I always remember a radio ad that began: ”People Judge You By the Words You Use” which promoted its own vocabulary development program. However, you don’t need to pay for an elaborate video or audio program or workbooks and texts. Instead, here are eight simple ways that you can use to enlarge your vocabulary. They are based upon Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.
STEP 1 – MEMORIZE: This is the strategy most often used in the schools – simply look up the definitions of the words in an online dictionary, write them down or type them into a file, and then memorize them.
STEP 2 – ANALYZE: With this strategy, you want to look at the inner structure of a word, its internal logic (if any!), its origins, and anything else interesting about the structure of the word that may make its meaning stick in your memory. For example, the word boycott, was the name of a land agent in Ireland who was actually socially ostracized by the Irish Land League for his nefarious practices. Ostracize, on the other hand, comes from the Greek ostracon, which refers to the potsherds used in ancient Greece for writing the names of persons to be exiled from the land. A great source for word origins is the Oxford English Dictionary, which is available to consult for free through your public library.
STEP 3 – VISUALIZE: Many people are visual thinkers and need to picture the meanings of the words they are using. In the example above, you might visualize ancient Greeks writing names on broken pieces of pottery, and then visualize them banishing one of their own from the kingdom, and over this whole movie image visualize the word ”ostracize.” Another way to do this is to draw the meanings of the vocabulary words. Even words that don’t seem to have visual representations (like ”customary”), if they remind you of the word, can be sketched in a manner that will serve as a mental cue for your visual mind.
STEP 4 -HARMONIZE: Vocabulary words have rhythms when said out loud. Music smart individuals need to capitalize on the sounds of words and their meanings by rhythmically reciting, chanting, or even singing their vocabulary words and meanings. So, for example, with the word belligerent, you might chant (include rest beats between the word and its meaning): ”be-LLIG-er-ent (one, two) HOS tile and a-GRESS-ive” There’s actually a whole field of study called suggestopedia, that includes as one of its components closing one’s eyes and listening to Baroque music in 4/4 time (e.g. Pachelbel’s Canon in D) while someone repeats the vocabulary words and definitions in rhythm to the music. The National Research Council reported on a study of this method some years ago and recommended it as a valid way to learn another language.
STEP 5 -DRAMATIZE: For this strategy, act out the meanings of the vocabulary words. This can be a lot of fun if done with a friend or colleague, and is especially helpful if you’ve been diagnosed as ADHD or hyperactive and learn best when you’re moving. You can even do this strategy at your work desk by creating hand gestures representing the meaning of each word. The word ”ostracize” for example, might be physically represented with a ”thumbs down” gesture.
STEP 6 -SOCIALIZE: Too often people will learn academic vocabulary words, but not actually use them in their daily lives. To remedy this, take your vocabulary list and commit to using each word during the day with friends, colleagues at work, and even (at home) with your family. You can even keep a personal journal where you record when and where you used a word, how it felt, and what the reaction was from the person on the receiving end.
STEP 7 -PERSONALIZE: When it comes to learning new vocabulary, it may occur to you: ”what does this have to do this MY life?” If it’s not relevant to your personal life, then it’s going to remain in an isolated part of your mind, if it’s remembered at all. To remedy this, make sure that you connect your new vocabulary words and meanings to your feelings, memories, and personal associations. For example, with ”ostracize” you might ask yourself to think of a time in your life when you were sent out of the classroom as a child for bad behavior, or expelled from a peer group.” You won’t forget the meaning of ostracize after making that type of association!
STEP 8 -NATURALIZE: Our brains evolved for millions of years in nature. Consequently, our brain is much more predisposed to remember information that is part of the natural world than information that is part of culture (which is only 5,000 years old). So, whenever possible, link the vocabulary word and its meaning to something that is natural. For example, the meaning of the word ”perish” might be associated with leaving a banana on the kitchen counter for two weeks, or the withering of leaves in autumn.
As you practice these eight methods, you’ll eventually learn which ones are most effective in helping you remember the meanings of new vocabulary words, and which ones you can discard. Just like learning a new language, mastering a new vocabulary requires regular practice. If you persevere, then people will positively judge you by the words you use (and they will be less inclined to ostracize you!).
To find out more about multiple intelligences, check out the following resources:
For general overview and self-help strategies (high school, college, and adult learners): 7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences. New York: Plume, 1999.
For K-12 educators: Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom 4th ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2018.
For K-12 educators (with a focus on literacy): The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003.
For parents: In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences, New York: Tarcher/Perigee, 2000.
For kids (ages 5-9): Smarts! Everybody’s Got Them. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit, 2019.
For kids (ages 10-14): You’re Smarter Than You Think: A Kid’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit, 2014.
This page brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com
Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong