Related: Continuing Education, Tina Mahaffy

More than Words: How to Win at Vocabulary




Encyclopedia. The word that cost me the second grade spelling bee. The word that I recited over and over again determined to memorize, but much to my dismay, never stuck. This is a memory I will have for the rest of my life as the event which shaped my perception of learning vocabulary. Growing up in the public school system, I recall the countless weekly drills and tests meant to enhance our spelling and word choices. I distinctly remember the ever-so-dramatic dread and agony I felt when it came to completing any and all of these activities. Essentially, I would end up studying the words just enough for the purpose of taking the test, then, without fail, forget them soon after.

Fast forward to today. We live in an era of endless, consistent media coming at us in every direction, whether we want it to or not. We pride ourselves in being “plugged in” to the internet, television, cell phones, email, news, entertainment, advertisements, let alone everyday conversations with other people. Communication is rapid and content is available at our disposal. In fact, studies reveal we are “skimming” rather than actually “reading” all of this online content.

What it comes down to is we now have the luxury of skipping over what we don’t know, choosing what information we want to retain, and communicating in shorthand. While technology has amazing benefits, it conveniently leaves us with no reason to strengthen our vocabulary, and normalizes speaking in abbreviations. I am certainly guilty of this! I can’t remember the last time I turned to the dictionary when I came across a word I didn’t know.

Why are we afraid to practice new vocabulary? Can you imagine what would happen if we got excited by increasing these skills? And can you imagine where our speaking, reading, and writing would be now if we would have found value in it growing up?

As an individual, these ideas are extremely convicting to my own personal and professional growth. However, as educators, I feel that if exploring and using vocabulary took place more in and out of the classroom, this concept has the ability to change the lives of both teachers and students.

Sounds great, right? Now how in the world can learning vocabulary actually make that great of an impact? The key is to not only teach and learn new words, but explore how to teach and learn new words. A sure way to successfully improve and find value in something, is by applying that work with your personal learning style. For me, this is not studying flash cards; instead it is taking the time to read an article about a topic I am unfamiliar with. What this does, is provide exposure to language I would not normally come across in my everyday life, and broadens my knowledge of different subjects, feeds my curiosity, and occasionally even opens my life to discovering new interests. It’s a win-win! I get to learn some new words, and the words help me learn more about life. Imagine what doors could open up for yourselves and your students if you taught, not only vocabulary, but how to learn in a way that they will understand.

As the old proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Here are some strategies that resonated with me:

1) Read, read, and read.

As you read and uncover new words, use a combination of attempting to derive meaning from the context of the sentence as well as from looking up the definition in a dictionary. Also, consider reading about topics outside of your normal areas of expertise. Diversity is important to build a well-rounded vocabulary.

2) Subscribe to word-of-the-day emails.

Using a word-of-the-day website or developing your own list of words to learn is a great technique.

3)  Keep a vocabulary journal or a blog.

Whether you choose to record your words-of-the-day or just jot down unfamiliar words you as you encounter them, keeping a vocabulary journal will help reinforce new language and slowly build them into your everyday vocabulary. Plus, keeping a journal of all your new words can provide positive reinforcement for learning even more words, especially when you can see how far you have come.

4) Go back to the Latin & Greek roots.

Latin and Greek fundamentals (prefixes, roots, and suffixes) are a significant part of the English language and a great tool for learning new words.

5) Play some games.

Word games that challenge you and help you discover new meanings and new words are a fun tool in your quest for expanding your vocabulary. Try out some crossword puzzles, anagrams, word searches, Scrabble, Boggle, etc.

Word Search

***BONUS – What to avoid:

1)      DO NOT (exclusively) read fluff. It’s okay to indulge in less intellectual reading and writing. We all do it, and it can be fun. But don’t read fluff so steadfastly that you ignore heavier or more challenging material.

2)      DO NOT limit yourself to learning new words in print. Picking up vocabulary in the midst of a public lecture, a PBS show, or a radio broadcast might be a little trickier, but it can be extremely beneficial to hear new words verbally spoken in specific context.

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2 Responses to More than Words: How to Win at Vocabulary

  1. mahaffyk says:

    Thank you for your encouraging response, Mr. Yarmosh! Its wonderful to see people applying this concept to their everyday lives. I especially appreciate your comment on using the technology that can sometimes hinder our growth, to instead further it.

  2. Well said and written. I too grow up in a public school system where my only goal was to studying the words just enough to past the next test, and like you, would forget them soon after.
    I’m a notoriously bad speller, and if it was not for spell check on my web browser and email I would probably never write. The key difference with me, is that I learned early the same things you are expressing people here to do!
    I don’t skim over words I don’t understand, instantly a new web browser tab opens on my PC or phone, where ever I am, and goes straight to the definition of the new word. I love learning new words and their exploring their source. I may still not spell them correctly, but at least I know them and can now use them correctly because I’ve gone to the point of making the word mine, so to speak.
    Cheers for this!

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