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  • Paul Nicholsen

Building Your Vocabulary with 3 Easy Steps

Updated: May 26

What’s that word?

If you don’t know the meaning of a word in a question or answer choice, that makes picking the right answer much harder. There’s some tricks to help when that happens which we’ll talk about later, but overall your best bet is to just know the word in the first place.

So what’s the best way to add new words to your lexicon? Here’s the three things you need to do, in order. READ Did you know the word “lexicon” before you read it above? Maybe. But I’m guessing not. But I’m also guessing that you were able to infer exactly what it meant, or at least close enough. And deep in your cerebral cortex, new connections were being forged by your stupendous mind, forever associating the word “lexicon” with “something about vocabulary”. We are wired to understand language. The brain wants to figure it all out. When you learned to speak, no one held up flash cards for you to teach you words: You were just immersed in language and your brain did the rest. (I intentionally have been using some big words in this paragraph—were there any you couldn’t understand? I’m betting no!) So you have to read. As much as you can. Whatever you want. As long as it’s more or less grade level or above, it counts. Fiction, non-fiction, classics, modern, whatever. At least 15 minutes a day. It’s the best way to learn vocabulary, and it’s a lot more fun than the next two ways.

Learn your roots, suffixes, and prefixes Do you know the word “Polytheism”? Maybe. But you can figure it out from the structure of the word. If you know that poly means many (a polygon is a shape with many sides; a polyglot speaks many languages) and the/theo means god or religion (a theocracy is government based on religion) and ism means practice or belief then you know that polytheism is a belief in many gods. Lots of our words are built this way!


Vocabulary lists Yeah, it’s those dreaded flashcards. Whether you use an app on your phone or the old-fashioned index cards, make sure you’re making them yourself and not just using a stack someone else made. It all comes back to making those different brain connections, so the more ways you can interact with a piece of information, the more likely you are to remember it. And on that note, if you can use the words in your daily conversations, you’ll know the word is yours forever and ever. Don’t just write the definition—you should also write a sentence that shows the meaning of the word. If you can make it silly and/or personal, that will be a lot easier to remember (and more enjoyable to write). Let’s say the word is extravagant, which is an adjective that describes something you’ve spent too much money on, perhaps foolishly. Bad Sentence: The party was very extravagant. Not helpful. Parties can be many things, good or bad. No context clues to give me a hint. Better Sentence: The fancy party was very extravagant. It’s OK—at least we’re tying the vocabulary word to a related word, “fancy” Awesome Sentence: Kelly’s birthday party was so extravagant that she rented a personalized elephant for each of her guests. More memorable, and bonus points if you have a friend named Kelly. Also, feel free to use slang, personal references, whatever. You’re not turning these in to your English teacher. Use whatever helps you remember! Here’s what not to do: Don’t go making a huge stack of index cards of all the words from a vocabulary list and try to learn them all at once. Go make 20 cards. This is your DAILY pile. Every day, go through the pile once or twice. If you get the word right, put it a new pile: Your WEEKLY pile. If you get it wrong, leave it in the daily pile. Then once a week, go through your weekly pile. If you get it wrong, it goes back to the daily pile. If you get it right, off to the MONTHLY pile it goes (which, obviously, you’ll go through monthly!)


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