Sunday, April 2, 2006

The dozens of words circled in Visvas Patel’s dictionary are a testimony to his expanding vocabulary.

The Laurel man tries to learn 10 new words a day through his reading (he likes to look up any unfamiliar words in his dictionary and circle them), his conversations and by using online vocabulary sites that provide word definitions and vocabulary quizzes.

“It really helps if you’re talking to people,” Mr. Patel says. “These words you’re learning will pop into your mind and be [what] you want to use to convey your message.”

Improving vocabulary skills takes time and effort and is not for the wordmonger (a careless user of language), or those who tend to get carried away with wordage (an excessive number of words) to get a message across.

“What I found is there is no cram course for improving your vocabulary,” says Anu Garg, founder of, an online community of 600,000 linguaphiles (word lovers) that is celebrating its duodecennial (12th anniversary) this year. “What really works is to digest bite-size chunks a little bit at a time. Over a year, acquiring a few hundred words is impressive.”

The number of words in the average adult’s vocabulary is difficult to estimate, since some words can be used as nouns, verbs and adjectives, Mr. Garg says, adding the average vocabulary has been estimated at 20,000 and 30,000 words.

“One thing is for sure, the average vocabulary is going down,” Mr. Garg says. “More and more people are getting their information from TV, for example. Fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers and books. There’s a little bit of dumbing down going on. People are short of time. They want to write something people can grasp quickly and move on.”

Even so, there is a variety of ways to improve vocabulary, such as by reading, using a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words, doing crossword puzzles and word games, and learning a word a day through Web sites, flip calendars and vocabulary-building books. (Try “The Words You Should Know: 1,200 Essential Words Every Educated Person Should Be Able to Use and Define,” by David Olsen and “Word Smart: Building an Educated Vocabulary,” by Adam Robinson.), based in Seattle, provides a daily electronic newsletter called A.Word.A.Day with a vocabulary word and its definition, pronunciation and etymology (what Mr. Garg calls a word’s biography), along with usage examples.

“Words are the currency of human discourse. No matter what you do, you can’t do it without words,” Mr. Garg says.

The main way most people expand their vocabulary is through reading, speaking and using the language, and not by memorizing vocabulary lists, says Brian O’Reilly, executive director of SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) Information Services in New York City.

“Vocabulary building is done by reading, and reading widely,” Mr. O’Reilly says.

Readers, he says, learn new words by seeing them in the context of written material and encountering them often enough to learn their definitions. They rarely, though, know the dictionary definitions, he says.

Alternatively, Mr. Garg recommends looking up unusual and unfamiliar words instead of trying to figure out their meanings from context.

“Often, we can figure out a word from its context, but we don’t get a sense of its precise shade of meaning,” he says. “Once we know the subtle differences between the words, then our writing and conversation becomes more precise.”

Without looking up the words, they might be understood in context, but not enough to express an idea, says Rusty Burke, director of the District of Columbia office of the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation Inc., a nonprofit scientific research and educational organization focused on aptitude testing.

Mr. Burke recommends being aware of words and taking a closer look at them as they are encountered, along with reviewing them regularly.

“Open your awareness up, so words have a chance. You’re not just blocking them out like we block out other noise in our lives,” he says.

Methods such as learning a word a day can work as long as the word is somewhat familiar, Mr. Burke says.

“There’s no point learning words you never saw before,” he says.

Elaine Kelly has an eight-step plan for improving vocabulary that she teaches through a Fairfax County Public Schools Adult and Community Education course, called “Enhance Your Vocabulary.”

“We tell people to immerse themselves in words,” Mrs. Kelly says about the first step.

Mrs. Kelly recommends people use index cards to write down new words, share words with family and friends, and practice listening to the spoken word, spending 20 minutes a day on vocabulary building.

“Reading is the painless way to expand all of your skills,” Mrs. Kelly says. “People who are enthusiastic readers are the people with the best vocabulary skills.”

The other four steps involve looking for the sight, sound, structure and context of a word. Does the word look or sound familiar? What is the structure of the word, and does it have a familiar prefix or suffix? Can the meaning of the word be figured out from the context of the passage or spoken message?

Sometimes, the word in a text will be defined, an example will be given or a contrast word will be used, Mrs. Kelly says.

Writing down the sentence or phrase in which the word appears and relating it to something in the reader’s life will help with remembering the word, says Page Whittenburg, associate professor of communications at Montgomery College in Germantown.

“Think about why the writer might have used that word,” she says.

To select reading material for vocabulary improvement, Ms. Whittenburg recommends glancing through the book or magazine to see if it interests you, requires some concentration and contains a few unfamiliar words. Joining a book discussion group is another way to encourage reading and vocabulary development, she says.

“The main thing is to find something that works for you,” she says.

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