Three Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary

Learning Tips
Mentor Education

Most of us speak and write every day, but how often do we vary the words we use? How often do we actively decide to make bold, interesting choices?

For a student, having a diverse vocabulary at your fingertips can be the key to educational success; for example, if you’re trying to craft an inspiring essay or break down a new set text, having an array of meaningful words to draw on is undoubtedly helpful.

Trying to increase your vocabulary can be a struggle, though. It’s not necessarily understanding the words that can prove tricky, but remembering the word – what it means, or how to use it – often presents a problem, meaning that we fall back on the same old words over and over again.

In this blog, we’ll share three sure-fire tips for expanding – and enlivening – your vocabulary.

How to improve your vocabulary, #1: read regularly

Reading long-form content – like a novel – might seem counterintuitive when it comes to diversifying vocabulary: after all, isn’t an author going to build up patterns of speech for their characters, and therefore favour the same sorts of words, over and over again? Perhaps. But even if this the case, it’s likely that these words will be different from the words you’d choose to use in your own writing; and, in fact, reading the same sets of words at regular intervals can be a really effective way to appreciate (and remember) new language. When you add context to the equation – in that the words will have more meaning, because you’re building up layers of association due to the characters and plot that you’re investing in by choosing to continue with the novel – the act of reading a book becomes a powerful tool for increasing vocabulary.

Of course, it is best to choose content that is going to challenge you, like a literary novel; a meaty magazine; or even a well-regarded website. If the material is thoroughly researched and well written, you may learn something new every time you settle down to read.

When you do start reading, take note of any words that you don’t know, but don’t constantly interrupt your reading to look them up. As mentioned, new words are more likely to stick in your head if you also pay attention to the context – so don’t stop reading whenever you come across an unfamiliar phrase. Instead, highlight the word and return to it at the end, armed with a trusty dictionary!

#2: Make a list

As well as allowing yourself to absorb new words organically from material that you are reading, it’s good to make a language list to focus on. How you compile the list is up to you: we recommend making a note on your phone every time you come across a word you don’t understand (in class, when reading, on posters at the tube station, or if you overhear people using it in conversation). You could also make a point of looking up the antonyms and synonyms of words that you commonly use, and adding those to the list.

Set yourself a target: perhaps you’d like to learn a new word each day, or a set number per month. Make sure that, as well as learning the word in question, you make an effort to use it that same day. This will help ensure that the word sinks in and, ultimately, will improve recall over a longer period of time.

#3: Have fun!

Broadening your vocabulary doesn’t have to be about reading and learning alone: why not play a game? Crosswords are a great place to start, as are Scrabble and Boggle: and you can always play these online if your family and friends aren’t keen (though playing in a face-to-face capacity can be really helpful – you’re more likely to absorb new words if you can ask your peers about the phrase and what it means in person).

You don’t have to spend lots of money on board games if you want to ‘play’ your way to an increased vocabulary, though. There are plenty of free games out there, too! At Mentor, we enjoy playing ‘icebreaker’ games like Word Chain, for example (a game in which you go round in a circle, and each person has to reply with a word starting with the last letter of the one that came before it).

Become an etymological explorer

This falls under the same tip as above, really: it’s part of ‘finding the fun’ in language, and so we didn’t feel it could be classed as a new tip all on its own. Nonetheless, exploring the etymology of a word can be fascinating, and so it’s definitely worth discussing!

Delving deeper into language increases your appreciation of particular words and phrases – and finding hidden meanings can be fun, too! Intrigued by an unfamiliar word, or trying to find a way to make a new phrase stick in your mind? Look up the suffix, prefix, and the root. You might uncover something truly surprising! For instance, did you know that ‘etymology’ comes from the Greek word ‘etymon’ (i.e. ‘true sense’) and suffix ‘logia’, which means ‘the study of’?

The more you know about a word – where it comes from, how it has been used over time, and what it means – the more connections your brain will form. This solidifies your understanding of the word, and makes it more likely that you’ll be able to remember the phrase and use it effectively in future.

Training your brain in this way has an added benefit, too: it increases the chances of you working out the meaning of an unknown word if you come across it, without having to look it up at all. For example, if we know that the suffix of ‘etymology’ means ‘study of’, other, similar words also become easier to figure out, even if they aren’t instantly familiar – like ‘psychology’ ‘physiology’ and even ‘biology’!

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