Read Strategically: Diversify Your Vocabulary

Learning Objective

  • Evaluate strategies for retaining new words

Vary Your Interests

Do something different from your daily routine: hunting, fishing, or blogging–any activity that isn’t 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 books and magazines that are different from the ones you’re used to. Watch foreign-language movies. Take up new hobbies; hang out with different people.

Learn Common Roots and Word Etymology

Modern English represents a cornucopia of different languages. In fact, if you limited yourself to words with only specifically “English” origin, you would have a pretty small vocabulary. Throughout its history, the English language has been a notorious borrower of words—in fact it was doing so even before it was English! We can still see borrowings from Celtic, which started influencing West Germanic tribes before English was even a language.

A timeline of Historical Influences on the English Language. Celtic and Latin influenced West Germanic Languages, which transitioned into Old English between 450 CE and 550 CE. Anglo-Saxon began its influence with the arrival of Germanic Settlements in the late 400s. Norse began its influence on the language in 787 when the Viking Invasions began. Anglo-Norman and Old French began their influence in the 1000s when the Norman Invasions began. French, Latin, Greek, and Italian began their influence in the 1400s to the 1600s due to Renaissance Mixing. From the 1700s to the present, English has been influenced by Empire Import languages, including Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Malay, and American English.

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If you learn basic root words, especially Latin and Greek roots, you will be able to break apart words to figure out what they mean. Take a look at this List of Greek and Latin roots in English. You might be surprised.

learn by doing: explore latin roots

You can also learn more about etymology, prefixes, and suffixes.

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 these examples: “breakfast” means “interrupt the night’s fast,” and “rainbow” means “bow or arc caused by rain.” While these meanings may be trivial to native English speakers, having such insights about words, foreign or otherwise, never fails to deepen your connection to them.

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 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.

One option is a computer spreadsheet for its handy features such as searching, sorting, and filtering.

Follow a Process

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

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.

Your process can be as simple as you wish—the key is to specify 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.

Leverage Every Resource You Can

The internet is a gold mine of resources for vocabulary building. Here are a few to get you started, though many more exist:

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 and DictionarySearch. You can find specialized vocabulary lists, such as these feeling words or descriptive words. You can even learn some classy, Shakespearean 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.