sure to read things you’re interested in. Yes, this may seem obvious, but your goal is to actually enjoy the reading. If it’s not enjoyable, then you’re doing something wrong. If you have trouble finding things you like to read, try spending an afternoon in a good bookstore (which seem to be going out of business faster than asbestos manufacturers) or in your favorite library. Look at the covers, read the jacket blurbs, ask the librarians for recommendations. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for nice book covers, but you’ll sometimes discover that, well, you can’t always judge a book by its cover. But if a slick, matte, full-color cover gets you reading, that’s all that matters. Point is, do whatever’s necessary to help you cultivate a love of reading.
A few other ideas: Ask for recommendations from friends. If you’ve seen a movie you like, there might be a book associated with it. Not always, of course, but many great books have been adapted to the film format. Ask your parents what their favorite book ever was.
Now, how much should you read? It’s impossible to say exactly what quantity of reading you should do, as people read at greatly differing speeds depending on the material. Yes, I know–you’re thinking, “But I can’t read that fast. It takes me a long time to read hard books.” Well, guess what? You and everybody else. The dirty little secret that (many) teachers don’t tell you is that they don’t honestly expect you to read all of the material they assign you AND understand it, at least not in American undergraduate college classes. So, if you’re thinking that you’re the only one in your class who can’t read and understand 2,000 pages for one single class at the age of 20, you’re not alone. For most people, it’s simply not possible to read that much challenging material in that length of time.
In general, reading an hour or two a day every day or almost every day should be about right, although many people read a lot more, either for fun or because they have to for school or for research. In terms of word count, something on the order of 5,000 words to 10,000 words per day would be a good reading regimen to be on, at least for people who aren’t students.
Finally, like everything else, a little bit a lot is better than a lot a little bit. For example, reading an hour or two a day for five days is better than reading only one day for ten hours.
To sum up: Get a good book that you’re interested in. Read it every day. Pay attention to it; allow yourself to be engaged.
3. Use your dictionary a lot
Now you’ve got your dictionary and your book; assuming you have a pencil and paper, you’re ready to starting building your vocabulary!
This is the easy part–use your dictionary. When you see a word you don’t know–what did your mother say? No, not the part about cleaning your room, the part about looking up the words you don’t know. So, when you see a word you don’t know, look it up.
Pretty straightforward, right? Well… Yes. Usually. But sometimes, no. Here are some common remonstrations and excuses I hear at these suggestions:
- It takes too long to look up the words. Well, not really. Just a few seconds. If it takes longer than that, then you really need to learn the English alphabet a bit better. If English is not your first language, and you aren’t used to Roman letters or the Roman alphabet, you need to get used to the alphabet. Here’s a semi-cute video to get you started memorizing the order of the letters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fw3l1z9CUQ
- I don’t know a lot of the words in the definition. I know this feeling. Really, I do. When I was learning Portuguese and French, I refused to use a translation dictionary after the first few weeks of study. I found that I frequently had to look up ten words just to understand the first word I was looking up. But if you’re making this excuse, then I have two things to say. First, if you don’t know the words in the definition, then you REALLY need to beef up your vocabulary. I think it’s fair to say that most educated native speakers of English understand the definitions they see in the dictionary fairly easily, excluding, of course, such words as adverbs that are defined using other forms of the word (e.g., “abstrusely: in an abstruse way”). And second, you hardly wasted time looking up those other ten words. Be the fabled optimist and see this glass half-full–you went to look up one word, but ending up learning ten.
- I don’t remember the words. Again, this is normal. It’s not normal to remember a word the first or second or third or fourth time you see it or learn it. I often joke in class that you need to see a word 100 times before you remember it, and my job is to present you with the word the 80th to 100th times. So, think of looking up words as working towards reaching your goal and remember that it will take some time to learn all the new words you’re going to come across.
- I don’t know which definition is the right one. This is an easy one. There are different ways to list definitions. Some dictionaries list the oldest usage first and the most recent usage last. The classic example is the word “nice”, which in older usages had to do with being precise, even fastidious. Of course, the modern usage has to do with being friendly, polite, and easy to get along with. Merriam-Webster defines “nice” starting with the older meaning first and leads up to the modern meaning of polite. I like this way, because seeing the progression of changes of the word helps me more fully understand the nuances of the word. In contrast, the American Heritage dictionary defines “nice” with the most common meaning first, working towards the less common senses. This way might be better for people who prefer a more practical approach in their dictionaries.
In short, it’s important to develop a habit of using a dictionary. Your dictionary doesn’t need to be a crutch, nor do you need to change your entire life to build your vocabulary. But a good dictionary should definitely be a part of your learning tools. Oh, right–everybody has dictionaries. Let me stress–use your dictionary. There’s no point in having a great tool if you don’t use it.
4. Keep a vocabulary journal
And finally, the “method”, so to speak. The photo you see above is a photo of two pages of the actual journal I used in college. (If you look at it closely, you’ll see a swear word or two; I used to read the City Paper when I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, and some authors used those terms fairly liberally in their writing.)
Here is the procedure that I used. It may seem tedious or borderline OCD, but I felt good about it, and still highly recommend this method for anyone who genuinely wants to improve her vocabulary:
- Read a quality book. (See above for how to choose good reading material.) If you can, read at a desk, sitting upright. E.g., let’s say we’re reading Moby Dick, one of my favorite books.
- When you see a word you don’t know, circle the word in your book or highlight it or do whatever you like doing. Yes, I realize I’m asking you to deface your books, but I think it’s important to interact with words this way.
- Now, copy the word into your vocab journal as a new entry. Something like this: spleen:
- Now pull out your trusty dictionary and look up your new friend.
- Write down the appropriate definition after the word. You should have something like this: spleen: A feeling of resentful anger.
- Finally, copy the context in which it appears, making sure that you write enough words down that the context will make the meaning of the word fairly clear. Continuing our example: spleen: A feeling of resentful anger. “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.”
- You’re done! If you come across the same word, and don’t know the word, repeat the process. Or perhaps if you want to give yourself a break, look up the word in your vocabulary dictionary. If you do this, be sure to compare the different usages of the same word.
- Repeat this for a good while. I kept my vocab-learning notebook for about two years, and I honestly think keeping this journal helped me understand more vocabulary than anything else I’ve ever done. Seriously.
There are a few variations possible, some of which I started using after several years. One variation–instead of writing the new vocabulary words down in a vocabulary journal, write them down on the actual page on which they appear. This way, when you re-read the material, the defined word will be there on the page. I found this method particularly helpful for studying other languages (specifically Portuguese, Spanish, and French).
Finally, one thing NOT to do–do NOT simply copy and paste using an Internet browser. 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. On a related note, it’s a good idea to engage your eyes, your hands, and even your mouth and ears when learning. You may wish to say the word aloud a few times to yourself, too. With all of these different sensations, chances are much better that you will retain the word.
And I think that’s about it. This was a rather long article, but believe it or not, I still have a lot to say on learning vocabulary. But I think you get the idea: Read quality writing. Look up words in a good dictionary. Handwrite the word, its context, and its definition to increase the amount of time that the word stays at the forefront of your thought. Repeat.