How to Rapidly Expand Your Vocabulary

If you haven’t heard of spaced repetition, you’re missing out on a valuable study tool.

Choosing What to Read

Whether you’re studying for a test or just trying to better yourself, expanding your vocabulary is always a laudable goal.

Unfortunately, the most common advice for improving your vocabulary is simply to “read more.” Although this advice is accurate, it’s not nearly specific enough.

Any book or magazine has the potential to introduce you to new words, but some will do it at a much faster rate than others. For example, young adult novels are great, but they will almost always have less difficult words than literary novels.

In order to expand your vocabulary quickly, you have to read difficult texts. The good news is that this still leaves you with plenty of options.

One secret to finding high-quality books with difficult vocabulary is to check the winners of major prizes. For example, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is a great starting place to find amazing literary novels. If you’re more interested in non-fiction, the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction is a wonderful place to start.

There are several other Pulitzer categories to check out, as well as many other prizes, such as the world-famous Nobel and Booker prizes.

In addition to books, you can find high-quality, challenging content in many magazines. Skip the gossip rags and search for magazines about complex topics such as politics, art, literature, and economics. The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, and Harper’s are just a few examples of magazines that can help expand your vocabulary.

Lastly, the topics that you choose to read about can have a major effect on how much you learn. If you only read books related to your field, you’re less likely to come across new language. Instead, you should try to find books and magazines about subjects you haven’t spent much time studying. You’ll be more likely to discover new words in materials outside of your field.

Active Reading

Just as important as what you read is how you read it. Passively reading magazine articles and books will slowly build your vocabulary over years, but it’s unlikely to expand your vocabulary quickly.

To rapidly learn new words, you have to actively hunt for those words as you read.

Get in the habit of keeping a notepad and pen next to you any time that you’re reading. Keep a list of any new words that you see — including both completely unfamiliar words, and any words which you are feeling a little fuzzy on. It can also be helpful to note down the page on which they appeared, in case you want to revisit it later.

After you write down the word, look it up. Make a note of the definition, then go back to your reading. Reread starting at the beginning of the paragraph in which the word appeared, so that you can see the word in its full context.

Spaced Repetition

The last step of expanding your vocabulary is to follow up by practicing the words on your list. One of the most effective ways to rapidly learn a new list of words is through spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition simply means to gradually increase the amount of time between each review of a word. (Unless you’ve forgotten the meaning, in which case you review the word again even sooner).

To learn new vocabulary, spaced repetition is most easily done with digital flashcards. My favorite app for this is Anki because it’s free and open source.

For each word on your list, make a digital or physical flashcard with the word on one side and the definition on the other. Then go through and review each word once. Any word you remembered can be set aside to review later. Any word that you forgot should be reviewed again immediately.

After your first run through the list, set it aside until the next day. On that next day, try running through the list again. Any words that you forgot should be reviewed immediately, and then the next day. But, if you remembered a word, you can set it aside, and wait even longer until your next review — somewhere between 2 days and a week.

By continuing to gradually increase the time between reviews, the word eventually becomes a part of your long-term memory.

Keep Reading

As you learn new words through spaced repetition, you should also keep up your reading habit. Not only will you continue to find new words to add to your flashcard deck, but you’ll also likely run into duplicates of the words that you found before.

By seeing these words again in a new context, you’ll reinforce your knowledge and pick up on the subtle connotations of each word.

Learning a language is a life-long process, even when it’s your mother tongue. But if you’re looking to expand your vocabulary quickly, you can’t beat the combination of reading high-level texts and using spaced repetition.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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