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Saturday, August 16, 2008


By Richard K. Munro, MA
There are at least SEVEN WAYS to make new words your own and increase your vocabulary

1) KEEP a vocabulary journal. Get a notebook and set aside parts of it for each category of new words you‘ll be recording (writing down). You might want to divide this into English, Math, Social Studies, and Computers, Foreign Language or word roots. Some people mix their vocabulary with commentary with their journals. Some people copy the quotation or put the page number for future reference. Some people color in the word in their personal study dictionary or write it in their favorite dictionary. The advantage of a vocabulary journal is that you can go back and review words or find quotations you like. Leave enough room around each entry for the definition or other notes you might make later. Focus on critical vocabulary or high frequency words such as imperialism, commerce or intention NOT griot, silviculture or valerian (words you are not likely to see very often).

2) LOOK UP WORDS in the glossary or in the dictionary. Read the definitions and choose the one that fits the way the word was used when you came across it in its context. Besides copying the definition I will often assign a sentence in your own words. Experts say you need to see or hear a word seven or eight times before you learn it. So the best way to practice a word is to copy it, translate it, say it, write it in sentences and use it in speech. TV is not all bad. Movies are not all bad. If you choose wise a good film can help reinforce your vocabulary. But it should be obvious to anyone that one will learn fifty or a hundred times more words by reading and writing. If you want to be a word “mavin” (an expert) you have to go to the dictionary on a daily basis. I own dozens of dictionaries (many are bilingual) and use several good ones regularly. Each is a little different. My favorite is the American Heritage dictionary. My favorite bilingual Spanish dictionaries are the Collins, the Oxford and the American Heritage (Larousse ).

3) Pronounce words : saying words aloud can help you fix them in your mind. Learn how to use the phonetic explanation (usually in parentheses) in your dictionary. Unfortunately there are several ways of doing this. There is the international phonetic alphabet which is very precise but very complicated –too complicated for the learner. Then there are the standards used by Oxford or American Heritage –they are very similar using long vowel symbols (ē) and short vowel symbols (ĕ). I will introduce you to these but you are NOT REQUIRED to be an expert on PHONICS for the CAHSEE or this class. Another good way is to listen to an ON LINE pronunciation. The entire American Heritage dictionary is ON LINE and each word is pronounced for you

4) Another method to organize new vocabulary words is to use INDEX CARDS. They are cheap and come in colors. Put the word on one side and its definition and an example how to use it on the back. You can carry a few cards with you until you learn the meaning. You can organize your cards anyway you like but it is good keep them together by unit or test or class if you need them for that class. If you are learning a series of words such as “NIMSA” for a history test (the causes of World War One; “NIMSA”: nationalism, imperialism, militarism and secret alliances.) it is OK to put more than one word on the card IF you know them all. But the key to study cards is not to put TOO MUCH on one card. Some teachers allow you to use a single note card for reference for a test.

5) Learn words every day! A word will become part of your vocabulary when you see it and use it. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to learn new words. Here’s a plan for learning your new vocabulary words.
• Set aside about ten minutes each day JUST TO REVIEW VOCABULARY WORDS. Try to do it the same place every day so you won’t forget. Study waiting for the bus or waiting for breakfast or just before you go to bed at night. The time doesn’t matter. What is important is that you make review part of your routine. There is an old Irish saying “beag is beag is fhearr an ceum mor” which “means little by little (every day) is better than one big step (every once and while)”. This is true for almost anything such as saving, working or exercising
• Choose only a few vocabulary words to review. No more than five or seven perhaps two or three. If you try to study ten or twenty or more you will need more time and will not learn as many.
• Read the word. Repeat it. Try to remember the definition and the example of how it was used when you first heart it. If possible study with a friend or your sibling or an older relative. They don’t have to be experts they just have to ask you and hold the card!
• Check to see if you were right. If you KNOW a word 100% put OK by it.
• If you miss it HIGHLIGHT IT or put an asterisk or an exclamation point. I like to write N.B. for nota bene or ¡OJO! (Watch out!). It is important to identify the words you know and the words you don’t know. It is stupid really to wait until the test to find out you don’t know the words. We all make mistakes but we should learn from them!
• If you couldn’t remember the word re-read the word, the example and the definition aloud. It helps to SAY IT and HEAR IT.
• Try writing the word in a sentence. If the word is hard to spell, write it out a few times. Then repeat your sentence. Try to have fun. A good way to remember a word is by nonsensical association. Example: How do you say cotton in Spanish?
Algodón. I could never remember this word until my professor taught me “AH’L GO DOWN” TO THE COTTON FIELD (I’ll go down to the cotton field). I have never forgotten the word since that day –more than thirty years ago- and the funny association!
6. Try to use your new words whenever you can in conversation or writing. Try using the new word when your write emails or essays for school.
7) Another good way to learn words is to use CONCEPT MAPS. This is particularly good for science or history concepts. Concept maps help you remember a lot of words connection to one concept or idea and so are perfect for quick outlines for an essay.
A simple way is to contrast opposites


1) Read for pleasure during your leisure time. The reading you do on your own –magazines, newspapers, internet articles, adventure stories are a great way to pick up words . This is the whole purpose of ACCELERATED READER which is 10% of your English grade. It should be the easiest way to boost your grade but you have to DO IT on a REGULAR BASIS. But there is less stress to hurry and the scores of your tests on ACCELERATED READER are averaged separately from you regular quizzes, tests and essays.
2) Be an active listener. When you are having a conversation, especially with people who are older than you are, you will hear words that are unfamiliar to you. This is especially true if you are learning a second or third language. Much of what you hear will seem like gibberish but in fact the more you listen the more you begin to understand. When you have the chance ask, “What do you mean by that?” Sometimes you will have quite a laugh because you misunderstood entirely what the speaker was saying. I remember getting lost in Madrid, Spain. I want to see the Museum of the Americas. I couldn’t find it so I asked a passerby: ¿Dónde queda el museo? And the Spaniard replied –he was quite in a hurry- ¡EN ABSOLUTO! Which I took to mean ON ABSOLUTO STREET. I spent fifteen minutes looking for that street which did not exist on the map. Later another Spaniard explained and we had a laugh. He was kind enough to walk out of his way and show me the way
3) Play word games. Crossword puzzles are excellent ways to improve your vocabulary and your spelling. Some are quite easy and others are more advanced. You can make easier games such as finding small words in big words (ant in RESTAURANT)
There are more ways to learn new vocabulary. But the most important thing is to read and to think. If you don’t understand what you are reading it might as well be in Martian or Egyptian hieroglyphics. As my old Spanish teacher used to say: “Tururu es tururu” that is to say nonsense is just nonsense. There is no shame in not knowing a word. There is no shame in not knowing how to pronounce a word. We all make mistakes. There is no shame in misspelling a word (even famous writers make typos or misspell words). The thing is TO ASK. If you ASK, if you LOOK things UP and WRITE THEM DOWN, you will learn. There is only shame in making no effect to learn and improve one’s mind and vocabulary. That is a shame, a terrible shame. There is no better time for learning than NOW. The early learning is the “bonnie learning” to use a Scots expression. How true that is! Everything is harder after age 40! NOW IS THE TIME TO LEARN. WHEN YOU ARE YOUNG.

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