Improve Your Vocabulary in Four Simple Steps

Learning Tips, Tips for Students
Mary Lonsdale
Improve your vocabulary in four easy steps with the latest Mentor Education guide.

For many subjects, words are the building blocks of academic success – yet expanding and retaining vocabulary is something students really struggle with. Remembering the meaning, spelling, pronunciation, and – most importantly, perhaps – the context in which the word should be used often proves tricky.

In this Mentor Education guide, we’ll outline some simple steps for improving vocabulary. You’ll be a wordsmith in no time!

Improving Vocabulary, Step 1: Commit to a Daily Reading Practice

When it comes to expanding your vocabulary, the importance of context cannot be understated. By seeing words in context, you’re more likely to understand their application (and meaning), which makes them easier to remember. With this in mind, we recommend that you read widely and often – daily, at least. Choose a variety of different sources, too: language will differ according to the medium, so try different mediums (books, magazines, newspapers, online news, blogs, etc.) and different subjects in order to maximise your exposure.

While you are reading, note any words that you aren’t sure of, but don’t immediately reach for the dictionary: this will interrupt the flow of your practice and become overwhelming. First, try to figure out the meaning from the context, and then double-check with a dictionary once you’ve finished reading that section.

Improving Vocabulary, Step 2: Make it Personal

It’s funny how, no matter how hard you try, there seem to be some things that just won’t stick in the mind – yet if something has upset us, or touched us emotionally, we might remember every little detail without even trying. Scientists have found that there is in fact a physiological reason for this: during emotionally-charged events, a hormone is released that ‘primes’ nerve cells (by increasing their chemical sensitivity) to remember specific details.

So how can we apply this to learning vocabulary? By creating a greater sense of context (the importance of which we mentioned above) by making things more personal. For example, imagine the word you wanted to learn was ‘sporadic’ (occasional). Rather than simply trying to learn the word, you could create a sentence that has some emotional effect: something like ‘Due to lockdown restrictions, I only see my friends sporadically, which makes me sad.’ (It doesn’t need to be a negative sentence, we hasten to add! Just something that creates some kind of emotional response – and something which has a sense of ‘story’ to it, because this will be easier to remember).

Improving Vocabulary, Step 3: Review Regularly with Flashcards

There is still some way to go before we know everything about how humans learn, but there is some consensus about how memories form – and this concerns ‘spaced repetition’. The general idea is that unless we are exposed to the same information at regular intervals, we are likely to forget it. With this in mind, frequently reviewing what you’ve learned is extremely important – and vocabulary is no different. Arming yourself with flashcards is a great way to engage in this practice.

You don’t need to write out words on flashcards, either; there are plenty of apps which will do the work for you, many of which are free to download to your smartphone or tablet. We’d recommend learning between one and three new words a day: any more and you may feel overwhelmed.

Improving Vocabulary, Step 4: Have Fun!

Another surefire way to retain information is to make it fun! If a practice is dull, you’re less likely to want to do it in the first place (and even less likely to retain what you’ve learned). Why not subscribe to some ‘Word of the Day’ feeds? You can opt to receive these via email, an app, or simply check a particular website or Twitter feed every day – and these are often organised according to subject or topic, meaning that you can choose to learn unusual, inspiring, or thought-provoking words according to your preference.

Don’t forget about games, either: sometimes an old-fashioned game of Scrabble or Boggle is all it takes to expand your vocabulary. Crossword puzzles are also a good option. To really hone your skills, make sure to note down any new or interesting words that you come across, and embed these in your memory with the ‘make it personal’ activity mentioned above, or by adding the words to your stock of flashcards.

The Mentor Education team are here to help your child excel in almost every aspect of their development: from academic excellence to overall wellbeing. Our experienced tutors are well-equipped to work online throughout the current crisis (and beyond), helping to ensure that your child feels assured, prepared, and ready to achieve their full potential. Please don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.

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