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How to Improve Your Vocabulary and Sound Instantly Smarter

The average American has a vocabulary in the thousands. Try these tricks to make sure yours stacks up.

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How to improve your vocabulary (expeditiously)

Have you ever found yourself racking your brain for the perfect word to capture a feeling or event?  The English language has one of the highest word counts in the world, with the Oxford English Dictionary estimating that there are some 170,000 words in use. But most of us know only a few thousand of them; that’s how we end up searching “How to improve vocabulary” online. The good news is, there are several reliable ways to improve your vocabulary, and even more good reasons to do so.

From improving your reading comprehension to leveling up your communication skills, a bigger vocabulary has a ton of advantages. People with larger vocabularies are more likely to find academic success and experience more opportunities at work; this is because having more words to choose from can make you a more persuasive writer and speaker, as well as enhancing your critical thinking skills. Understanding the nuances of the differences between similar words and synonyms deepens your understanding of concepts and lets you describe things with accuracy, and in our word-rich, visually focused world, that’s the kind of thing that’s likely to impress others.

So what are you waiting for? The benefits are myriad! And next time you’re grasping for the right word to describe the smell of dirt after rain (petrichor) or that co-worker who kind of reminds you of your favorite uncle (he’s avuncular!), you’ll be able to find it.

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Watch movies

Watching the movie adaptation of your favorite book isn’t just a guilty pleasure, it’s also a vocabulary booster. “If you see the movie version of your favorite book you’re likely to have a deeper understanding and knowledge of the words in it,” says Susan B. Neuman, professor of Childhood and Literacy Education at Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University. “Seeing and reading something on the same topic is really important.” The phenomenon is called dual coding; you read something, then see it on the screen and end up remembering better because you have a visual representation, she says.

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Make good use of your tablet

Next time you’re reading an e-book and come across a word you don’t know, try highlighting it with your finger and checking for the option to look it up. Many tablets provide a dictionary definition in a little bubble, so you won’t lose your place or have to switch between Google and your novel.

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Read magazines

If you want to improve vocabulary, don’t just flip through your favorite magazine, really read it. That means don’t only look at the pictures or skim product roundups; pay attention to the articles and photo captions. According to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, magazines on topics you’re interested in, like sports, interior decorating or health, are filled with words you probably don’t think to use in your daily conversations. When you read the next issue, keep an eye out for the words you learned the month before; chances are, you’ll remember what they mean this time.

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Listen to how words sound

Many people won’t remember tricky words unless they come across them frequently. But if you hear a word that you think sounds interesting, you become word conscious and start using it yourself, says Neuman. Try sprinkling these fancy words that make you sound smarter into a conversation.

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Get out of the house

“Going places and having new experiences are great ways to build new knowledge,” says Neuman. “Go to a museum or take advantage of other opportunities where you live. When you open your eyes to new experiences and people, you also get new words.” That’s way better than searching “how to improve vocabulary” online.

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Join a book club

“Book clubs are a wonderful strategy to learn new words,” says Neuman. Not only will it force you to set aside time in your day to read, but it’s also a good way to discover books you might not normally be drawn to, which in turn exposes you to new words and helps you improve vocabulary. If you don’t know where to start with finding a book club, try joining ours!

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Listen to the radio

Spend your commute listening to talk radio or podcasts instead of zoning out. Those types of programs can expose you to topics (and subsequently words) you may not be familiar with.

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Read to your children

Parents and children can both benefit and improve vocabulary from reading bedtime stories snuggled under the covers. “The words in many children’s books are often outside the realm of adults’ day-to-day discourse, so parents can learn more words just by reading to their children,” says Neuman.

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Pay attention to your surroundings

Next time you walk down a busy street or take a walk in the park, try to describe what you’re seeing as descriptively as possible inside your head. This tactic can expose gaps in your vocabulary and provide an opportunity to fill them.

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Read, read, read

Try to make a little time each day to read. “Reading on a regular basis is tied to improved cognitive functioning throughout life, because you’re always learning,” says Neuman. Even if you don’t stop to look up every single foreign word, chances are you can improve your vocabulary simply by figuring out their meaning based on the context they’re used in or by coming across them again down the line; that’s just one of the benefits of reading.

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Become an expert

Challenge yourself to become an expert on a topic you enjoy. If you’re a history fan, build an arsenal of historical fiction books. If you like health, read non-fiction memoirs with a medical focus. And if adventure is your thing, there are plenty of fiction and nonfiction survival stories to choose from. “Reading a lot on a topic you enjoy means you’ll deepen both your knowledge and vocabulary. Then you feel good because you’re an expert on a topic and can talk to people about it and employ those words you didn’t know before,” says Neuman.

About the expert

  • Susan B. Neuman is a professor of Childhood and Literacy Education at Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University in New York City.


Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest