Attention spelling bee kings and queens. I have a challenge for you. You’re top-notch? Well, then, spell the word beginning with “c” for the bubbles growing on a witch’s nose. The answer? Carbuncle. As students, we’re always looking for bigger, better, and more exact words to get our meaning across, or at least to pad out our essays.
A few years ago, I read two pages of the dictionary nightly, reading halfway through the alphabet. My biggest discovery? Simple words can have crazy meanings.
But few of the dictionary words stuck. I struggled with vocabulary. Mom spoke Swiss. She came to Calgary as a teen, crying while playing her accordion, unable to speak a word of English. So, I learned English less by example, more by struggle.
To illustrate, in grade seven, my class had a vocabulary test. We needed to spell one hundred words. The boy who marked my answers gave me many red x’s. But I cried until he marked all my answers correct. That’s how not to get into grad school.
One practical way to make vocabulary stick? Name your moods—in other words, dig up vocabulary for emotions. Many psychologists urge patients to label emotions. Why? Naming moods heals wounds. So, when you feel bad, name your bodily sensations, thoughts—and physical brain pains.
One good way to learn words for emotions? Read positive and negative trait thesauruses. I like to pinpoint the traits that describe people in my world. Then, I attach three synonyms to each trait. Doing so sheds insight—and builds empathy for ourselves and others.
Another practical way to make vocabulary stick? Look up relevant words for your academic discipline. In other words, scour academic books for jargon. Then, turn that jargon into vocabulary cue cards, perhaps posted online.
I made online vocabulary cue cards. Publicly available. How did I do it? As I read books, I jotted down big words on the back-blank pages. Then I turned those words into cue cards through dictionary.com’s quizzes portal.
Chris Lele shares tricks to learn vocabulary in his book The Vocabulary Builder Workbook: Simple Lessons and Activities to Teach Yourself Over 1400 Must-Know Words:
- Let’s face it—school vocabulary tests don’t gel: “That’s all our school gave us: books containing lists of words, with no exercise or examples providing context, just dry definitions to be parroted back for a passing grade” (37% of preview. Location 488 0f 1301).
- A better way to learn vocabulary? “A large vocabulary is not built from memorizing word lists or from some innate verbal capacity that very few possess, but rather is formed through targeted practice and context recognition” (38% of preview. Location 498).
- Plus, learn vocabulary through dictionaries. Try “to figure out words in context and then always (and I mean always) consul[t] the dictionary” (37% of preview. Location 488).
- Learning root words strengthens basic vocab, too. “You might want to start by learning word roots if your vocabulary is not very strong” (39% of preview. Location 513).
- Use vocabulary to characterize the people in your world: “Choose words … to describe five people you encounter throughout the day—though you might want to keep the word to yourself” (44% of preview. Location 572).
- And name your moods: “Use new words to describe whatever your mood happens to be” (44% of preview. Location 572). [Naming moods has psychological benefits, too.]
- And learn the jargon of your hobby: “If you … [have] a specific interest or hobby, find an article relating to that … and then quiz [yourself] on any relevant vocabulary afterward” (44% of preview. Location 572).
- To learn a word, know its “part of speech, pronunciation, definition … example of the word in a sentence, etymology (or word history) …” (39% of preview. Location 513).
Lastly, sharpen your vocabulary through mnemonics. Yes, memory tricks. I learned from Harry Lorayne, world memory champion, that mnemonics fast-track learning new words. For instance, sycophant sounds like sicko ant. You might picture a sicko ant kissing up to you, like a servile flatterer, says Lorayne.
Mnemonics can help kids learn to spell, too. “It” has a carbuncle with an “itch” fit for a “witch” which makes her “twitch.”
That last spelling bee challenge? Try spelling the word for a witch who brews and sells secret elixirs.