Building a Bigger & Better Vocabulary: Part Two

Andrew Stoughton
4 min readJul 16, 2021


In last week’s blog post, we explored the different ways students can find and learn new words. As that blog post says, techniques like keeping a vocabulary journal, writing out of word banks, and reading ambitiously can help us expand our vocabularies for exams and essays of all kinds. In this week’s piece, we dive into the different ways we can use word roots and word games to help us better understand words in context, and recall definitions in exam settings.

Be sure to visit our website next week for the third installment in this series, which will focus on online resources students can use to expand their essay-writing vocabularies.


No matter how diligent we are, the hard truth is that there is simply not enough time to learn every word that might be on standardized exams like the SSAT, SHSAT, and SAT. As a result, it is extremely important to learn what we call “word roots.”

Let’s look at the words “novel,” “novice,” “novelty,” “innovate,” “renovate,” for example. Notice anything similar about these five words? They all contain the sound “nov,” which comes from the Latin word “novus,” which means “new.” Now, all these sample words have slightly different etymologies, meaning that they developed in English at different times in different ways. Yet all of them, if you trace their histories back far enough, come from this Latin word.

So what does this have to do with learning new English words in the present day?

If we learn the most common word roots, we can begin to understand words from context a lot more easily. You may not know the word “porter,” but you definitely know “transport” and “portable.” All three of these words have the same word root: “port,” meaning “carry.” If you can identify this connection, you can better determine a word’s meaning. In fact, if we know this word root, the definition of porter can come to seem obvious when we see the word in a sentence like, “The hotel’s porter took their luggage up to their room.”

Studying word roots is easy. Almost every major test prep company, from Kaplan, to Princeton Review, to Ivy Global includes charts of word roots and sample words in their books. While using notecards and quiz apps may yield limited results when studying totally new vocabulary words, these techniques can actually be very helpful when learning word roots.

Moreover, learning word roots doesn’t simply help us identify unfamiliar words in context on exam day. Studying these roots can also help us learn new words. For instance, when looking at the word root “amb,” the example “ambulance” might be familiar, but the example “ambulatory” may not be.

Studying word roots, then, isn’t simply about recognizing words on a test — it’s also about learning new words entirely!


In Part One of this series, we discussed the importance of writing example sentences for new vocabulary words. Doing so helps us get a better understanding of a word’s definition by forcing us to really think about its usage. Moreover, writing example sentences can give us a handy reminder for what a given word means. We often generate these sentences using contexts and subjects that are familiar. As a result, we build a kind of bridge back to the meaning of a word, by giving us a greater number of familiar details to spark our memories.

But example sentences aren’t the only ways for us to remember words, or word roots. Instead, we can use a related but slightly different technique to help us recall meanings: word games. For example, when thinking about a word root like “luc,” which means light, some students might remember this root’s meaning by thinking of a word that uses that root, like “lucid.” Other students, however, sometimes find these kinds of examples bland, or difficult to remember. As an alternative, we can use word games to help us get back to the root or word’s meaning. A phrase like “we’re lucky there’s still light out,” is an example of such a word game. In a sentence like this, we are folding two key details into a sentence: the word root, which is hidden in the word lucky, and the meaning of the word root, which is light. This may seem confusing! Certainly, not everyone benefits from using this trick. Nonetheless, many students often find it fun, entertaining, and most importantly, memorable, to come up with creative ways to match a word root with its meaning.

This technique is especially helpful for memorizing vocabulary words in science subjects like biology and chemistry. Let’s take a look at a word like “zygote,” which is the name for the first cells that divide after the fertilization of an animal’s egg. It might not contain any recognizable word roots, but we can come up with games to help us remember its definition. For instance: “Zy-got to go take care of the kids.” A little silly? Absolutely. But for many, it’s a technique that can make the drudgery of vocabulary memorization a little more fun.

Look out for our third installment of this series next week, which will examine the different resources students can use to improve their vocabularies as essay writers. As always, you can learn more about our services and rates by visiting You can also contact us via email or phone, or schedule a free consultation via Zoom. We are open seven days a week, and respond to all inquiries within 24 hours. We look forward to hearing from you!



Andrew Stoughton

Tutor at Tutoring Service of New York, a group of professional educators dedicated to helping students achieve their full potentials.