Charles Harrington Elster

Seven Steps to Word Power

by Charles Harrington Elster

A large and precise vocabulary is a speakerís greatest asset. It is the foundation of eloquence. If you aspire to speak well ó and write well, and think well ó you must build your knowledge of words.

The notion of building your vocabulary may call to mind the dull drills of grade school. But learning new words, and learning more about words, doesnít have to be tedious. Unlike with physical exercise, you can gain without pain. Unlike with dieting, the rewards are permanent. Best of all, you can start building your vocabulary at any age and, with a minimum of effort, keep it growing for the rest of your life.

Here are seven tips to help you pump up your word power:

1. Read, read, read. Reading is the most effective ó and enjoyable ó way to build vocabulary. Yet an astonishing number of people who can read, donít read. In a 2001 survey of literate Americans age 25 and over conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 29 percent of the women and 43 percent of the men had not read a book in the preceding six months. If youíre not reading for your own pleasure and development, itís time to start doing that for at least 20 or 30 minutes a day. Make newspapers and magazines a part of your diurnal routine. Visit the public library ó often. Listen to audio books while you commute.

2. Expand your horizons. To build a strong vocabulary, you need to read widely. Venture beyond the familiar and the easy. Try something new and challenging. Take risks.

3. Make it fun. You wonít learn anything when youíre frustrated or bored. Donít force yourself to read something you donít like. Read what interests you. Let your curiosity be your guide. Talk about what youíre reading with others, and solicit recommendations from others on good books to read.

4. Always look for words you donít know. This is extremely important. People tend to skip over or read around unfamiliar words. Thatís a bad habit that can impair your reading comprehension and damage your vocabulary. As a vocabulary builder, your job is to be on the lookout for unfamiliar words. Challenge yourself to find at least one new word every time you read. Seek, and you shall find. And be honest with yourself ó do you really know that word or just think you know it?

5. Use your dictionary. Whenever you see an unfamiliar word, itís essential that you look it up. Keep a dictionary handy while you read so you can look up words right away. Or you can highlight words or jot them down on a piece of paper (with the page number so you can find them again) and look them up later.

6. Review it or lose it. Review is the key to retaining the words you learn, and one of the best ways to review is the time-honored flashcard method. Write the word on one side of an index card and the definition on the other. Carry the cards with you and test yourself two or three times a day. You can also keep a list on your computer of the words youíre learning.

7. Get with the program. You will find many helpful vocabulary-building books at your local bookstore and public library. And if you prefer to learn by listening, you may enjoy audio vocabulary-building programs. Either way, the discipline of following a program, studying a little bit each day, will speed up your rate of learning and do wonders for your vocabulary.

Remember, words are the key to knowledge, and knowledge is the key to success. Every word you add to your vocabulary broadens your understanding of the world, improves your comprehension of what you hear and read, and sharpens your ability to express your ideas with greater confidence and style.

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Charles Harrington Elster is the author of the vocabulary-building program Verbal Advantage, the SAT vocabulary-building novels Tooth and Nail and Test of Time, and various other books on words and word lore.

Copyright © 2006 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All Rights Reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Selected Works

Colin Kaepernick and Charles Harrington Elster have something in common: exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.
Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.
Charlie beats up on Merriam-Webster in the Boston Globe.
At a loss for words? Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.
Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.
Shopping for a new dictionary? Here's some sage advice.
Charlie's brave new words for a wireless world.
Read one of Charlie's articles in SPELL/Binder.
Read a profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.
Charlie explains why he left the public radio show.