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Last Updated On: September 14th, 2020

Last month, I discussed the importance of building good reading skills and habits. Another important way to “prepare early” for tests and improve general academic performance is to build vocabulary skills. A strong vocabulary is a huge help on virtually any standardized test. Some tests, including the ISEE and the GRE, directly test vocabulary knowledge. Others, like the ACT and New SAT, don’t emphasize complicated vocabulary words but include vocabulary in the Reading Comprehension sections. In addition, strong vocabulary skills can help students comprehend class content in a variety of subjects and improve general speaking and writing skills.

So how does one build vocabulary? One method is to learn directly, through targeted programs like Wordly Wise and/or weekly vocabulary lists. If you’re preparing for a standardized test, you might divide the list of words from your test preparation program into 10-30 words per week. Your goal should be to expand vocabulary for life, not to learn the words for the test and then promptly forget them. To ensure long-term memory, you’ll need to do more than just read through the list a few times. Instead, try these activities to aid long-term retention:

  • Flashcards: This might not be the most exciting method of vocabulary learning, but flashcards work when used consistently. It’s best to make your own flashcards, preferably by hand, but pre-made or computer made flashcards can be effective if reviewed enough times. Write the word on one side and the definition (and possibly a picture, sentence, synonyms, and/or Latin roots) on the other. When reviewing flashcards, pause and say the definition in your head before flipping it over to see if you’re correct. Sort your flashcards into two piles as you review: Words you already know, and words you still need to learn. Work through the pile of words until all the words are in the “know” pile, then review all the words again. Work both ways—looking at the word and recalling the definition, and looking at the definition and recalling the word. Flashcards are especially good for small amounts of free time, such as while waiting for class to start or for your carpool to arrive. Reviewing your words every night before bed is also helpful for retention.
  • Story Telling: This is more fun when done with a parent, teacher, or partner—perhaps someone else who is also preparing for the same test. First, come up with a topic, such as “Puppies.” Then, tell a story where each of you takes turns making up a sentence using one word from your list. For example, if your word is “eccentric,” you might say, “I once saw a very eccentric puppy.” The next person continues the story with the next word, “apathetic” by saying, “He was apathetic about dog biscuits, but he loved broccoli.” Continue until you’ve used several words, looking at the definitions only when you need to.
  • Pictures: Creating and/or matching pictures to words is an excellent strategy for visual learners. Programs like Quizlet allow you to choose a picture to match a word, or you can sketch one yourself. Abstract words might seem difficult to illustrate, but choosing an image for an abstract concept is proven to aid retention.
  • Using roots, prefixes, and suffixes: Learning how to break down, create, and decipher words using Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes can help a little bit of word knowledge go a long way. It’s best to use this strategy while studying word definitions so that you can link the word parts to full definitions.
  • Using computer programs like Quizlet and Vocabulary.com: Quizlet provides several good activities to help you learn and review new words. Since users can make lists public, some common word lists (such as the Ivy Global ISEE words and Wordly Wise) are already in the program. Vocabulary.com will identify your current level and provide academic words to improve it.
  • Word Sorts: A helpful review strategy for words learned over several weeks is to sort words into categories based on their meanings and/or word parts.

While memorization can help build basic vocabulary skills, a deeper understanding of words and their shades of meaning is best learned in the context of reading, speaking, and writing. This means if you come across an unfamiliar word when you’re reading, you shouldn’t just ignore it, but should stop and look it up. If you’re serious about building vocabulary, you’ll also write it down in a vocabulary journal or notebook (electronic or paper). If you come across an unfamiliar word in conversation or on the radio or television, you can jot it down to look up later if you can’t do it in the moment. And if you’re talking to your parents or a peer who is also building vocabulary, you can make it a point to use new words in conversation. As your vocabulary grows, practice incorporating new words into your writing. Be careful, however, not to throw in a convoluted word just for the sake of using it, but rather strive to use words that most accurately fit your intended meaning.

Lastly, don’t let your brain drain out all the words you’ve already learned as soon as you take a test or quiz! Keep your flashcards, vocab books, and/or Quizlet lists to review later, and continue to define and use challenging words that you come across. Even if you don’t realize it now, those words will be helpful in the future, for standardized tests, school, and beyond.

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