Read Strategically: Retain New Words

Learning Objective

  • Evaluate strategies for retaining new words
Two students studying

There are several proven benefits from 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.

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. Don’t be afraid of coming across unknown words, but make sure the text is appropriate for your reading level.

do I get this?

Make Friends with the Dictionary

A dictionary is the first indispensable 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 additional 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.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary: a well-established and well-regarded name in the realm of dictionaries.
  • Ninjawords: 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.,, 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.

tech tip

Most modern Web browsers make it really easy to define a word without even going to a dictionary to search for the word.

Here are some extensions and methods for you to try out:

Chrome: Google Dictionary

Firefox: Oxford Dictionary Pop-Up

Microsoft Edge: Right-click the word and click “Ask Cortana.” A search panel will slide in showing the definition.

Apple Safari: Right-click the word and select the “Look Up” option. MacOS will look up the word in its own built in dictionary.

There are many other ways to use your Web browser to build your vocabulary. Spend some time searching the Web to find the tools that work best for you.

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.

Learn One New Word a Day

If you learn just one new word every day, you’ll soon notice they add up pretty quickly.

Many websites provide free word-of-the-day services. Here are some to try:

    • 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.
    • Dictionary Word of the Day: another fine service, perhaps not as complete as Merriam-Webster’s or WordSmart, but still worth checking out.