How to Improve Your Vocabulary by Applying Three Techniques

By Robert Crist, PhD

The importance of vocabulary in achieving success in life has been proven over and over. In the 1920s, Johnson O'Connor found that successful people in all walks of life have powerful vocabularies. He also discovered that vocabulary growth is not tied to any special trait, and anyone, regardless of their present vocabulary, can enrich it.

We think with words, so the limits of our learning are related to the limits of our vocabulary. Students who do well academically have better vocabularies than their less academically successful peers; and researchers know that a 20-minute vocabulary test will predict success in college as well as a lengthy IQ test. The challenge is to find a method of teaching and learning vocabulary that is effective and efficient.

An effective program for teaching and learning vocabulary should include the following three steps:
1. Involve Systematic, Direct Instruction
2. Use Both a Definitional and Contextual Approach
3. Provide for Multiple exposure to a word's definition as well as seeing the word in a variety of different contexts.

Involve Systematic and Direct Instruction

Studies show that vocabulary growth cannot be a product of incidental learning. One learns chemistry through systematic study, but that is not always true with vocabulary instruction. About the only time students work to improve their vocabularies is when they are preparing to take the SAT or ACT. At that point they even go so far as to pay to take courses aimed at improving their vocabularies. One interesting distinction between the student preparing to take the mathematics portion of the SAT or ACT and the student preparing to take the vocabulary portion is that the former undertakes to review what he or she has learned. The student preparing for the vocabulary section is trying to acquire a better and more powerful vocabulary.

The Importance of Both Definitional and Contextual Approach

In learning definitions we substitute the word-to-be-learned with words we already know. For example, minuscule is defined as very small, tiny. In learning through context we try to determine a word's meaning by examining the words that surround it. The importance of learning through context is best reflected in this statement by the renowned semanticist S.I. Hayakawa: "My view is that words attain their meaning by use in context."

To illustrate the contribution context and definition make, let us examine two sentences containing the word pusillanimous. The first sentence is: "Why, you pusillanimous piece of dirt, you'd run with your tail between your legs if I said boo." (Jack London). The sentence contains strong clues about the word's meaning, and when coupled with the definition of pusillanimous, lacking courage; cowardly, gives the reader a thorough meaning of the word. Take this second sentence: "Before battle I am the most pusillanimous of men." (Napolean Bonaparte). This sentence tells us little about the word's meaning and without access to definition we might think it means "courageous" or "full of confidence," since it was written by France's greatest general. In this example, access to the definition is essential.

Learning words solely through context also has problems. Studies show that in many instances when the reader encounters an unfamiliar word he or she simply ignores it and continues reading. A second problem, as shown above, is that there are not sufficient clues in the sentence to give meaning to the unfamiliar word. This is especially true with respect to highly skilled writers (wordsmiths), since they don't surround the words they use with readily known words. What is the point in using the most exact, appropriate word, if you have to surround it with everyday words? To illustrate, let us examine a sentence containing a rarely encountered word: GIMCRACK. "The set is more than a collection of pretty gimcracks." (Frank Rich). There is little in that sentience that conveys the word's meaning: tastelessly showy; cheap. The reader is forced to turn to a dictionary for help.

Provide for Multiple Exposures to a Word's Definition as Well as Multiple Contexts

One problem with learning from context is that exposure to an unfamiliar word is too infrequent. We encounter a sentence containing pusillanimous today but may not see that word again for a month or longer. To enrich our vocabularies we need to see the word repeatedly in a variety of meaningful and substantive contexts that demand attention and effort. With each exposure to that word we benefit if we also see the word's definition. Sentences like "Tom's father is taciturn at dinner time," tells us little about Tom's father. Also, it does not demand a thorough and thoughtful analysis. Fortunately, immediate access to the definition, quiet, saying little, lets the reader know how the father behaves as dinner time.

I have been helping people apply these principals to improve their vocabularies as well as teach students to improve their vocabularies for over 20 years. I have compiled three workbooks that take students and adults through the three essentials listed above. To meet the need for systematic study the manual contains 140 lessons. In each lesson the reader sees five words in four different contexts. Thus, the reader reads and responds to 2800 sentences. Active responding to each sentence is essential; -passive reading of the sentences is eliminated.

In reading each sentence, definitions and contexts play important roles, and each must be examined in order for the reader to respond correctly. The two fuse together in a way that maximizes the contribution of both definition and context. This fusing of context and definition makes the process a satisfying way to learn.

To show how this manual meets these criteria let us examine one of its sentences. "There is no greater ___ in nature than a bird that cannot fly."[Charles Darwin] The reader's task is to use the surrounding words to evoke "anomaly." Since the probability of selecting "anomaly" is near zero, help is needed. That help consists of an array of word-definition pairings, one of which includes "anomaly." By coupling context clues and the definition of anomaly (a deviation from what is normal) the reader readily comes up with "anomaly." Through this chain of events, the reader acquires a greater meaning of "anomaly" along with learning the definition.

Contexts and definitions exist in symbiosis, i.e., a mutually beneficial relationship. The following statement by wordsmith Charles H. Elster regarding the most effective way to improve one's vocabulary suggests the positive value of that symbiotic relationship between contexts and definitions: Seeing the word in context and immediately finding a definition is a much more satisfying way to learn.

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About the Author Robert Crist
Professor Robert Crist, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Illinois State University, has dedicated his life to helping students increase their learning speed. His book Building Vocabulary Through the Study of Contexts is a culmination of his lifelong dedication to helping students improve their learning by expanding their vocabularies.