Read, Write, and Practice to Strengthen Your Vocabulary

Do you ever come across words you don’t understand? Or maybe English is your second language and you want to build your vocabulary? Whether you’re a native speaker or a language learner, having a strong vocabulary is an important ingredient for success in business. But building that vocabulary requires strategy. Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, gives you a strategy that will reap great rewards.

Lisa B. Marshall
6-minute read
Episode #334

I recently received this email:

Hello Lisa,

I have been going through your blogs, and I need some help regarding building vocabulary. Many people suggested that I read books, and some suggested I read a dictionary and newspaper. I find it hard to remember those words and sentences, as I am not able to reproduce them. So how can I increase my skills to communicate better by using better words? Please help me regarding this.

Thanks,  Nithin.   

Hi Nithin,

Thanks for your question. Learning new vocabulary is important and, at the same time, can be difficult. The key to learning new words is understanding that you need to go beyond reading the definition. You also need to hear examples of how the word is used in a variety of contexts; you need to analyze and process the new word, and then use it yourself.  

Read to Build Vocabulary

The advice you received to read more was good advice. However, as I'm sure you know, learning vocabulary through reading is not a fast process. It’s something that occurs slowly over time. You mentioned that for you, it's hard to remember new words. Are you reading at the right level? When it comes to reading and learning new vocabulary, it's critical to consider the reading level. Choosing the "right" material is an important factor for vocabulary building. If the material is too advanced (or too simplistic), learning new vocabulary is difficult, if not impossible.  

You may now be asking, "Well, then, how do I know if a book is good for me or not?" Read the first few pages. If it is a good vocabulary level for your learning, there should only be one or two new words per page. If too many words are new, it's too difficult and you'll need to look for something easier. (By the way, you can find books at the right level by using Lexile scores or by using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) and the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) ratings.) If English is your second language, sometimes it can be hard to find books with interesting, meaningful "adult" content but that are at the correct reading level. Especially in the beginning, you may want to use materials that are specifically designed for language learning that use vocabulary in a repetitive and progressive manner. (I used this type of material when learning Spanish and I really enjoyed learning in this manner. It made vocabulary building natural.)

Get in the habit of looking up the words you don't know. (If you are an ESL learner, look up words both in your translation dictionary and also in an English dictionary—even if that means you need to look up more words.) My kids usually prefer reading a hard copy book, but when it comes to vocabulary building they prefer reading kindle ebooks. Why? Because they can easily look up the definition of words they don't know. My kids and I take advantage of that feature to learn new vocabulary. In fact, just this week while reading the book Humble Inquiry, I looked up a word.  Basically, the more words you are exposed to, the better vocabulary you will have.  

The reason you need to read, read, read is because research shows that the best way to learn vocabulary is to learn the word from context—the way a young native language reader does. As you may know, when children encounter a new word, they are encouraged to guess at the meaning based on the words around it before they look it up.  You should be doing the same thing.  To improve your vocabulary using context clues, I recommend The Learning Network, which is associated with the New York Times. It gives a Word of the Day plus a Quiz. Besides the definitions of the words, it also links to published articles in the Times that previously used the word. That can be a great way to learn new words in context (and the reading level of the New York Times varies quite a bit). 

But, as you mention, even if you do read and look up words, it's very easy to forget new words. The trick is to take more steps. For example, I can't remember the word I looked up just two days ago because I didn't take any further action! My excuse is that it was late at night, in bed, and I was tired! So another tip is to do vocabulary building when you are fresh in the morning and have made time for some follow-up activities.  


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.