10 Ways to Build and Use Your Vocabulary
College professors complain that student writing often lacks the sophistication expected at college level. Learn proven techniques to build your vocabulary.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
A common complaint among college professors is that student writing lacks the sophistication and level of vocabulary expected of college students. Building your vocabulary has many advantages beyond improving your writing. A rich, well-developed vocabulary will make you a better contributor to class discussions, a better reader, and a learner who can make connections among various disciplines.
The thesaurus feature that comes with Microsoft Word and other word-processing programs is a huge help for students with underdeveloped vocabularies. A thesaurus in print form can't hurt either.
Techniques that actually help you to learn new words and build your vocabulary will be more useful to you in the long run, however. Now, it probably does not sound practical to drop everything in the middle of writing a paper to improve your vocabulary -- and it's not. That's the time to use those shortcuts like thesaurus features
But when it's not crunch time, you can employ relatively painless techniques to boost your command of words. Here are 10 of them:
1. Read. Research shows that one of the best vocabulary builders is reading -- and you will certainly do a lot of reading in college. Make it a habit to jot down unfamiliar words you come across while researching your paper and learn their definitions and usage. Consider keeping a file of new words on 3 x 5 cards with definitions and examples of how to use them in a sentence.
2. Read beyond textbooks. Look for new words when you read for pleasure. And yes, read for pleasure. Read magazines, newspapers, and the Internet. Look for topical words, words in the news.
3. Learn word roots. I'm tempted to say "Learn Latin." Sixty percent of the English language comes from Latin. My four years of high-school Latin were the biggest single contributor to my vocabulary (Thank you, Mr. Rhody). Sadly, fewer and fewer high schools and colleges offer Latin. And learning the whole language does take time. But you can learn both Latin and Greek word roots, suffixes, and prefixes, thus giving you the tools to suss out the meanings of words. Here are just a few Websites that can help you learn:
- EnhanceMyVocabulary.com: English Vocabulary Derived from Latin
- Word for Word
- The Study Hall: Prefixes, Suffixes, & Roots
- English vocabulary word directory with links to various thematic units of Words for Our Modern Age
4. Sort new words. You can combine techniques 1 through 3 by writing new words you encounter on sticky notes and then applying your knowledge of word roots to sort words based on their common roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Or group synonyms together, or make sentences with them. Create a word wall and learn from the relationships among words.
5. Make a new-word list on steroids. Vocabulary expert J. M. Steadman recommends a word list with more than just definitions. He suggests columns for the new word you want to learn, its part of speech (noun, verb, etc.), its pronunciation, synonyms for the word, its antonyms, its derivation (learning those Greek and Latin roots will help), common meanings of the words, related words, and sentences that illustrate how the word is used. Such a detailed list could be kept in a notebook or even on a spreadsheet on your computer. Yes, investigating all those aspects of new words is a lot of work, but research shows that multiple exposures to words truly helps you learn them.
6. Learn a new word each day. Lots of tools are available to help you learn a new word every day, including print calendars and Web sites. Here are a few:
- Merriam-Webster Word of the Day
- Word a Day newsletter from Vocab Vitamins
- The OneLook® Word of the Day
7. Determine word meanings from their context. Even before you look a word up, try to figure out what it means by the context in which you find it. You'll certainly encounter lots of words in context in your college readings. Studies show that strategies in which you self-evaluate how you have figured out what words mean reinforce your learning of those words.
8. And then use them in new contexts. Use them in your written assignments. Look for concepts related to the new words you're using.
9. Use new words in conversation. Don't worry about appearing pompous or too smart by using new word you've learned. You'll learn the words better, and you might even impress your conversation partners.
10. Cultivate a fascination, affection, and curiosity for words and their histories. If you think of vocabulary improvement as a distasteful chore, you will obviously not get far with it. But if you immerse yourself in words, their meanings, uses, and derivations, you'll develop a life-long facility with words that will serve you well throughout your college years and far beyond.
See also an article published on our sister site, EnhanceMyVocabulary.com:
Easy Ways to Improve
and Expand Your Vocabulary: Seven Tips for Learning New Words.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.