Not-Scary Vocabulary

As an English verbal consultant, I spend a lot of time in the field tutoring students in vocabulary. “He has 300 words that he needs to learn before his final,” read one of my recent assignments. Three hundred words in exactly four weeks! That’s a lot for the human brain to take in, especially since most of the words had an accompanying list of synonyms and antonyms even more obscure than the vocabulary words themselves, in addition to the definitions. We’re talking about thousands of words all told! It was a pretty overwhelming task. Luckily, a young brain is designed to take in new information. Plus, as a consultant with years of experience, I have a strong background in English and a tested and effective strategy for learning vocabulary. Following are my best vocabulary tips:

1. No fear! Like I said, a young brain is designed for learning. Bet on that and dive in!

2. There are three fundamental aspects of every word that should be learned: Denotation, connotation, and part of speech. Denotation is the definition of the word. Connotation is the way the word feels and its implications outside of meaning; is it positive, negative, or neutral? In what context do we use the word? Words can have roughly the same meaning but vary in connotation. Finally, part of speech: noun, verb, adjective or adverb?

As you can see, definition is only one third of the equation. Learning all three fundamentals will increase your chances of doing well on exams, and make it so that even in the event you do forget definitions, you still have a good chance of getting the right answer. How is this so? Let’s consider the basic vocabulary test formats. You have definition recall, fill in the blank in the sentence, or, sometimes, analogies, synonyms or antonyms.  Regardless of format, most tests nowadays involve some sort of answer bank to choose from. This means that if you know the vocabulary word’s part of speech, or can determine the part of speech required to fill in the blank in the sentence or analogy, you can automatically rule out answers that don’t fit. Same goes for connotation. If the sentence is calling for a positive connotation word, you can rule out answers that don’t fit.

3. I get my clients to write their own sentences with their vocabulary words. If the vocabulary comes from a novel the class is currently reading, I ask that they write sentences pertaining to the storyline – that’s vocabulary and plot reinforcement in one!Sentences also have to be thorough enough to ascertain the definition – this is because when I’m reviewing words with a student, and they forget the definition, I read them their sentence rather than tell them the definition. When students learn words in context, they retain them better than they would by merely learning definitions. The best way to learn a word is to use it!

– Lisa Walter, Verbal and College Guidance Consultant

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