Building a Bigger & Better Vocabulary: Part One

Building a bigger vocabulary is often the greatest challenge students face in assessments related to English Language Arts, regardless of whether they are preparing for the SAT, or trying to get an A in AP European History. As a result, we are running a multi-part series on how students can meaningfully improve their vocabularies. These pieces will feature techniques and strategies that help with exams and essays alike. Though it may seem that the needs of essay writers and standardized test takers may differ, that is not necessarily the case. Learning new words requires a holistic approach that engages with language in context. Fundamentally, there is no real difference between learning words for the SSAT, or for English class. To truly build the skills necessary for success in one area, we need to do activities that benefit us in both.

In Part One of this series, we will discuss Encountering Words in the Wild, and explore the ways in which good habits can help us expand our vocabularies over the long term. In Part Two, we will focus on the value of learning word roots, using mnemonics, making word maps, and finding personal triggers. Lastly, in Part Three, we will look at online resources that can help us understand how to identify and learn vocabulary that is useful for essay writing especially.


But how do we actually learn new words? Certainly, services like Quizlet have become popular ways to create vocabulary quizzes and drill new words. Companies like Barron’s, meanwhile, still sell pre-made vocabulary flashcards for SAT students. Yet anyone who has actually tried to sit down and memorize new words knows that this approach has its limits. More often than not, attempts to memorize new words lead to short term rather than long term improvements — students may remember a new word for a week, only to forget it after a month.

The hard truth is that improving your vocabulary is a slow process that takes place over time. The good news, however, is that this process can actually be a lot more fun than simply sitting and staring at flashcards.


The simple answer is that building a bigger vocabulary requires a keen — and inquisitive — eye. The words that will be most useful to us are the ones we encounter in everyday life, in newspapers, novels, and more. Taking advantage of these encounters requires two important steps. First, we need to notice when we encounter words we don’t know. Second, we need to increase the frequency of these encounters.

Most of us can infer the meaning of unfamiliar words from context. Our brains are very good at that! It is a necessary skill, and it was especially necessary in the eras before dictionaries were readily available — let alone cell phones. Unfortunately, having this talent means that most of us don’t always look up the definitions of unfamiliar words when we see them. We get the gist of their meanings, and move on with our lives. To build a better vocabulary, we need to quit this bad habit of breezing by words we don’t know.

First, when encountering new words, always be sure to write them down! Let’s say you see a word in an ad on the Subway. You might not have service right then, but you will when you get off the train! Write the word down in a dedicated note on your phone, or in a notebook. If you can, write down the context in which you saw the word as well. Then, when you have the chance, look up the meaning of the word, and write down its definitions according to the dictionary. Then, write another definition in your own words. Once you’ve done that, you should compose two to three example sentences of your own to help you internalize the words, and get a better feel for how they’re used.

Building a better vocabulary isn’t just about taking advantage of encounters with new words, though — it’s about making those encounters happen more often. The simplest and most obvious way to do this is to read as much as possible. You can do this by changing your habits drastically — for example, by reading a novel when you would otherwise be watching TV. But there are also simpler, less disruptive ways to incorporate meaningful reading into your daily routine. Consider reading an article in the New York Times (or comparable publication) every morning on your way to school, camp, or wherever else you may be headed. Read a short story every night before bed. You can find great, new short stories from publications like Electric Literature, Granta, the New Yorker, and countless others. Even watching movies and TV shows with the subtitles on can help us encounter unfamiliar words more frequently — just make sure they’re shows and movies that are likely to have more sophisticated lexicons…


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