Which Vocabulary Builder?

A Close Look at Ultimate Vocabulary

Below Ultimate Vocabulary helps me revise a word list

The Ultimate Vocabulary Builder

They say the best way to a great vocabulary is a life-long dedication to literature. But if you're about to compete in a spelling bee or sit a vocabulary exam, that advice really isn't very helpful. If you can relate to this, you should probably look into using vocabulary builder software to speed up the word learning process. But which program?

Ultimate Vocabulary is one program you might like to consider. I've been using it as my default vocabulary building system for several months now, which I figured was enough time to be able to talk accurately about its strengths and weaknesses.

I think a vocabulary building program has two main areas of responsibility...

  • First, it must enable you to manage the vocabulary words and word lists you want to learn.
  • Second, it must enable you to study words, take vocabulary tests, and monitor your learning.

That's why I've structured my review along those lines.

Words and Lists

The built-in dictionary serves as the basis for pretty much everything you'll find in Ultimate Vocabulary (the lookups, word lists, tests, and other activities). So this is one thing the product really needs to get right. Fortunately, they do. The dictionary contains about 140,000 words, but what is more important than the size of the lexicon is how the words were selected.

Since the name of the game here is vocabulary and spelling, the words have been acquired from a painstaking survey of just about every major vocabulary program and exam under the sun. As a result, it's highly unlikely you'll come across a vocabulary word that isn't there.

So far, the only words I've found to be missing from the dictionary are archaic obscurities like YRIVD (an obsolete past participle of 'rive'). And let's face it, these sorts of words are great for winning Scrabble and solving crosswords, but probably not all that important for improving spelling and building vocabulary ;-)

With each word you'll see the spelling and definition/s, and you can also hear the word clearly pronounced (so don't worry if you've never been able to understand those pronunciation symbols!)

In addition to those basics there are a bunch of other tabs revealing as much information about each word as you could ask for. Two really nice ones are...

  • 50 Power Examples On this tab you can see a list of up to 50 example sentences using each word. Most dictionaries have to omit citations due to space constraints, but this is such a shame given how crucial they are to word mastery. That's a big advantage of using software over paper for vocabulary building.

  • Word Explorer This is a conceptual diagram displaying the different meanings and synonyms of each word. Once you've learned the primary definition of a word, it's a good idea to take a look at the Word Explorer to appreciate the word's nuances and connections with other words.

Word Lists

Now unless you've got photographic memory you're not going to master 140,000 vocabulary words in a single sitting. Words are best learned by organizing them into coherent lists and then testing yourself at regular intervals on each list until you can pretty much put it aside as mastered.

If you're preparing for an exam, Ultimate Vocabulary comes with about 100 built-in lists to cover all the traditional American vocabulary exams, as you can see...

Built-in Vocabulary Word Lists

If your interest in vocabulary goes beyond just passing an exam, however, you'll want to take advantage of the custom lists feature, which I use constantly.

The custom list functionality is really nice. Whenever you come across a word in Ultimate Vocabulary, whether it's in a quiz or a dictionary lookup or whatever, there's a button you can click to add it to whatever custom list you like.

When I start reading a new book, I've developed a habit of creating a new custom word list for it. When I come across a word in that book that I'm uncertain about I click the Dictionary button and do a quick Word Lookup. After seeing the meaning, if I think there's a good chance I'll forget the word (which is usually the case), I just add it to my vocabulary word list for that book. After I've finished reading the book, I then test myself on the vocabulary list for that book a few times over subsequent weeks until I'm happy that it's mastered.

Learning and Testing

I've shown you how Ultimate Vocabulary supports words and lists, but now comes the real fun. Mastering them!

Here are some of the tools Ultimate Vocabulary provides to help you build your vocabulary...


Ultimate Vocabulary Flashcards

My favorite way to master word lists in Ultimate Vocabulary is to use the flashcard system. The flashcard mode randomizes your current word list and presents each card with the word on one side, and the definition on the other. If you set it to auto it will just scroll through the list giving you a few seconds to recall each definition before the answer is revealed (you can set it to manual mode if you like).

This is my preferred learning tool as I don't have to click any buttons.


A whole swag of tests are available for each list enabling you to learn words from other perspectives besides the 'word-definition' recipe. Four of the tests are in a multiple choice format: Definitions-to-Words, Words-to-Definitions, Words-to-Synonyms, and Words-to-Antonyms.Two of the tests are in fill-in-the-blank format: Word Recall (Definition-to-Word) and Spelling (Audio-to-Word). The latter test makes for quick spelling bee sessions.

Progress & Mastery

Whenever you feel you have mastered a vocabulary word, just check the Mastered checkbox for that word and it will no longer appear in tests. I prefer this approach to systems I've used that automatically decide that you've mastered a word - in my experience, these systems decide I've mastered a word before I'm confident with it.

Ultimate Vocabulary uses your mastery flag, along with your performance on tests, to produce a performance graph that is useful for monitoring your improvement at a glance. I don't make much use of this feature personally because I just go over and over a word list until I know it inside out - but I mention it because it's very handy for students who are being tested on vocabulary in a more formal educational setting.

Word Messenger

This is really neat. Word Messenger allows you to keep building your vocabulary while you're working on other things. When it's activated Word Messenger creates small popups with words and definitions from your current word list. You can glance at them while you're working on something else, or just ignore them if you're busy (the popups are made to be small enough not to be distracting).

The Negatives

A Few Usability Issues

Here are a few things I found counter-intuitive and a bit annoying...

  • When I start using a new program I like to read the online help thoroughly, so I like to leave it open permanently. Unfortunately, with Ultimate Vocabulary the help page sits in front of the work area, and you can't move it to the background.

    TIP - If you want to refer to the help often, I recommend you reduce the size of the work area and the help window and let them sit side-by-side. I know it's a small thing, but it annoyed me, so I'm including it ;-)

  • It would be much more intuitive to have a single menu for all Word List Actions (Select, Delete, Mastered, Print, etc.) Currently, these actions are distributed across the menu tabs (Home, Current Word List, and Tools). You click the Home tab to select a word list, you click the Current Word List tab to set all words to Mastered or Print your list, and you click the Tools tab to Delete Custom Word Lists. It's not a showstopper by any stretch, but why?

  • One of my favorite Ultimate Vocabulary features is the long list of usage examples that go with each word. The downside of this, though, is that you have to keep scrolling through them all. That would be fine if they were all needed, but they aren't - some citations are redundant, and some don't offer much. If the less useful ones were removed it would be a great time saver.

    TIP - I go through the citations for each word and copy the best two or three into the Notes field for that word. Although it takes a few minutes up front, this really pays off when you revise the list again later, because you don't have to visit the citations tab again.

Nice-to-Have Features

Being a great fan of word lists, and seeing what a terrific dictionary Ultimate Vocabulary has, I'd love to see the following features added to improve its support for word lists...

  • A word-pattern search feature so you can find all words having a certain prefix or suffix, for example '*IFEROUS', and save them as a custom word list.

  • An import feature so you can take word lists you've already created elsewhere and load them into Ultimate Vocabulary as custom lists. A corresponding export option would also enable the Ultimate Vocabulary user community to share and exchange word lists.

The Positives

Most of the positives are already included in the features descriptions earlier in this review, but here a few very nice things I haven't mention yet, or that I think deserve extra emphasis. Some of them are small and some are big, but they all important to making this program work effectively...

  • With all the lists, activities, and features, you could easily forget where you are in Ultimate Vocabulary. Fortunately, the creators of this program anticipated this and created an invaluable little navigation aid. On the main toolbar there is an information icon with a self-explanatory description that reminds you exactly where you are and what you're doing. Here's an example...

    Vocabulary Activities Navigation

    One reason I mention this, is that it took me a while to realize it was there! (I've often thought that a 'Where Am I?' feature like this would be a really handy navigation aid for websites.)

  • Now this one is really cool. Ultimate Vocabulary has a feature called Word Discover which allows you to display all sorts of information about a word beyond its definition and pronunciation (such as etymology, usage examples, and so on). This is cool already, but the great thing is you can add other web resources to this tool using the Word Discover Resources feature...

    Vocabulary Activities Navigation

    I use this tool to add images to my words, which are a tremendous learning aid. How could I fail to associate CUPIDITY with "extreme greed for material wealth" now that I've added this picture to the word?

    Ultimate Vocabulary Words - CUPIDITY

    There are lots of other resources you can add too - like rhyming words, for example. You are only limited by the websites you can find that support word lookups.

  • Audio pronunciations are so important to vocabulary building, and especially to spelling, and yet it is such an overlooked feature in most vocabulary builders. Perhaps this is because the effort required to produce these audio files is so huge. Whatever the reason, I am thoroughly impressed with the quantity and quality of audio in Ultimate Vocabulary. So far I don't think I've encountered a single word in the database that doesn't have the audio pronunciation. Goodbye to all those funny pronunciation symbols used by linguists!

  • Word Messenger is really fun. If you enjoy word learning, this is an excellent way to punctuate the other more monotonous chores you have to do on your computer each day. Just activate Word Messenger, specify how often you want your work to be interrupted, and a small popup will display itself at regular intervals with the word and definition from the list you are trying to learn at the moment. If you find, like I do, that Word of the Day messages are just way too far apart, you'll love this!

  • In deciding on a vocabulary builder, it's often difficult to know whether to choose an online (web-based) or offline (computer-based) model, since both have strengths and weaknesses. Ultimate Vocabulary has got a mix that I think gets it just right. The database is all stored on your computer, and is therefore available for offline vocabulary sessions, but when you are online you get to hook into lots of other cool web resources as well.

Is it the Ultimate Vocabulary Builder?

Well, if 'ultimate' means flawless, it isn't quite there yet. I've noted a few gripes above that will hopefully be addressed in subsequent versions of the product.

However, I do have to say that compared to other programs Ultimate Vocabulary is by far the most sophisticated vocabulary builder I've used to date, and, as I mentioned earlier, it has become my default program for building my own vocabulary (and with a site dedicated to words, I do get to try quite a few).

If you'd like to try it out, just visit the Ultimate Vocabulary website. At the time of writing this review, they offer a 12 month money-back guarantee, so although I doubt you'll need it, it's hard to get more risk-free than that.

All the best,

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