Easy Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary – Part 1

Here are some easy ways that you can improve your vocabulary, without any “formal” learning. Like a lot of things, vocabulary isn’t about learning so much as “picking up” words through your everyday life.

In Part 1 of this, we’ll cover:

  1. Books
  2. Television
  3. Shift+ F7

1. Books

What most teachers and parents advise students is to read more. Just read more and more and more.

Seriously, whatever it is – a magazine, a fiction, a children’s book, a non-fiction, the newspaper. It will all help in the end.

Speaking from my own childhood, I used to go through the youth fiction of the local library like a…read-aholic. Every person in my family had a library card of their own, so we would max the limits out on all 4 cards. That’s 40 books each weekend. As a kid, that’s really easy to do. Read through a short, 1-cm thick Nancy Drew or Animorphs novel.

But I have to admit that by the time it go to Yr 11, I had pretty much stopped reading fiction. I was too old for short children’s fiction, uninterested in the adult fiction section and had pretty much stopped reading anything besides the texts we were studying at school. I admit that even these days, I hardly read any fiction (which is ironic, considering I’m doing a Arts: Writing and Cultural Studies course). This year so far – I’ve read only 6 books. Two were for a uni assignment, three were for tutoring and one was for a book club I joined.

So believe me when I say: I understand how hard it is to “just read more”.

But here are some tips to encourage yourself (or your students) to read:

  • Read a series – see if you can find a series that really pulls you in and gets you hopping up and down for the next book. I myself read almost every single book of the Animorphs series, Sweet Valley (all 8 series or spin-offs), Nancy Drew, Wicca, Baby-Sitter’s Club and Baby-Sitter’s Little Sister and, yes, even the most recent Twilight “series”.
  • Read Wikipedia – if you’re enjoy more non-fiction, surfing Wikipedia is a great way to “skim” read a lot of pages, pick up a lot of new vocabulary and learn a whole lot of random information. You can spend half an hour on Wikipedia and have skim-read 10-50 pages.
  • Join a read-a-thon – this is more for younger students who already enjoy reading. My sister and I used to race to read as many books as possible for the MS Readathon, which is basically a readathon raising money for MS.

What is MOST important is:

Do NOT stop reading just because there are words you don’t understand.

A lot of students fall into the mistake of thinking, “What does that mean? This is too hard. I’m gonna find an easier book…”

I repeat, do NOT do this. Keep reading – it does not matter if you do not know what something means. Believe me, I’ve read so many law textbooks and cases, where I had no idea what they were talking about until half way into the semester or after the 10th page of the case. What you have to do is just push through, read it over again, and see if it makes sense later.

Can you guess what the word means?

Eventually, after seeing the word (that I don’ t know) used several times in different sentences and contexts – I can form a hazy idea of what it means. And that is enough. Even now, I know there are SO many words that I don’t know the meaning of, but I have a “feeling” of what I think it means.

For example, the word “delectable”.

1st sentence: I was amazed and laughed. It was just delectable! I now know that “delectable” is a positive word.

2nd sentence: So I told her that the food was delectable. I now refine my understanding of “delectable” to being a positive word to describe food.

What if even after several times you still don’t get it?

Then look it up in the dictionary – you can use the hard copy dictionary, Dictionary.com, or Shift F7 in Word (to find a synonym that will explain the meaning).

This is necessary where the word isn’t just something that you can “guess” at the meaning and pass over, keep reading. This is where the word has an important meaning and you have to understand it in order to understand the rest of the book, textbook, article or whatever.

2. Television

This is the easiest, most enjoyable and oddly subconscious ways to improve your vocabulary.

As a kid, I used to have the TV on from the time I got home from school to when I went to sleep (so say 8 hours). And I still managed to do my homework (because I did it in front of the TV, of course).

TV works to improve our vocabulary in so many ways, if you think about it:

  • Pronunciation – unfortunately, this resulted in me having a slight American accent
  • Development of jargon – from watching particular genres (eg. medical dramas, Law and Order)
  • Word usage – you get to hear/see the situations in which particular words are used and how they are used
  • Humour/wit/popular culture – try watching TV shows that are very referential (eg. The Simpsons) and you’ll be surprised by how much new humour, puns and pop culture references you can learn.

I think so long as you watch anything that you enjoy, you will learn. However, to give you an idea of particular TV programs that I watched when I was a kid:

  • The Cartoon Network channel – Top Cat, Jetsons, Flintstones, Yogi Bear. I’m sure they all impacted on my vocabulary in some way…
  • The Simpsons – it’s light and a quick way to pick up on pop cultural references. You’ll also learn sarcasm and satire really fast.
    • How often I watched it: 4 hours every weekend
    • Ideal for: any level of English, but I think particularly good for ESL students.
  • Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie
  • Xena and Hercules
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer – more subtle pop culture references, a lot of word play and quips (witty remarks).
    • How often I watched it: there was an episode on Foxtel every weekday
    • Ideal for: Standard students and above.

To demonstrate how much television can impact on a person’s vocabulary and speech patterns, let me just say that:

  1. I am often told I have a slight, but very noticeable, American accent.
  2. I wrote a short story for uni 3 years ago and was told by my tutor that I have a “weirdly American vernacular”.

3. Shift+ F7

I don’t know how many other people use this method, but I find it incredibly effective.

In case you’re not very computer-savvy, I’m referring to when you are in Microsoft Word – highlight a word and press Shift+ F7. This is the hot key that brings up the Word thesaurus.

So how does 2 keys in Word help your vocabulary?

  • If you don’t know the meaning to a word – Shift+ F7 it and you will be presented with a list of synonyms that may explain the word eg. the meaning of “stringent” is strict, severe, rigorous…
  • If you can’t think of the word you want to use – Shift+ F7 a word close to what you want to convey and it will present you with a list of options that might be what you’re trying to think of. For example, in essay writing, I don’t want to keep using the word “shows”. So I Shift+ F7 “show” and it comes up with “illustrate, demonstrate, explain, confirm, present”…

By doing this, you are increasing your vocabulary through what is essentially a thesaurus, rather than a dictionary.

Instead of knowing the one word for something eg. “show”, you develop a whole repertoire of words to use at your disposal eg. “illustrate, demonstrate, explain, confirm”.

Eventually, you won’t need to press Shift+ F7 anymore, because you’ll just remember the words from using them as alternatives to that one word.

Part 2 coming up soon!

1 comment for “Easy Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary – Part 1

  1. Jen
    August 4, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    I don’t know if it’s just my version of Word, but the thesaurus isn’t very great :/ – although I still use it sometimes. Thesaurus.com’s my one true love though. 🙂
    And as for developing the American accent, the same thing happened to me a few years ago! Then my friends notified me of it so I tried to stop it and I don’t think I have it any more…

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