Building Your Vocabulary


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Recognize the importance of building your vocabulary.
  • Master techniques for building your vocabulary.

Letters cut from newspapers to form vocabulary sheetsBoth leaders and advertisers inspire people to take action by choosing their words carefully and using them precisely. A good vocabulary is essential for success in any role that involves communication, and just about every role in life requires good communication skills. We include this section on vocabulary in this chapter on reading because of the connections between vocabulary building and reading. Building your vocabulary will make your reading easier, and reading is the best way to build your vocabulary.

Learning new words can be fun and does not need to involve tedious rote memorization of word lists. The first step, as in any other aspect of the learning cycle, is to prepare yourself to learn. Consciously decide that you want to improve your vocabulary; decide you want to be a student of words. Work to become more aware of the words around you: the words you hear, the words you read, the words you say, and those you write.

Do you have a lazy vocabulary? Wake it up with the “lazy speech” exercise.

Activity: Lazy Speech

Recruit a friend you spend a lot of time with. Give them an index card with the following words written on it and ask them to keep a tally of the number of times you say these words sometime when you are together for an hour or more. If you have a small recorder, give it to the person and ask them to record you at a time you are not aware of it.

  • Ummm or Uhh
  • Like
  • They
  • You know
  • OK
  • Yeah
  • Ohmigawd

Include in this list any other words, including expletives, that you may be using without thinking.

Are there words you constantly overuse? Were you surprised at how often you used some of these expressions? Now that you are aware of the frequency you use certain expressions, what strategies can you use to control or substitute more articulate and expressive words for them?

Building a stronger vocabulary should start with a strong foundation of healthy word use. Just as you can bring your overuse of certain words to your conscious awareness in the previous activity, think about the kinds of words you should be using more frequently. Some of the words you might consciously practice are actually very simple ones you already know but significantly underuse or use imprecisely. For example, many students say he or she “goes” instead of he or she “says.” If you take it a step further, you can consider more accurate choices still. Perhaps, he “claims” or she “argues.” Maybe he “insists” or “assumes.” Or it could be that she “believes” or she “suggests.” This may seem like a small matter, but it’s important from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective to distinguish among the different meanings. And you can develop greater awareness by bringing some of these words into your speech.

These habits are easier to put into action if you have more and better material to draw upon: a stronger vocabulary. The following tips will help you gain and correctly use more words.

  • Be on the lookout for new words. Most will come to you as you read, but they may also appear in an instructor’s lecture, a class discussion, or a casual conversation with a friend. They may pop up in random places like billboards, menus, or even online ads!
  • Write down the new words you encounter, along with the sentences in which they were used. Do this in your notes with new words from a class or reading assignment. If a new word does not come from a class, you can write it on just about anything, but make sure you write it. Many word lovers carry a small notepad or a stack of index cards specifically for this purpose.
  • Infer the meaning of the word. The context in which the word is used may give you a good clue about its meaning. Do you recognize a common word root in the word? (Check Table 5.3 “Common Latin and Greek Word Roots” for common roots.) What do you think it means?
  • Look up the word in a dictionary. Do this as soon as possible (but only after inferring the meaning). When you are reading, you should have a dictionary at hand for this purpose. In other situations, do this within a couple hours, definitely during the same day. How does the dictionary definition compare with what you inferred?
  • Write the word in a sentence, ideally one that is relevant to you. If the word has more than one definition, write a sentence for each.
  • Say the word out loud and then say the definition and the sentence you wrote.
  • Use the word. Find occasion to use the word in speech or writing over the next two days.
  • Schedule a weekly review with yourself to go over your new words and their meanings.

Table 5.3 Common Latin and Greek Word Roots

Root Meaning Examples
auto self automatic, automobile
bi two bicycle, biplane
bio life biography, biology
chrono time synchronize, chronicle
dict say predict, dictate
gen give birth generate, genetic
geo earth geology, geography, geometry
log thought biology, logic, pathology
manu hand manufacture, manual
phil love philosophy, anglophile
port carry transport, portable
sub under submarine, subtract
vac empty vacuum, evacuate

Where Have You Been All My Life?Woman being hugged by human form made of text

The following are some fun ways to find new words:

  • Read.
  • When you look up a word in the dictionary, look at other interesting words on the same page.
  • Solve crossword puzzles.
  • Play word games like Scrabble, Boggle, or Pictionary.
  • Watch movies.
  • Listen to speeches and attend lectures.
  • Go to comedy clubs.
  • Have discussions (not just casual conversations) with friends.
  • Read some more.


  • The best way to build your vocabulary is to read, and a stronger vocabulary makes it easier and more fun to read.
  • Be aware of your own lazy vocabulary and try to avoid those words and expressions.
  • Look for new words everywhere, not just in class readings.
  • Before you look up a word in the dictionary, infer its meaning based on its context and roots.
  • After you look up a word in the dictionary, write your own sentence using the new word. Say the word and definition out loud.
  • Use the new word as soon as possible.

Checkpoint EXERCISES

  1. Which words do you habitually overuse? Do your friends overuse the same words? How can you collaborate to correct that overuse?
  2. During the course of the day, find five new words in five different places. What were those words, and where did you uncover them?
  3. What do the words “manuscript,” “scribe,” and “scribble” have in common? Can you detect the same root in these words?
  4. What do you think the root means?