How to Improve Vocabulary

Practical Vocabulary Building Strategies

First, I'm going to give you a handful of very effective techniques you can use to improve vocabulary for the 'real world'. But I don't want to stop there...

You see, Word Buff is primarily devoted to helping you win at word games. And the kinds of words you meet in word games are not what most people would call 'real world' words. Heck, some like to claim that many of these words are not even 'real' words at all!

So, after these introductory vocabulary building tips I'm going to invite you to join me on a fun excursion into the world of what I call word game vocabulary. To do this, I've put together a free 5 part email tutorial that will really turbo-charge your vocabulary.

If you want to master Scrabble, crossword puzzles, or spelling bees — or if you just love learning weird and wonderful words — I think you'll enjoy it!
But we have to learn to walk before we can run...

Tips to Improve Vocabulary

Part I - Improve Vocabulary for Real Life

In my opinion, what marks a person with an excellent vocabulary is not that they spray the room with obscure words that get their listeners scrambling for the nearest dictionary, but rather that they use exactly the right word in exactly the right situation.

Now don't get me wrong - it is certainly true that a person who does this will often also know a bunch of really unusual words, but for the most part you only need to know a relatively small number of words to express yourself perfectly in most real world situations. The trick is to know these words inside out. You need to know them so well that they just come out of your mouth unconsciously as you try to express yourself.

How do you make this happen?

As always, there is no magic formula, but I've put together a few concrete strategies to improve vocabulary that I have found extremely effective. This list could easily extend to 100, of course, but I've tried to focus on the techniques I consider to be most effective and powerful.

You'll notice, for example, that I don't mention subscribing to Word of the Day services. Not because these services are bad or anything - it's just that they really don't do much to improve your vocabulary. (I'll talk more about daily word services another time.)

Create Vocabulary Lists

It is far easier to recall words that are grouped together into meaningful lists than to recall words that appear at random.

There are lots of useful themes you can use to compile vocabulary lists, but here are three I find useful...

  • Meanings — This is the most obvious way to categorize words and involves slotting each word into a topic the word is about. Examples I've used include Islamic Terms and Emotive Words.
  • Books — When I read a book and find myself looking up words on every second page, I'll compile a vocabulary list for that book.
  • Etymology — My most well-worn list in this category is Common Latin Words and Phrases
I'm sure you can think of other list headings that are more suitable for your own purposes. If you're preparing to sit a vocabulary exam, for example, you might have a list called GRE Exam - Masters Level.

Read Usage Examples

Read the following sentences and try to work out what the bolded word means (even if you think you know, read them anyway)...

  • "They are free to be energetic and enterprising; they are equally free to be lethargic and dilatory..."

  • "Some letters, however, suggest that Leapor was rather dilatory, and may not have done much work in the winter."

  • "they resorted to dilatory tactics, forcing a postponement of talks."

  • "This power may be used, for example, where there is likely to be a delay in allocating the case to a named guardian on the panel or where the guardian is being dilatory in appointing a solicitor."
Did you guess that dilatory is an adjective describing someone who is a bit slow to act and/or given to procastination. I bet you did ;-)

See how powerful word usage examples are? They are so powerful that you could actually learn the meaning of words by reading a small collection of contextual uses without even looking up the word's definition!

In fact, if you think about it, that's how we do most of our vocabulary building in the world. We read and hear words in context and eventually work out what they mean without even trying to (as long as we hear them frequently enough).

Why not speed up the process by studying usage examples carefully and deliberately rather than waiting for examples to turn up in front of you. You will be amazed how much more quickly you can improve vocabulary this way, compared with normal reading.

Use Image Associations

Look at the following word and picture for a few seconds, and then close your eyes and try to erase the association...

Improve Vocabulary With Pictures

Any luck? Of course not. You'll hear me say this time and time again on this site...

Your brain loves pictures. So use them!

If you look at this image 10 to 20 times, with the word CONTUMACIOUS right next to it each time, you will have no trouble recalling what this word means next time you see it in context.

There's a reason I chose this word for my example, by the way. Many people think images only work with concrete nouns, but here we have a perfect image to solidify an abstract adjective!

Sometimes you have to work pretty hard to come up with an image that conveys the sense of an unusual word, but if you really want to improve vocabulary, I assure you it's well worth the effort.

Use Vocabulary Software

There were plenty of people with great vocabularies on this planet before it was invaded by computers. You only need to read a literary classic to see that. So you certainly don't need computer software to become a master of words.

However, there is absolutely no doubt that software will help you improve vocabulary far more efficiently than pen-and-paper ever will. A good vocabulary building application enables you...

  • Search for words, meanings, and examples in a fraction of a second.
  • Test yourself using flashcards, without the messy card-stuffed shoeboxes!
  • Monitor your performance on the vocabulary lists you're trying to master.

I don't want to sidetrack this topic to discuss vocabulary building software in detail here, so let me just point you to the vocabulary builder I use nowadays.

Tips to Improve Vocabulary

Part II - Improve Vocabulary for Word Games

Ok, are you ready to graduate?

You see, words like DILATORY and CONTUMACIOUS are great for enriching your real world vocabulary, but they won't be enough to master Scrabble, Spelling Bees, or Crossword Puzzles. For that, you're going to need to bring in the heavy artillery...

Did you know that QIVIUT is wool taken from the undercoat of a musk ox? How about that UPSILON is the 20th letter of the Greek alphabet? No? Well, surely you know that GJETOST is a sweet Norwegian cheese made from goat's milk?

No? Oh dear. We've got some serious work to do. Enter your details in the boxes below, and let's get started...

Turbo-Charge Your Vocabulary

To get your free Vocabulary Building for Word Games
e-Course, just tell me where you'd like me to send it!

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I promise to use it only to send you Word Buff Stuff!.

What Are Your Thoughts
On Improving Vocabulary?

Do you have an opinion about vocabulary building you'd like to share? Maybe you're a teacher with a great technique or resource for increasing vocabulary? Or a student, perhaps, with a gripe about current English education methods. Or maybe you just like spouting off your opinions about anything and everything ;-)

Whatever the case, this is the place!

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