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Why Vocabulary Matters & How to Improve It

Learning vocabulary is a tricky prospect, isn’t it? Endlessly important, yet mysterious to teach, the subject of vocabulary remains a sore spot in most classrooms these days. Vocabulary workbooks are quickly proving anachronistic in the modern English class. Teachers instead opt for the holistic approach to the English language, relinquishing vocab and grammar drills to academic oblivion. While this approach has some positives, it might prove costly down the road. For instance, every standardized exam (ISEE, SAT, GRE, etc.) places significant emphasis on vocabulary either in outright sentence completion format or interwoven into the reading comprehension section. Additionally, the standardized testing overlords all seem to have the same prosaic disclaimer about vocabulary on their website. It often goes something like this: 

“At [insert standardized test writing company], we strive to measure student’s cumulative knowledge in quantitative and verbal reasoning. Therefore many students may find the vocabulary and math skills measured on this exam difficult to ‘cram’ for our given the cumulative nature of our test material.”

Improving vocabulary three months or even a year before that standardized test is too late. That’s invigorating for any would-be test-takers, right? How about for their parents? How about for the test prep specialists assigned to help them? The fact of the matter is vocabulary is like investing: 1) no one sees immediate results, 2) consistency is the name of the game, and 3) earnings compound over time. And much like the youth sneer at their elders when told of the prudence of investing young, so too do they sneer at vocabulary’s future value. As parents and educators, we must find a way to rescue these young minds from future verbal destitution by cleverly packaging vocabulary lessons into effective, intriguing habits. Lucky for you, we have a few ideas:

Books, Movies, Short Stories

Ok, this one is the obvious one, but let’s get it out of the way. Most high vocabulary individuals read voraciously. The plethora of words in the English language makes the odds of encountering a new word in even the shortest of well-written texts likely, if not inevitable. Some choose to run for a dictionary every time they encounter a novel term, but this isn’t always the best choice for long-term vocabulary retention. Our brains are fickle and egotistical in many ways. We appreciate and remember new information more if we have to work for it, yes, but also if it spikes dopamine somehow. For instance, if I encounter the word somnolent in an article from The Economist and immediately run a google search to learn its meaning, the new information probably won’t stick. Instead, I should venture a guess as to what the word somnolent means, then confirm. Using the context of the sentence, any apparent root words, or simple intuition gives me a decent chance of guessing a word’s meaning. If my prediction is correct, I get a dopamine spike from correctly guessing an outcome. If I’m wrong, I have some hilarious image in my head combining my prediction with the true definition. I always think somnolent means solemn, like a great orator giving a eulogy. It actually means sleepy or drowsy, so I picture my great orator yawning during his speech or potentially falling asleep, and I haven’t forgotten the true definition. 

Let Their Brains Play Up a Level

Any youth sports coach will tell you that the best way to help a top athlete improve at youth level is to let him or her “play up” an age group or two. The speed of play, physicality, and maturity necessary with older age groups makes the athlete re-evaluate and adapt his or her game, thus boosting potential. Vocabulary works the same way. The youngest child in an average family learns more vocabulary at the dinner table than in the classroom. Why? Because they are forced “to play up.” The child must adapt to understand older siblings and parents, all of whom have different levels of education, word preferences, and interests. One of the best ways to help your child’s vocabulary is to make sure he or she is surrounded by older, eloquent individuals. Furthermore, one must participate in the conversation to glean the vocabulary benefits. As the old Ben Franklin saying goes, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Be the Change You Wish to See

Parents (and older siblings) vastly underestimate the impact their subconscious actions have on the learning attitudes of impressionable children. I’ll never forget the day when I had an arduous battle to help a student take an interest in Herman Melville’s brilliant albeit lengthy epic Moby Dick. My student excused himself to use the restroom, and I was racing to find a new angle of approach. I was reaching my wit’s end because the student was patently against any century-old story about “a man hunting whales,” as he put it. Then, a moment of kindness (or brilliance) from the student’s father saved me and the student’s interest in English literature. The dad, a well-respected businessperson seemingly disinterested in academic minutia, came over and told me that he’d always heard of this book but never read it. He wanted me to repeat what I had said about Moby Dick being the perfect book for rebellious high schoolers craving adventure but not fully understanding why. He raised a few interesting questions I hadn’t considered, and we launched into a gripping dialogue about the book. When the student came back into the room and saw his father thoroughly invested in this odd, old book, the session turned on its head. The best way to help your student be curious and eloquent, to seek new words and find their meanings is to do so yourself. Set the example, and the child will follow. 

The topic of vocabulary comes up every year when we teach test prep, but also in our one-on-one executive function coaching program. We help students become well-rounded, curious learners. Vocabulary is just one piece of the puzzle. To learn more about our programs or to find your son or daughter’s academic coach, reach out today. If you’re interested in more content like this, head over to our blog. 

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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