Academic Success Center logo with the image of a Mayan glif

Colored hands holding book

Improving Your Vocabulary

Part of this discussion is reprinted with permission by @ Jane McGrath

from her handout, "Tips for Improving Vocabulary."

Vocabulary is considered the most important single factor in academic and business success. In addition, the size of your vocabulary is usually an indication of the range of your knowledge and the level of thinking.

Building a larger vocabulary will help you in school, at work, and in social settings. It will enable you to better understand the ideas of others, as well as communicate your thoughts and ideas more effectively.

In college courses, textbooks are filled with new terminology. In fact, each course you take demands learning the discipline vocabulary if you are to succeed in mastering the class concepts.

While there are no magic shortcuts to learning new words, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know and, at the same time remember its meaning. The strategies that follow will help you learn the meanings of new words and remember them for use in reading, writing, and speaking.

Your motivation and belief that learning new words is valuable are the most important factors in reaching your goal.


Be Aware of Words

Photo of a male student sitting on a wide window sill and reading. His legs are stretched out and he has a book and pencil in his hand.


Mark unfamiliar terms when you preview your materials, while you read the chapters, and when you review.

It is easy to identify words that are completely unfamiliar. However, you also need to pay attention to terms that seem familiar but who exact meanings you may not know.


Use Contextual Clues

You can often get at least part of the meaning of a word from the way it is used in the sentence. When you come to an unfamiliar word, rather than first looking it up in the dictionary, try to guess its meaning from the words around it.

Here's an example from a psychology text. The author uses the meaning of one word to show the opposite meaning of another.

"In contrast to an algorithm, a heuristic is a general rule-of-thumb strategy that may or may not work."

The author defines heuristic and uses the clue words "in contrast" to indicate the meaning of algorithm is the opposite. So we can guess that algorithm means a strategy that always works.


Refer to the Text Glossary

A green poster with "glossary" written across itThe textbook glossary lists the specific definition for the word in the subject area. When you move from one class to another, the same word may mean something entirely different.

It's important to keep the multiple definitions of English words in mind. Think of the meaning of root in and English class, a math class, a horticulture class, or a course to become a hair stylist!

Here's a glossary definition for algorithm.

algorithm A problem-solving strategy that involves following a specific rule, procedure, or method that inevitably produces the correct solution.


Use a Print or Online Dictionary

Note that consulting a dictionary is not the first step to learning new vocabulary. The dictionary should be used when

  • context clues are insufficient for a general understanding of the word.
  • a precise definition is needed.
  • different meanings need to be considered.
  • the word is not defined in a text glossary.
  • the parts of speech are necessary.
  • spelling needs to be checked.
  • when pronunciation is desired.
  • the derivation (history) of the word is needed.

Since you will most often find several different definitions for a word, always fit the definition you select into the original sentence to be sure it makes sense. A good test is to read the sentence with the trial definition out loud. If it doesn't sound right, it probably isn't!

Also, look up the meanings of the abbreviations that are used, how syllables are divided, and the interpretation of the markings for pronunciation and grammar.

Here is a dictionary definition of algorithm. Note how this explanation is much more complex than what was given in the text glossary.

al • go • rithm (al' • gə • rith' əm) n. Math. A step-by-step problem-solving procedure, esp. an established, recursive computational procedure with a finite number of steps. [Var. (prob. influenced by ARITHEMETIC) of ALGORISM.] —al' go • rith' mic (-rith' mik) adj.


Look Up the Word History (Etymology)

Knowing where a word came from can often tell you things about the word you might not learn from its definition.

algorithm [Var. (prob. influenced by ARITHEMETIC) of ALGORISM.]

Here we see that the word was most likely influenced by arithmetic and is a variation of algorism, which is the Arabic system of numeration. Linking these words creates associations that will increase retention.


Use the Structure of Words

Knowing the parts of words—prefixes, roots, suffixes—helps you understand and figure out the meanings of whole families of words.

A prefix is the part that's sometimes attached to the front of a word. There are about 100 common ones.

A root is the basic part of a word. Most of our root words come from Latin and Greek.

A suffix is the word part that is attached to the end of a word.

Here's an example using algorithm.

Prefix al- a variation of the prefix ad- Meaning: to, in addition to
Root gor   Meaning: together, bring together
Suffix -ism or -ithm   Meaning: noun indicator

From these word parts and etymology, a definition for algorithm can be created, e.g., something that brings together steps to solve a problem (arithmetic from the word history).


Read, Read, Read!

Photo of a person holding an iPad and reading the text shown on the screen


In addition to using these strategies, it's important to read as much as you can. It is through reading that you encounter most of the words you need to learn. Reading also gives you the opportunity to check on how well you have retained the meanings of words you have already learned and to reinforce those terms that are not yet clear.

Choose from a variety of materials that you enjoy. Then read as much as possible, keeping in mind that idea of learning new words.


Practice Repeating New Words to Retain Them in Memory

Unless you actively work at reviewing and remembering new words you encounter, you will have to rediscover the meaning each time you see the word.

Take every opportunity to use new words in your writing and speaking. If you repeatedly use a new term, then you will know it!

The more you read and are aware of new words and take steps to learn them, the faster your vocabulary will grow.

Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat

algorithm algorithm algorithm algorithm algorithm algorithm


Review Through the Use of SEEI Note Cards

Hints: If you write the term in your own words, you will learn it faster! If you like light colors, outline the letters in black to make them distinct, use bold type, or make them black then highlight them in your preferred color. Use lower case letters; the shape they form will give you visual clues.

An excellent method for learnng and remembering vocabulary words is call SEEI.

    1. State the word and its appropriate dictionary definition—the one that most closely fits the way the word is used in the sentence from your text or reading material.
    2. Elaborate by writing the definition in your own words on the back of the card.
    3. Give anExample from your own personal experience.
    4. Illustrate the concept by drawing an image, copying an image from the internet, making an analogy, creating a graphic organizer, writing a poem, or creating a role play.






Math. A step-by-step problem-solving procedure, esp. an established, recursive computational procedure with a finite number of steps.


E: A way to solve a problem by following a specific rule or method that will eventually produce the correct solution

Ex: I can use an algorithm to figure out the combination to a lock, but it isn't very practical because there are 46,656 possible combinations to try!

Ill: Photo of a combination lock with a blue dialalgorithm NOT Practical!

How to Use Your Note Cards

To learn, review, and test your knowledge of the identified vocabulary words, follow these steps:

    1. Focus only on the word and try to state its meaning and the example you wrote on the back of the card. Visualize your illustration to jog your memory.
    2. Recite the dictionary definition, your restatement, and example and check for accuracy.
    3. As you go through the cards, put them into two different piles: Know and Don't Know.
    4. Focus on the Don't Know pile, going through the cards 3-4 times a day. Short, quick review is preferred. When you have learned the words (you consistently get them right), place the cards in the Know pile.
    5. Be sure to review all the cards at least once a day. The more often you go through them, the easier it is to remember the words and their meanings.
    6. Set aside time each day for vocabulary study. Five minutes several times a day is more effective than a longer amount of time once a week.
    7. Review the cards when you are standing in a line, while waiting for an appointment, or even when you are exercising!


Use Association

When trying to learn any new information, a faster means to storing material in memory is through association. This mean that you connect the new concepts with related information already stored in your long-term memory.

Example: You already understand and remember the meaning of learning something through trial-and-error, which is the opposite of algorithm. So to more easily retain the meaning of algorithm, associate it with the concept you know. You could create a new sentence such as the one in the example below:

I can use an algorithm to solve the problem because I will find it much faster than using trial-and-error.


Apply Your Preferred Learning Styles

Photo looking down on two people, a man and a woman; the woman has her hand by her ear indicating she is trying to hear while the man has his hand by his eye indicating a learning style of vision.


It's important to know how you best learn information, otherwise known as your preferred learning styles. There are many online surveys you can take, some of which are included in the Learning Link: Using Your Learning Styles and Strengths.

Below are samples of survey questions that will lead you to understanding your personal learning styles.

    • Do you like someone to tell you directions rather than read them?
    • Would you rather read the information than have someone tell you about it?
    • Do you prefer to write down information or draw diagrams or pictures?
    • Would you rather do an experiment instead of watching it being done?

There are several ways the results are reported, but the most common are visual, auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic. When you know how you learn most effectively, you'll want to emphasize this approach. However, the more senses you use when trying to learn new material the faster and longer it will be retained.

Use the read-write-say-do approach to learning!

Note: If you read this entire handout, I bet you know the meaning of algorithm. It has been repeated 25 times with 10 repetitions of its meaning.


 ASC Return LogoClick ASC logo to return to Contents

This site was created and is maintained by Barbara J. Speidel, SWC Learning Assistance Services Coordinator. @ Barbara J. Speidel

The ASC logo was created by Andrew C. Rempt. @ Andrew C. Rempt

Southwestern College