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Seven Steps to Word Power

by Charles Harrington Elster

A large and precise vocabulary is a speaker’s greatest asset. It is the foundation of eloquence. If you aspire to speak well — and write well, and think well — you must build your knowledge of words.

The notion of building your vocabulary may call to mind the dull drills of grade school. But learning new words, and learning more about words, doesn’t have to be tedious. Unlike with physical exercise, you can gain without pain. Unlike with dieting, the rewards are permanent. Best of all, you can start building your vocabulary at any age and, with a minimum of effort, keep it growing for the rest of your life.

Here are seven tips to help you pump up your word power:

1. Read, read, read. Reading is the most effective — and enjoyable — way to build vocabulary. Yet an astonishing number of people who can read, don’t read. In a 2001 survey of literate Americans age 25 and over conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 29 percent of the women and 43 percent of the men had not read a book in the preceding six months. If you’re not reading for your own pleasure and development, it’s time to start doing that for at least 20 or 30 minutes a day. Make newspapers and magazines a part of your diurnal routine. Visit the public library — often. Listen to audio books while you commute.

2. Expand your horizons. To build a strong vocabulary, you need to read widely. Venture beyond the familiar and the easy. Try something new and challenging. Take risks.

3. Make it fun. You won’t learn anything when you’re frustrated or bored. Don’t force yourself to read something you don’t like. Read what interests you. Let your curiosity be your guide. Talk about what you’re reading with others, and solicit recommendations from others on good books to read.

4. Always look for words you don’t know. This is extremely important. People tend to skip over or read around unfamiliar words. That’s a bad habit that can impair your reading comprehension and damage your vocabulary. As a vocabulary builder, your job is to be on the lookout for unfamiliar words. Challenge yourself to find at least one new word every time you read. Seek, and you shall find. And be honest with yourself — do you really know that word or just think you know it?

5. Use your dictionary. Whenever you see an unfamiliar word, it’s essential that you look it up. Keep a dictionary handy while you read so you can look up words right away. Or you can highlight words or jot them down on a piece of paper (with the page number so you can find them again) and look them up later.

6. Review it or lose it. Review is the key to retaining the words you learn, and one of the best ways to review is the time-honored flashcard method. Write the word on one side of an index card and the definition on the other. Carry the cards with you and test yourself two or three times a day. You can also keep a list on your computer of the words you’re learning.

7. Get with the program. You will find many helpful vocabulary-building books at your local bookstore and public library. And if you prefer to learn by listening, you may enjoy audio vocabulary-building programs. Either way, the discipline of following a program, studying a little bit each day, will speed up your rate of learning and do wonders for your vocabulary.

Remember, words are the key to knowledge, and knowledge is the key to success. Every word you add to your vocabulary broadens your understanding of the world, improves your comprehension of what you hear and read, and sharpens your ability to express your ideas with greater confidence and style.

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Charles Harrington Elster is the author of the vocabulary-building program Verbal Advantage, the SAT vocabulary-building novels Tooth and Nail and Test of Time, and various other books on words and word lore.

Copyright © 2006 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.