We remember things better when they have some meaning to us.
It’s not too surprising that seeing the word tyro on a flashcard is harder to remember than hearing it in reference to a first grader who’d just started learning how to write.
So while you may remember a few words paired only with their definitions, the better way to learn new words is by somehow engaging with them. Why memorize when you can read, write, and play to build your vocabulary!
The more you read, the more knowledge you pick up. You may not even realize that you’re learning: you probably learned a new word just by reading the introduction to this post. You are not consciously studying every word, but your subconscious is picking up bits of information here and there to be stored for later.
This form of subconscious information gathering is intrinsic to learning. Through interacting with text, you accumulate knowledge. This process happens whether you’re reading an article in Wired or skimming through recent Tweets.
Of course, the more and better you read, the more effective this method of learning is. Wired is more likely to use complex language than your friend on Twitter. Turn passive learning into an active pursuit of broader vocabulary by choosing better reading materials. Check out some of our suggestions at the end of this post.
If reading is too passive for your liking, you can take matters into your own hands, literally. Remember all the sentences you likely had to write for English homework? Using a word in a sentence not only ensures that you know how to use it correctly, but also cements it in your memory.
An even better way to write words into your memory is to form stories with them. Gather a list of 10 – 20 SAT vocabulary words and try to weave them into a story arc. You can usually see the connections forming just by examining the list, but if you’re at a loss about where to begin, use TOEFL’s advice for a great story seed: Put a man up a tree. Throw stones at him. Get him down. Will he get away from his predicament with cunning and guile, or stumble away like the bumbling fool that he is?
Of course not everyone wants to write whole stories, so another way to write with vocabulary words is to weave them into the story of your everyday life. Sneak new words into your interactions on twitter, over email, when commenting on a blog. Decide on a few words every day and see if you can use them organically. You may be surprised at the serendipitous opportunities you’ll come across through happy chance (see what we did there?).
Search #gbl on Twitter and you’ll find a vast landscape of games used in education. Game based learning is a powerful tool, whether you’re playing a game designed with education in mind or just for fun.
Like reading, learning vocabulary through games is often subconscious. Final Fantasy may teach you how to level up and be a hero, but you may also learn that the word myriad means many. Playing Angry Birds in class may unleash a torrent of complaints but at least it teaches you what torrent means.
You can consciously boost your vocab by playing vocabulary games. Vocabador turns SAT vocabulary learning into luchador fights against opponents with names like “El Muerte.” Rdbtn puts a competitive, vocab building twist on Scrabble. Learning new words can be fun, and the more fun you’re having, the better you’ll remember.
Learning vocabulary words is about more than just memorizing. If you can turn a word into something more than just a string of letters, you can remember it better. Everything you engage with on some level – the books you read, the people you talk to, the games you play – has the potential to be a learning source.
Great books for building vocabulary