Tag Archives: Vocabulary

Advice on learning vocabulary

11 Dec

From Fluent in Three Months:

Learning new words is dull as dishwater unless you get a bit of context, and the best advice I know is to get input that you can understand. I always teach new words in context through pointing them out in texts, repeating them with lots of examples or telling a little story. In fact, storytelling is the most useful way of finding new words and putting them to use straight away so that you will remember them.

There’s a really useful set of vocabulary acquisition and revision guidelines over at Omniglot, in which Simon recommends that intermediate and advanced learners should start working with parallel texts (books that are printed bilingually, with a language on each page or each side of a column). I do this a lot, it’s the literary equivalent of watching original films and shows with your own language subtitles.

Don’t turn your nose up at having the translation so nearby – it’s practical and helpful for understanding stories, and what’s interesting and fun will keep you going. Other great materials for early learners involve short stories and children’s literature, even picturebooks.

Vocabulary size and academic achievement

27 Jun

A paper from Applied Linguistics Review titled: “Vocabulary size revisited: the link between vocabulary size and academic achievement”

Here is the abstract:

“Many researchers have tried to assess the number of words adults know. A general conclusion which emerges from such studies is that vocabularies of English monolingual adults are very large with considerable variation. This variation is important given that the vocabulary size of schoolchildren in the early years of school is thought to materially affect subsequent educational attainment. The data is difficult to interpret, however, because of the different methodologies which researchers use. The study in this paper uses the frequency-based vocabulary size test from Goulden et al (1990) and investigates the vocabulary knowledge of undergraduates in three British universities. The results suggest that monolingual speaker vocabulary sizes may be much smaller than is generally thought with far less variation than is usually reported. An average figure of about 10,000 English word families emerges for entrants to university. This figure suggests that many students must struggle with the comprehension of university level texts.”


Linguist makes the case for vocabulary tests at spelling bees

21 Sep

Linguist John McWhorter makes the case for adding a vocabulary component to spelling bees.

I like this observation:

“loving your language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday.”

Here is McWhorter on the history of the plural word:

Joshua Henkin on vocabulary

26 Aug

A nice piece in The New York Times by novelist Joshua Henkin on the importance of vocabulary. He says this about learning vocabulary words in a Kaplan review course:

“One day, Stanley Kaplan himself visited our class. I recall him as a kind of impresario, a Jackie Gleason-type figure who warmed the class up with a few jokes. And then he was gone, leaving me to my vocabulary words, which I kept on flash cards and which I would hum as I memorized them. It was the words themselves I was humming. It’s the same thing I do now when I write, a drone so reflexive I don’t even realize I’m doing it until my wife, who shares an office with me, says, “You’re humming again,” and I try to quiet down.”

Meaningful differences podcast

4 Aug

I have been working my way though the archives of Slate’s Lexical Valley podcast and found one of the best summaries of the Hart and Risley study, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

Meaningful Differences should be required reading for anyone interested in education.

An overview of Memrise

8 Jul

I am going to make a bold prediction: spaced repetition software will revolutionize education. Merging the principles of memory first discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus with sophisticated software now allows us to make difficult memory tasks and make them both easier and more efficient.

Let’s take the example of learning a foreign language vocabulary. Vocabulary learning may be the biggest hurdle for people learning a new language. Spaced repetition software allows you to master vocabulary with small amounts of daily practice. The most persuasive argument I can make here is experiential. I invite you to try Memrise.

Memrise is the brain child of memory grand master Ed Cooke. It is a well designed  online spaced repetition flashcard program.

To use Memrise first visit the homepage:


Click start and create a free account.

mem-log in

After you have created your account you can choose flash cards  from an astonishingly large list of languages and other topics.

mem languages available

Here is my dashboard page showing two of the  languages I am studying

my dashboard

Memrise use a garden metaphor to describe learning. “Planting” means adding words to the list you want to learn, while, “watering” refers to your daily review. To get the most out of Memrise you should plan to water everyday (a process that usually takes just a few minutes) and to plant when you feel ready to move onto to new material.

Everyday, Memrise will test you on some subset of your chosen words. It will do this either by fill in the blank questions or multiple choice.

question answer

The software will evaluate how well you know each word and decide when to ask you again. If you do not know a word it will schedule to ask you again very soon. If you do know a word it increases the interval before it repeats that question. This spaced repetition procedure is known to counteract forgetting.

Memrise also provides you with user generated mnemonics to help you lean words. At the end of each session it gives you a summary of your work for that day. There is a point system that serves as a motivator.

Since this is a web based service you can access Memrise from anywhere. Memrise now has smartphone apps available. Start building a better memory today!


Vocabulary and social class

3 Jul

You may recall the advertising slogan “people judge you by the words you use” for a vocabulary improvement program called Verbal Advantage. This slogan hints at an essential truth; there are well documented vocabulary differences and these differences have social consequences. School and career success are correlated with vocabulary size.

Vocabulary differences are linked to social class and may play a role in perpetuating income inequality. Betty Hart and Todd Risley,  of the University of Kansas, found large social class differences in the vocabulary to which children are exposed. In their research, they observed 42 families with children for more than two years. The families were from three socioeconomic categories; professional, working class, or welfare. Hart and Risley observed and tape recorded parent-child interactions one hour every moth.

Extrapolating from their observations, Hart and Risley  found that in a professional family an average child would be exposed to 215,000 words a week. The average child in a working class home would be exposed to 125,000 words. In the family where welfare was the main means of support an average child would be exposed to only 62,000 words per week.

Not surprisingly these differences in exposure were correlated with measures of vocabulary size. Children exposed to more words developed a bigger stock of words. Without educational intervention, these early differences set the stage for life long differences in vocabulary.

The Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale is a widely used test of cognitive ability. It has been standardized on large representative samples. Joseph Matarazzo  published the percentage of adults between the age of 16 and 65 who could correctly define some of the test’s vocabulary items in its 1955 standardization sample. Not surprisingly, everyone could define common physical objects such as a bed or a penny. As words became more abstract, the percentages dropped sharply. Only 65% could define the word “domestic” and only 20% knew the meaning of the word “ominous.” The majority did not know the words “calamity,” “tranquil,” or “fortitude.” The word “travesty” was only known to 5% of the sample. As Gottfredson  pointed out “none of these words is esoteric; anyone who has attended U.S. High schools or read national newspapers or magazines has surely encounter them. Vocabulary tests gauge the ease with which individuals have routinely caught on to new and more complex concepts they encounter in the general culture.”

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