10 Sure-Fire Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary

10 Strategies to Improve Your Vocabulary

There are several proven benefits in improving your vocabulary, but how should we go about learning new words in the most effective way? By using the following ten vocabulary-building strategies, you are guaranteed to develop a strong vocabulary and keep improving it every day.

1. Read Voraciously

It’s undeniable that reading is the most effective way to get new vocabulary. When you read, you see words being used in context — and that’s what makes it much more effective than, for example, merely memorizing word lists.

With context information surrounding each new word, there’s a good chance you can guess its meaning just by understanding the overall text. Finding out the meaning of words in such a way is the natural way of learning language – and reading provides the best opportunity to get exposed to this natural way of learning.

If you’re not able to infer the meaning of new words when reading, it’s probably because there are too many unknown words in the text. In that case, try reading easier materials. The key to good reading is making it a pleasurable activity; so don’t be afraid of coming across unknown words, but make sure the text is appropriate for your reading level.

2. Make Friends with the Dictionary

A dictionary is the first indispensible resource to improve your vocabulary. It’s only by looking up a word in a dictionary that you will learn its precise meaning, spelling, alternate definitions, and find much more useful information about it. A thesaurus is also a valuable resource for learning by finding connections between words, such as their synonyms and antonyms.

Consider adding a good dictionary and thesaurus to your bookshelf. Here are some recommendations:

For online dictionaries, there are many free options with great extra features. Even if you have a good dictionary in print already, you can’t miss having a good online dictionary at your disposal:

  • OneLook: Has a reverse lookup function (get the word from its definition) and works as a “meta-dictionary”, showing you definitions from other major online dictionaries. I recommend you try OneLook and explore its results to decide which dictionary you prefer;
  • Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary: An old-time favorite of mine, although the blinking ads are getting a bit annoying lately;
  • Ninjawords: It searches the free dictionary Wiktionary. What makes this site interesting is that you can look up multiple words simultaneously. Moreover, the results pages can be bookmarked – making them good personal reference pages;
  • Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus: If you’re a fan of mind mapping, you will certainly enjoy viewing related words represented in a visual map format;
  • Answers.com, Dictionary.com, The Free Dictionary and many others: All of them are good resources – try each one at least once to help you make up your mind.

3. Use It or Lose It

Don’t settle after you learn a new word by reading it or looking it up in the dictionary: these are good starts, but it’s by using the new words that you truly commit them to your long-term memory.

Be creative and try to use your newly learned words in as many ways as possible:

  • Write them down;
  • Say them aloud;
  • Create sentences with them, mentally or in writing;
  • Try to use them in a conversation;
  • Discuss them with friends.

It’s also important to be aware of your own language style: every time you catch yourself saying common or nonspecific words such as “nice”, try coming up with richer and more precise expressions instead.

4. Learn One New Word a Day

If you learn just one new word every day, you’ll soon notice they add up pretty quickly. I like to think of it as the “kaizen way of growing your vocabulary" and what makes this strategy stand out is that it can be used by anyone, no matter how busy one’s schedule is. In the same way I grow my collection of favorite quotes in baby steps by receiving a new famous quote every day, I also learned to enjoy growing my vocabulary by committing myself to learning at least one new word each day.

There are many websites that provide free word-of-the-day services, delivering them in many formats – such as e-mail, RSS feeds, podcasts and even text messages sent to your cell phone. Here are my favorites:

  • Merriam-Webster’s Online Word of the Day: This is the website that delivers the most useful words of all. It’s also the most feature-rich: it provides audio explanation, pronunciation and word history. The service is available by e-mail, RSS feed, podcast, and SMS;
  • WordSmart Wordcast: Provides difficulty level, comprehensive details and audio pronunciation for the word. Just like Merriam-Webster’s Online, it’s available by e-mail, RSS feed, podcast and SMS;
  • Dictionary Word of the Day: Another fine service, not as complete as Merriam-Webster’s or WordSmart, but still worth checking out.

5. Understand the True Meaning of Words

By deeply understanding words, you can make your vocabulary grow exponentially. Instead of just memorizing words, try to really understand them by looking at their etymology, word roots, prefixes and suffixes. At least half of English words are derived from Greek and Latin roots, so there are enormous benefits in being familiar with them.

Just to pick an example, when you understand that the prefix “ortho” means straight or right, you start to find connections between seemingly unrelated words, such as orthodontist (a specialist who straightens teeth) and orthography (the correct, or straight way of writing).

Understanding the logic behind words always pays off in terms of learning and recalling. Consider the examples: “breakfast” meaning “interrupt the night’s fast”; or “rainbow” meaning “bow or arcg caused by rain”: while these meanings may be trivial to native English speakers, having such insights about words, foreign or otherwise, never fails to delight me.

6. Maintain a Personal Lexicon

By keeping a personalized list of learned words, you’ll have a handy reference you can use to review these words later. It’s very likely you’ll want to go back and refresh your memory on recent words, so keeping them in your own list is much more efficient than going back to the dictionary every time.

Even if you never refer back to your lexicon again, writing words down at least once will greatly enhance your ability to commit them to your permanent memory. Another excellent learning aid is to write an original sentence containing the word — and using your lexicon to do that is a great way of enforcing this habit. You can also add many other details as you see fit, such as the date you first came across the word or maybe a sequential number to help you reach some word quota you define.

There are many ways you can keep your personal word list; each one has its own advantages and disadvantages – so make sure to pick the format that works best for you. You may prefer to keep it as a simple text file in the computer, or in a regular paper notebook; or maybe as flash cards in a shoe box.

My format of choice is a computer spreadsheet, for its handy features such as searching, sorting and filtering. For each word, I have columns for the date I learned it, a sample sentence, along with a link to its definition in an online dictionary. Lately, I’ve also been experimenting with keeping my personal lexicon in a concept map. This has been working particularly well so far, and I plan to explore the technique in more depth here when I get more conclusive results.

7. Follow a Process

To make vocabulary improvement a permanent habit in your everyday life, you should make it as habitual, automatic and tightly integrated in your daily workflow as possible – otherwise you won’t do it when your days get too busy.

If you already adopt some kind of structured workflow for your life – such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done – you’re probably familiar with the idea of organizing all input that comes to your life in “buckets”: virtual inboxes that get processed in a similar way to your e-mail inbox.

In that regard, one particularly useful concept is the one of maintaining a “Word Inbox”. By having a predefined place you use to capture the words you come across, you can process them much more efficiently. For example, my word inboxes, which I try to empty once a day, consist of my word-of-the-day feed and of notes on my PDA – which I use to capture any new words I discover during the day.

Your process can be as simple as you wish – the key is to define it beforehand and then follow it. By knowing exactly how and how often to process your inbox, you stay on top of your vocabulary improvement process, even when there are other pressing matters crying out for your attention.

8. Play and Have Fun

Playing games and engaging in group activities are useful in any kind of learning, but particularly effective for language-related learning. Gather your family and friends and play word games together. Some interesting options are Quiddler, as well as the classics Scrabble and Boggle.

If you don’t want to spend money on boxed games, it’s easy to come up with your own word activities. You may, for example, try your own variation of “Word Evening”: at a specific day of each week, a different person brings a new word to the meal. The person reads the word, defines it, and the others must come up with a sentence using the word.

If you don’t have time or don’t want to engage in group activities, there are numerous options of word games in the Internet. You can either play them when you’re bored, or integrate them in your daily routine, such as playing a quick game after lunch, for example. Consider the following recommendations:

9. Leverage Every Resource You Can

The Internet is a gold mine of resources for vocabulary building. The links I collected here are just my personal recommendations and don’t even scratch the surface of what’s available online.

There are plenty of vocabulary applications you can try. There are many vocabulary-related books you can explore. There is a wealth of free literature on sites such as Project Gutenberg. If you use the Firefox browser, there are many ways to integrate dictionary lookup functions, such as the plug-ins Answers.com and DictionarySearch. You can find specialized vocabulary lists, such as these feeling words or descriptive words. Damn, you can even learn some classy, Shakespearian insults! :)

The point is that you’re only limited by your willingness to learn: let curiosity be your guide and you will never run out of resources to learn from.

10. Diversify

Do something different from your daily routine: hunting, fishing or blogging – any activity that is not a part of your normal life can become a great way to learn new words, as every niche has its own jargon and unique ways of communicating. Read different books and magazines than the ones you’re used to. Watch foreign-language movies. Take up new hobbies, hang out with different people.

By doing things out of the ordinary you will not only improve your vocabulary but also make your life much more interesting.