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How to Improve Your Vocabulary

Your vocabulary is comprised of all the words you know: words you can read, write, speak, define, and recognize. Improving your vocabulary provides access to a broader range of verbal expression, and helps you perceive the nuances of the English language. When reading a novel or a newspaper article, your grasp of uncommon words allows you to understand the writer's finer points. When writing a paper or essay, your careful articulation makes you sound insightful, original, and authoritative. While using a dictionary or thesaurus can help you vary diction on the go, study tools can help you expand your word retention and recall. This will help you in the classroom, on standardized tests, and in everyday conversation. This guide is a collection of dozens of links to vocabulary resources that we have researched, categorized, and annotated in order to help you improve your vocabulary and test-taking skills.

Vocabulary Fundamentals

What does "vocabulary" really mean in practice? Why is it important in real-world situations? How does vocabulary acquisition and development work? This section contains blog posts and articles that introduce you to the basics of vocabulary, from its definition to its relevance.

"Vocabulary" (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia's article defines "vocabulary" and discusses cognitive assessments, types of vocabulary, the process of vocabulary growth, and methods of vocabulary enhancement.

"Why A Substantial Vocabulary Is Important" (Gray Matter Blog)

This blog post from Elevate's Gray Matter talks about how vocabulary improves your life outside of reading and writing—by making you a faster thinker, a more productive worker, and a better citizen. It also offers five lifestyle tips for improving your vocabulary.

"Vocabulary and Its Importance in Language Learning" (TESOL)

This excerpt from an English-as-a-second-language teacher's handbook is helpful for thinking about the abstract benefits of vocabulary, as well as showing what vocabulary knowledge is and how it can be measured in practice. 

"Definition and Examples of Vocabulary" (ThoughtCo)

In this blog post, you'll find definitions of vocabulary, links to related topics like etymology, word roots, and regional English dialects, and links to worksheets and games to improve your vocabulary.

"The Importance of Vocabulary In Writing" (Time4Writing)

This article from a popular writing blog explains how having a good vocabulary makes your writing more descriptive, more suited to your audience, and more varied. It ends with simple tips to improve your vocabulary. 

How to Improve Your Vocabulary

If you're looking to expand your vocabulary, you'll need to go through a few steps. First, you need to find a list of words. Second, you need to devise a way to review these words and their definitions, until you memorize them. Finally, you'll want to read widely so that you familiarize yourself with these words—and new ones—used in context. Explore the resources in this section for a more in-depth look at vocabulary-building strategies.

"100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know" (American Heritage Dictionaries)

This A-Z list, curated by one of the United States' most popular dictionaries, is available both online and in an expanded book format. 

"Word Lists" (MajorTests.com)

Hundreds of vocabulary lists—both general and geared toward particular classes and exams—are available for free download on this website. 

Vocabulary.com

This website is much more complex than your average flashcard drill or interactive game (though those are good, too). Here, you'll find a wide array of question types and activities to test your vocabulary knowledge. You can even upload your own vocabulary lists into the site; it will generate content for you.

"How to Improve Your Vocabulary" (ThoughtCo)

In this blog post, you'll learn how to use a dictionary and thesaurus, how to navigate synonyms and antonyms, how to create vocabulary trees and themes, and how to use technology to help you improve your vocabulary.

"How to Expand Your Vocabulary" (WikiHow)

This illustrated, step-by-step guide expands upon ways to read for vocabulary, write with vocabulary, and build your vocabulary. Its suggestions include reading the newspaper and studying Latin roots. 

"7 Sure-fire Ways to Drastically Improve Your Vocabulary" (Lingualift)

This article, though geared toward those learning a new language, talks about scientifically proven strategies to improve your retention of vocabulary words: spacing review sessions out over time, using mnemonics, etc.

"Word Up: How to Improve and Enlarge Your Vocabulary" (The Guardian)

This newspaper article deals with the problem of forgetting words you've learned. The author—a professional memory coach—recommends studying "little and often," making connections, developing visual associations, and using active recall. 

How to Comprehend Unfamiliar Words 

Whether you're reading a novel, newspaper article, or Tweet, at some point you'll come across a word you don't know. Rather than skip the word (and miss important information), you can use context clues—and even the word itself—to grasp its meaning. This section contains resources to help you comprehend vocabulary words while reading. 

"Understanding Vocabulary Words in Context" (ThoughtCo)

This blog post shows how context clues work with an example; it also includes an exercise (and answer key) for you to practice. The page links to additional practice worksheets. 

"Using Context Clues to Improve Vocabulary" (YouTube) 

This video tutorial from Love Your Pencil introduces the idea of context clues and help you understand why they're important (and easy to use). It uses SAT-style reading passages to demonstrate how to figure out a word, then walks through worksheet examples to simulate an in-class experience.

"7 Strategies for Using Context Clues in Reading" (TeachThought)

By reading this blog post from a teacher-to-teacher website, you'll learn how to use prefixes and suffixes, synonyms, explanations, examples, antonyms, analogies, and appositives to work out what an unknown word means. 

"3 Ways to Understand a Word Without Using a Dictionary" (WikiHow)

WikiHow, with its customary illustrated how-to, suggests using context clues, educating yourself in basic etymology, and building your vocabulary through note-taking, reading, games, and resources like a dictionary or thesaurus. 

"Defining Twilight: Context Clues From 'Twilight'" (YouTube)

This video tutorial from CliffsNotes may use a popular young adult novel as its example text, but the techniques the tutor applies are widely applicable. These include using synonyms and information embedded in the sentence. 

How to Prepare for Vocabulary Questions on Standardized Tests

The most likely place for your vocabulary to be tested is on college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT. Typically, these exams will either ask you to deduce a word's meaning from its context in a passage, or will ask you to choose the best word to communicate an idea. This section contains resources to familiarize you with the ways vocabulary is tested on the SAT and ACT.

"What's Tested on the SAT: SAT Vocabulary" (Kaplan)

This blog post compares the new (post-2015) SAT to the old one, and outlines the types of questions that test vocabulary: words in context, rhetorical usage, and word choice. The post includes examples.

"New SAT Vocabulary" (Magoosh) 

This post from Magoosh also compares the new SAT to the old, emphasizing the importance of context to the types of questions asked. The post suggests a list of words to familiarize yourself with.

"Sample Questions" (College Board)

The definitive, official practice questions from the College Board, available here, are the best way to acquaint yourself with vocabulary-based questions on SAT.

"ACT Reading: Implications, Inference, and Vocab-In-Context" (Kaplan)

This blog post from Kaplan introduces you to the types of questions in which you will encounter vocabulary on the ACT; it includes examples of each.

"Sample Test Questions: Reading" (ACT, Inc.)

By working through these official practice questions from the makers of the ACT, you'll get a sense of the structure and feel of the test's vocabulary-based questions.

How to Answer Vocabulary Questions on Standardized Tests

Now that you're familiar with the standardized test formats, you need to figure out how to answer vocabulary-based questions on the SAT and ACT. Besides simply strengthening your vocabulary according to the guides and strategies listed above, test-specific strategies can help you improve your performance in these areas. This section links to tips, guides, and video tutorials relating to vocabulary questions on the SAT and ACT.

"Vocab in Context Questions and Strategies for SAT Reading" (PrepScholar)

This blog post from PrepScholar is a thorough introduction to the vocabulary questions on the SAT Reading, as well as a treasure trove of tips, example questions (with answers), and common mistakes to avoid.

"Official SAT Practice" (Khan Academy)

The Khan Academy is an official, free, College Board-sponsored site on which you can find practice tests, games, and guides for vocabulary as well as the other skills tested on the SAT and PSAT.

"SAT Vocabulary in Context" (YouTube)

This recent video tutorial from Chegg uses real material from the new SAT to show you how to work out "vocabulary in context" questions, a particular type of question that relates to a short passage. 

"Vocabulary Words in Context Questions" (YouTube)

Magoosh's video tutorial demonstrates how to answer a particular subset of "vocabulary in context" question—those in which a familiar word (in this case, "support") is used in an unfamiliar way. 

"Vocab in Context Questions and Strategies for ACT Reading" (PrepScholar)

This blog post from PrepScholar is a thorough introduction to the vocabulary questions on the ACT Reading exam, as well as a treasure trove of tips, example questions (with answers), and common mistakes to avoid.

"ACT Vocabulary In Context" (YouTube)

In this video tutorial from Veritas Prep, you'll learn how the format of ACT vocabulary questions is designed to trick you; the tutors suggest tips (like defining the answer choices you know before reading the question) to keep yourself from falling into the test-makers' trap.

How to Use Your Vocabulary in Writing

On standardized tests and everyday assignments, you have a chance to demonstrate the vocabulary you've learned. A wider range of expression will increase your score on the SAT and ACT, as well as allow you to communicate your ideas more effectively (thus showing your teacher that you really did read and understand The Great Gatsby!). This section contains links to tips and guides for using vocabulary in writing. 

"Tools for Writing: Improving Word Choice" (Aims Community College)

This post recommends varying your word choice, replacing generic words with specific ones, using powerful verbs, and using language appropriate for your audience. It also gives you a starter list of verbs and adjectives to broaden your usage. 

"Using Appropriate Words in an Academic Essay" (National Univ. of Singapore)

This short chapter, excerpted from a longer textbook, walks through the importance of formal vocabulary (over colloquialisms), transitions, and avoiding redundancy (repeating yourself). It is stuffed with examples, as well as a list of commonly misused words. 

"Word Choice" (Univ. of North Carolina Writing Center)

If you're hoping to troubleshoot your writing when using new vocabulary, this is a great guide. Besides warning you of cliches, wordiness, and unclear terms to avoid, the page also offers questions to ask yourself in order to use new words successfully.

"SAT Writing: Word Choice and Diction Errors" (PrepScholar)

From this well-known standardized test prep blog comes a post about frequent blunders on the SAT essay. Here, you'll find a list of commonly confused words (like "accept" and "except") and exercises to help you practice distinguishing between them.

Vocabulary Games

In this digital age, hundreds of apps, online games, and widgets are available to help you improve your word retention and recall skills. This section contains links to some of the best free downloads that will help you learn while having fun, too.

"100 High School Vocab Words" (Quizlet)

From pre-established vocabulary lists, Quizlet generates online flashcards, fill-in-the-blank exercises, audio clips, practice tests, matching games, and more. This is one of several lists available on the site. 

"High School Vocabulary Tests" (Vocabtest.com)

Choose your grade level on this webpage, and you'll find tons of online tests (using question types like reverse definitions, synonym practice, and spelling fill-in-the-blank) and games to help you work on vocabulary.

Knowji

This highly-rated app is loaded with 1,600 strategic vocabulary words known to appear on the SAT, ACT, GRE, and AP exams. It will help you memorize these words through the "spaced repetition" strategy.

SAT Vocabulary Visuals and Audios (VocabAhead)

For the visual learner, this app pairs over 1,000 words with individual illustrations. Track your progress with mastery charts, review what you've learned with word sheets, and test yourself with in-app assessments. 

Vocabulary Builder (Magoosh) 

This app from the SAT and ACT preparation experts uses multiple choice questions to test your retention of over 1,200 crucial vocabulary words. As you complete levels within the app, you'll unlock even more words and games.

Vocabulary.com App

Vocabulary.com's app contains over 12,000 words and ten times as many vocabulary-testing questions. An in-app dictionary helps you learn about each word's etymology, usage, and connotation, and the addicting games incentivize you to work on your vocabulary daily. 

Resources for Teaching Vocabulary

Classroom Activities for Vocabulary

"Solving Word Meanings: Engaging Strategies for Vocabulary Development" (ReadWriteThink)

This complete lesson plan has five steps: introduce context clues (with a helpful mnemonic), practice context clues, introduce semantic gradients, practice combining semantic gradients with context clues, and give take-home homework.

"20 Vocabulary Lesson Ideas" (Univ. of Missouri)

On this handout, you'll find innovative games like "Anything Goes" (teacher asks rapid-fire questions about known vocabulary words) and "Brainpower Words" (students work to decipher unknown words in small groups) to help students have fun learning and practicing vocabulary. 

"5 Brain-Based Vocabulary Activities for the Secondary Classroom" (Reading and Writing Haven)

A veteran English teacher suggests a version of "3 Truths and a Lie," as well as interactive activities that use everything from posters to film to social media.

"Creative Lesson Plan: Vocabulary Poster" (Bright Hub Education)

This complete lesson plan details the supplies, preparation, and step-by-step execution of a vocabulary poster activity, including a follow-up game that allows students to learn from their peers' posters.

"Games to Reinforce Vocabulary Words" (Bright Hub Education)

Familiar household games like Charades, Pictionary, and Boggle can become tools for vocabulary acquisition and retention if you follow the simple guidelines in this blog post.

Homework Exercises for Vocabulary

"Vocabulary in Context Worksheets" (ThoughtCo)

The five free, downloadable worksheets on this page pair vocabulary-rich passages with SAT-style questions. They require students to deduce the meaning of unknown words in a setting similar to that on most standardized tests. 

"Context Clues Lessons" (Flocabulary)

On this page and through the clickable links, you'll find free, downloadable lessons and worksheets for more practice with context clues. The site even has videos with mnemonic songs that, though a little silly, will help you remember definitions. 

"SAT Vocabulary Lessons and Practice" (Instructor Web)

At the bottom of this page, you'll find links to ten free, downloadable PDF worksheets for practicing synonyms, antonyms, and analogies with SAT vocabulary words.

"Semantic Gradients Plus Contexts Worksheet" (ReadWriteThink)

This worksheet pairs with the "Solving Word Meanings" lesson plan above; it's a take-home exercise of the "semantic gradients" technique, which requires students to place words on a spectrum or to choose between them.