|Dealing with New Words|
|Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support|
It's best not to interrupt your reading process to look up every hard word right away in the dictionary. Mark unfamiliar words (with a penciled mark, not with anything permanent), 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.)
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.)
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 U. of T. Bookstore
Many books promise to increase your vocabulary in ten days or ten easy steps. These ones are more realistic; many are good reading in themselves.
Many of the above books and a treasure-trove of others can be found in university libraries. Look on these shelves and find what interests you.
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.
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 a few places to start: