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How to Build a Better Vocabulary

A well-developed vocabulary is an asset for any high school or college student. Vocabulary skills will help you communicate effectively and perform well on standardized exams, such as the ACT and SAT. Some students seem to naturally pick up vocabulary through reading, but others need to make a more concerted effort.

Before we explore strategies that are effective for building vocabulary, let’s take a minute to explore what doesn’t work. Memorizing standard lists of vocabulary words is time consuming, boring and rarely effective. This flash card drill and kill presents vocabulary out of context and doesn’t inspire students to really enjoy the study of language.

Homeschool Vocabulary Strategies that Work

Make your own personal dictionary
As you run across words you don’t know in your reading, look them up. To look up words, you can use a print dictionary, online sources like dictionary.com or, if you have a smartphone, use a dictionary app. The key is to look words up right away, thoroughly read the definition, and then add it to your own personal list of words to learn. Instead of memorizing random lists of words you don’t care about, focus on words you’ve actually seen in your reading.

Read a wide variety of different materials
Not all reading is equal for developing vocabulary. If you primarily read fluff novels or simple newspapers such as USA Today, you will rarely run across words you do not know. Diversity in reading will really help expose you to different language challenges. Make sure your reading includes classic fiction, fiction set in different time periods and in different parts of the world, social science, science, current events, and history. Quality publications such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, Scientific American, and Smithsonian magazine are good places to start looking for nonfiction materials.

Study Latin and word roots
As many homeschoolers have discovered, studying classical languages helps students develop appreciation for the roots of the English language. Studying Latin and Greek root words can improve student’s ability to approach unfamiliar words. English from the Roots Up is one popular curriculum for middle school level students.

DictionaryWord games and puzzles
While word puzzles are not the most effective way to learn new vocabulary they can be a fun refresher and reinforcer of material. Crossword puzzles can help learners gain exposure to new and unfamiliar words. That only works though if the crossword puzzle is at the level that is challenging for the student. Websites such as Vocabulary.com and FreeRice also offer multiple choice vocabulary quizzes. These quizzes adjust based on the player’s level of mastery, so they will offer material at the right level of challenge. Most students won’t necessarily retain words they get wrong in this kind of game, but they can still be a fun way to encourage vocabulary study.

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