Dealing with New Words

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

A key point is that you don’t need to interrupt your reading to look up every hard word right away in the dictionary—in fact, experts say it’s actually better to guess first. Mark unfamiliar words, but try these tactics for making an “educated guess” at the meaning as you go. You’ll acquire some real understanding of how words are used rather than just long vocabulary lists and a dog-eared dictionary. (Eventually you will confirm your guesses with a dictionary.)

  1. First, SOUND it out. Use simple phonics to attempt saying the word—try a couple of ways. You might recognize the word when you hear it.
  2. Next, examine the STRUCTURE. Look for familiar word parts, and see if you can tell how the prefixes and suffixes shape the root meaning.
  3. Then look at the CONTEXT. Guess at the word’s meaning from the way it is used in the sentence. You may find that an informal definition is worked in somewhere near. Or maybe you will see the meaning reflected in the next idea, or just be able to tell the meaning by the way the passage continues.
  4. Only then, check the DICTIONARY. If you can’t understand what you’re reading after using the above steps, pause and turn to the dictionary or the textbook’s glossary list. When you find your word, skim through the whole entry and find the most relevant meaning. Check the pronunciation too.
  5. Then reinforce your understanding by WRITING a usable brief definition or synonym in the margin of your reading—in pencil, because you won’t always need it there.

You should also use the dictionary as a final step even if you have been able to guess well enough to keep going in your reading. When you stop after a section of reading to make notes, check your understanding of any words that aren’t yet crystal-clear. Read the dictionary entry thoroughly—look for analysis of the word’s derivation and structure and for examples of its usage. Then make a marginal note.

A System for Reinforcing New Vocabulary Words

When you have learned a new word, take steps to make it part of your active store of words. A list helps you review; note cards are even better to let you keep deepening your command of important words. This method keeps the words in context. It also calls on both sight and hearing so that you learn in various ways at once. Keep returning to your cards and repeat the steps until you feel comfortable doing the last one. (You won’t do this for all your new words. Choose a few to work on intensively.)

  • Say the word out loud according to the dictionary pronunciation guide. (Look up the key to pronunciation symbols at the front or back of the dictionary if necessary.)
  • Write down the word and mark it up to show its inner structure (root word + prefixes or suffixes). Keep saying it over aloud (or at least in your head).
  • On the other side of the card, write down a brief definition. Then copy out the sentence where you saw the word used—and say it aloud as you write. You will probably find sentences from other readings to add later.
  • Read over the card periodically. Eventually try writing a sentence of your own using the word. When you can do this without even looking at the card, you’ve arrived!

Further Resources for Building Vocabulary Skills

The best way to increase and deepen your general vocabulary is to spend time reading: a newspaper or popular magazine will do, as long as you read with an active interest in the words that you find there. As your “passive” vocabulary from reading increases, you will begin to be comfortable actually using new words in speech or writing. In fact, you may not need to use them deliberately; you will simply find them in your command when you need them. If they’re established through a true understanding, they belong to you.

Here are some books and newspaper columns that concentrate on words. Most of the printed material is available at Robarts or college libraries, and some of it can be bought at the Bookstore. Some of these items are specifically about skills for increasing vocabulary; others are just about words for their own sake. Don’t ignore the columns and games: even if you can’t at first compete with the experts, you can enjoy the spectacle of other people having fun with words—and the atmosphere can be contagious.

At the bookstore, college book sales, and the library

Many books promise to increase your vocabulary in ten days or ten easy steps. These classics are more realistic; many are good reading in themselves.

  • Gyles Brandreth. The Word Book.
  • Richard Lederer. The Miracle of Language, Crazy Language,etc.
  • Robert MacNeill. Wordstruck.
  • Princeton Review. Word Smart.
  • Lewis Thomas. Et Cetera.

The above books and a multitude of others can be found in university libraries. Look on these shelves and find what interests you.

  • See the LB 2395 shelves for books giving advice on vocabulary skills.
  • See the PE 1075 shelves for books about the history of the language.

In popular journalism

Heated discussions of particular word uses are a mainstay of letters to the editor and a recurrent topic for columnists. There are also a few regular columns and shows that specialize in word uses—often the amusingly illogical aspects of vocabulary.

  • “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” a regular feature in Reader’s Digest (now also online).
  • “Lexicon Valley,” a podcast from Slate on the ways we use language.

On the Web

You’ll find games, questions-and-and-answers, arguments, reference works, words-of-the-day, and articles galore on the Web. Here are two websites to start with:

  • Richard Lederer, Verbivore: articles, links
  • Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day (and many other games)