I have a lot of friends who wish they had a larger vocabulary. “I want to know more words so I can sound smarter,” they’ll say. While I don’t think that “sounding smarter” is all that great of a goal, having a large vocabulary is beneficial, assuming you use it judiciously. When you know more words, you can spend more time engaging with great authors and thinkers and less time wondering, “What the heck did she just say?”
The way most of us learned vocabulary in school, however, is boring and ineffective. From around fifth grade to my freshman year of high school, we had these brightly colored Vocabulary Workshop books from which we were tested every week or so. The very structure of these books gives the wrong idea about learning vocabulary and learning in general; the books imply that if you just memorize the definitions of a set of words, copy them into a few fill-in-the-blank boxes, and regurgitate them on a test (only to immediately forget them), you’ll somehow increase your vocabulary.
This approach is stupid. It’s not completely ineffective, and I’m sure I learned a few words that way, but to be honest, I already knew most of the words before I studied them.
How was that possible? Trust me, I wasn’t the sort of kid who sat there and read the dictionary (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But I did do plenty of reading, and so should you.
Reading is among the fastest, most effective, and certainly most fun ways to improve your vocabulary. For many years, I took that stance, and for certain, it’s not a bad one–it’s much better than not reading and not learning any new words.
Recently, however, I’ve learned about the concept of active learning. With this new-found knowledge, I realized that simply reading more to increase my vocabulary is, ultimately, a passive strategy. With that in mind, I’ve set out to improve my method of vocabulary acquisition, and in today’s post I’m going to outline my approach, one that I will implement myself over the next month. I invite you to join me…
It Still Starts With Reading
As someone who loves to read, I’m biased, but the foundation of my method is still reading. Reading pretty much anything. As an English major, I’m partial to literature, but I delve into nonfiction of all kinds as well, and so should you. My only rule is that whatever you read, it must be a physical print book, one that you own and are ready to write in.
I’m not saying that e-readers are evil (and indeed, the built-in dictionary is helpful for instantly defining unfamiliar words), but for this experiment, use a physical book. Opinions are divided on which is better for retention of material, but being able to physically mark and write in the book are essential for this approach.
For my personal vocabulary acquisition experiment, I’m choosing a book I just finished reading, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, but I invite you to pick either a new book or one that you’re currently reading in order to get the most value from the process.
Reading For Vocabulary
This is where the magic begins. As the basis of my approach, I’m using a method outlined by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings in this interview with Tim Ferris. If you don’t want to listen to the whole interview (though I recommend you do), Cal Newport effectively summarizes the method in this post.
Basically, you create your own index as you read the book. I do this with any passages that I find beautiful, interesting, or confusing, but I also do it with words or references/allusions that I don’t understand (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is full of these). I take a blank page of the book (either at the beginning or end) and create a few relevant categories. I usually file unfamiliar words under something like “Words/References to Look Up,” but use whatever title makes sense to you.
Once I’ve created the framework of the index, I’ll mark unfamiliar words as I encounter them. My preferred method is drawing boxes around them (to distinguish from underlining, which is for passages or phrases that I find interesting or beautiful), but again, use what makes sense to you. Once I’ve marked the words on the page, I flip back to my “Index” and note the relevant page number under “Words/References to Look Up.”
Here’s what Piligrim at Tinker Creek looked like after doing that for a few chapters.
Now that we’ve noted the words we want to learn using an analog method, let’s apply some superb spaced-repetition technology to implant these vocabulary words in our brains.
Spaced Repetition Wizardry
If you stopped at just looking up the words you want to learn, you’d be ahead of a lot of people who never even bother to go that far. But if you really want to incorporate the words into your vocabulary, you need a more active approach.
This is where Anki comes in. Anki is a free program that employs a spaced repetition system (SRS) to help you learn any kind of information you can study using flashcards, which makes it perfect for learning new words. These aren’t just a digital version of the flashcards you made in school, however.
Anki uses a spaced repetition algorithm to quiz you more on the words you need help with and less on the ones you don’t. It also sets cards to be reviewed in such a way that they come up right before you’re about to forget them. It’s the best method I’ve found for studying information that you want to truly know and master.
For the purpose of this post, I’m going to pick ten new words from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to learn over the next month. With the way Anki works, I could certainly choose more (which makes Anki great for learning vocab in new languages), but I want to keep the number of words manageable so that I can study them in just five minutes or so a day.
Looking back in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I selected the following words:
- eutrophic (115)
- limnologist (119)
- phylactery (120)
- pelagic (162)
- grunion (162)
- oriflamme (167)
- aft a-gley (167)
- hagiography (220)
- vive le chance (226)
- fontanel (229)
I will now look up the definition of each and then put it into Anki. While not required, it’s also helpful if you find a suitable picture to accompany your word, as an image creates a stronger string of associations than just a text definition alone. Here’s the card I created for “phylactery.”
Add all the cards you create to a suitable deck. I’m calling mine “New Words to Learn.”
Now you’re ready to study. Click on the deck, then click “Study Now.” Anki will give you the first word, as you can see below. Try to remember what it means, then click “Show Answer” to see if you were right. Anki will then ask you to rate the difficulty of the word as either “Again” (you had no idea), “Good” (your answer was fairly close), or “Easy” (self-explanatory). Based on your rating, Anki will decide when to show you the card again. Depending on what you picked, you might see the card in anywhere from 1 minute to 1 week.
As I said earlier, I’m going to try this method myself over the next month. In order to remember to quiz myself every day, I’m going to use a web application called HabitRPG. If HabitRPG interests you, this post gives an excellent introduction. Use whatever method you like to remember, so long as you study the words every day. It only takes five minutes…
Also, I encourage you to put your new words to use however possible, using them in your writing and speech (even if you sound a bit ridiculous, I’m sure your good friends or family will forgive you). Personally, I’m going to use them in my morning journal entries and in conversation with my girlfriend and friends.
To learn more about the deliberate practice and spaced repetition theories and methods that inspired this post, check out these links:
- “Deliberate Practice” by James Clear
- “Intellectual Combat” by Thomas Frank
- “Spaced Repetition” by Benny Lewis
- The First 20 Hours by Josh Kaufman
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Photo Credit: A set of Tefillin by Black Stripe