January 21, 2019

Seven Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary

Update: I've added The Great Gatsby to the reading list.

Whether you're preparing for the ACT or SAT, working toward an A in AP English, or writing your college application essays, a stronger vocabulary will make you a better reader and writer. Here are seven ways to work on your vocabulary:

1. Use the dictionary, but AVOID FLASH CARDS.

A truly nuanced vocabulary isn't something you can create by pure memorization. Good writers like to play with words, so you have to be familiar with how each word is used in a variety of contexts.

Watch the video below and then answer the vocabulary question that follows:



When Mrs. Bennett tells Mary to "find some useful employment," the word employment most nearly means
(a) paid work
(b) trade
(c) profession
(d) task

To answer this question, stick each of the choices into Mrs. Bennett's sentence to see which one works:

"Mary, put that away at once. Find some useful _________."

The first three choices don't work because in the context of the story, Mrs. Bennett is trying to get the house ready for some unexpected guests, and she needs Mary to help tidy up. She's not offering any money, so choice A isn't an option. She's not asking Mary to find a useful career, either, so choices B and C are out. The word task fits: it's consistent with Mrs. Bennett's implied request to clean the house up right away.

Choices A, B, and C are the three definitions that Google's dictionary provides for the word employment. Choice D isn't one of Google's definitions, but it's the correct answer!

ACT and SAT vocab questions look a lot like the one we just did. The most obvious answer is almost always wrong; it's there to trap people who memorize definitions using flash cards. The tests' writers are trying to see if you really understand what you read.

The dictionary can help, since there is some overlap between the meanings of the words employment and task. Just make sure you pay attention to the author's meaning as opposed to your own preconceived notions!

2. Enjoy what you read.

I can't emphasize this enough. Your brain has to draw connections between what you're learning and what you already know, and it's not going to do that very effectively if you're bored.

What you read doesn't matter very much as long as you really enjoy it. Just make sure that, on average, there's at least one vocabulary word you can learn on each page.

I keep a stash of Post-It notes inside the cover of whatever book I'm currently reading. If I run across a word I can't figure out in context, I put a Post-It under the word and use Google to look it up when I have time.

I went to the library last week and flipped through copies of some of the books in the list below. I've put them roughly in order from easiest to hardest. At the hardest level, there are words that even I don't know. You can always find something interesting to learn no matter what your current reading level is.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred Taylor)
Hatchet (Gary Paulsen)
The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains (Annie Cheney)
The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
The Perfect Score Project: One Mother's Journey to Discover the Secrets of the SAT (Debbie Stier)
White Fang (Jack London)
Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut)
How We Decide (Jonah Lehrer)
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner)
Next: The Future Just Happened (Michael Lewis)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J.K. Rowling)
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (Michael Lewis)
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (Michael Lewis)
The Quants (Scott Patterson)
The Blind Side (Michael Lewis)
Moneyball (Michael Lewis)
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Michael Lewis)
Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton)
33 Questions about American History You're Not Supposed to Ask (Thomas Woods)
Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (Jostein Gaardner)
Church Refugees (Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope)
Animals in Translation (Temple Grandin)
When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (Roger Lowenstein)
The Great Depression: A Diary (Benjamin Roth)
Wealth, War, and Wisdom (Barton Biggs)
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou)
Anticancer: A New Way of Life (David Servan-Schreiber)
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott. Fitzgerald)
The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)
The Great Depression: A Diary (Benjamin Roth)
Cheaper by the Dozen (Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth)
The Hobbit (J.R. Tolkien)
The Construction of Modern Science (Richard Westfall)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) This edition of the book includes definitions of the vocabulary words.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)

You can use magazines and blogs, too, as long as there's at least one vocabulary word you can learn on each page.

Newsweek
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal - This is my personal favorite!
The Economist
Scientific journals: If you're interested in these, find a science blog on a topic you like and download the articles it recommends.

3. Use Professor Word.

Professor Word is a tool that automatically pulls up SAT and ACT words as you're reading on the Internet. If you click on a word, the tool will offer several definitions for it.

You'll be able to literally see how good writing relies on interesting, offbeat definitions of otherwise "easy" words.

4. Listen to audiobooks in the car.

Audiobooks aren't quite as effective as the printed page, but they still offer a way to turn otherwise wasted driving time into something useful.

The app Podcast Republic searches for podcasts and plays them on your Android phone. It also works with audiobooks you've saved on your phone's memory card.

Here are a few podcasts I've enjoyed. (I didn't go to Stanford intending to become interested in combining science, technology, and business, but it looks like the school had a good influence on me.)

The Science of Success Podcast
This podcast focuses on using science to help you become successful in life. Its evidence-based focus sets it apart from typical business success and pop psychology shows.

Vaya's podcast focuses on recent research about business and psychology.

Advanced Worldview Analysis (Dr. Ronald Nash)
Dr. Ronald Nash provides one particular point of view on how the Bible interacts with the world's philosophies.

History of Philosophy and Christian Thought (Dr. Ronald Nash)
Dr. Nash teaches the history of philosophy from a Christian point of view.

Seth Godin's Startup School
This is a series of excerpts from Godin's seminars on developing a creative business.

The Meb Faber Show
This is an excellent research-based podcast about what works in investing and what doesn't.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History Podcast
If you find the SAT's American History passages to be challenging, this is the podcast to listen to. It covers the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Civil War, and abolitionism. The only major topic on the SAT this podcast doesn't cover is early feminism. The author, Thomas Woods, is a senior fellow in history at the libertarian Mises Institute, so he tilts overtly toward individual and state rights rather than toward a large federal government.

The American Military History Podcast
This podcast takes the interesting approach of telling American history through the eyes of people who served in the military. Its focus on engagements keeps the episodes interesting.

It's History Podcast
This started out as a series of episodes covering the history of the Cold War and has since expanded to a variety of topics.

Pride and Prejudice (written by Jane Austen and read by Elizabeth Klett)
This is the most beautiful rendition of Austen's work that I've ever heard.

MIT courses on various topics
These courses are for advanced students who want to "sit in" on college classes.

5. Watch TV with the subtitles turned on.

Some shows are better than others. Generally speaking, shows that describe a unfamiliar world use advanced vocabulary to tell the viewer what's going on. Science fiction, fantasy, documentaries, and movie adaptations of classic books are all in this category. Music videos also work if the songs are very sophisticated.

If possible, watch with the subtitles on! Reading and writing happen with actual words.

Science Fiction


Fantasy


Documentaries


Classics


Sophisticated Music

6. Become friends with the "smart kids."

Peer pressure works. I usually consider mob psychology to be a bad thing, but you can sometimes harness it to push yourself to do something amazing.

If you go to a good college, you'll make friends with intelligent, ambitious people. They'll prod you to learn faster, work harder, and accomplish more than you would have on your own. Your vocabulary will improve as a result. Why not start that process today?

7. Find a tutor with good grammar and an excellent vocabulary.

Every section of the ACT requires you to be a good reader. ACT Math has word problems, and the Science section is one huge word problem. Recent changes to the SAT have made it even more reading-dependent than the ACT.

A good tutor is the ultimate "smart kid." You'll pick up strong reading and writing skills that will carry you through classes, standardized tests, and college application essays. In the process, you might even become an independent thinker and an effective communicator.

The best way to get into top schools is, after all, to be what they're looking for.

1 comment:

  1. For the GRE aspirants it is very helpful. Getting practice with most important GRE word list is very important for the candidates who are preparing for the competitive exams like GRE.

    ReplyDelete