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(Reasonably) Pain-Free Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary

Sure, a great vocabulary is bound to enhance your already sparkling conversation skills.  Of course, even better than acquiring some witty bon mots, a strong vocabulary will help expand your reading comprehension skills in general and your standardized test scores in particular. And, fortunately, acquiring a vocabulary doesn’t have to be a painful process, especially if you employ a variety of methods. 

Here are few ideas for how to build a robust vocabulary:

Read a lot. Seriously, replace an hour of TV with an hour of reading every day (outside of school assignments) and you’ll make a lot of progress toward building an amazing vocabulary.

Remember, quality writing over fluff. We’re sorry to report that People magazine, US Weekly, and USA Today do not count. You can read them, but don’t expect them to enhance your reading comprehension or vocabulary or improve your performance on the SAT/ACT. 

Read a variety of literature on a variety of topics. Magazines, daily newspapers, online blogs and books cover all sorts of issues. While you can start with your favorite subjects (say the arts, currents events or maybe science), be sure to expand your horizons and catch up on a myriad of other areas. 

Read actively. It won’t help if you just pull a random book off the shelf and passively begin to skim through it. Make sure you understand what it is that you are reading. Try to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words through their context and use a dictionary when you need assistance. Then, try to incorporate new vocabulary into your own!

Don’t just read, listen. Modify your TV habits and start incorporating an occasional episode of PBS News Hour or a nature documentary. TED Talks are another great (and fascinating!) option. We also recommend listening to NPR every once in a while on the radio. Remember - every tip above can be applied to listening as well!

Make it fun. Building your vocabulary doesn’t have to be boring. Try to stump your parents by using new words at the dinner table. Or, see who amongst your friends can “collect” more unusual words each week. Activities like this provide more effective ways to build your vocabulary than if you just memorized lists of words and their definitions. 

To help you begin, we’ve compiled a list of great resources. However, this is just a start. We encourage you to cultivate your own list as well.

  • Newspapers: The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Wall Street Journal
  • Magazines: The New Yorker; Foreign Affairs; Time; National Geographic
  • Online Magazines/Blogs: Huffington Post; Salon
  • Books: There are simply too many great authors and books to list here, but check out “best” lists such as the Modern Library’s “Top 100 Novels” and “Top 100 Nonfiction Books” as well as anthologies such as the annual “Best American Short Stories” and the “Best American Essays.”
  • Radio/TV: PBS (Frontline, Newshour, NOVA); NPR (On Point, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Radiolab, Planet Money)
 
 

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