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Sep 13, 2012

How Reading Helps to Expand Your Vocabulary

Kid Reading Book
A good book can transport you to new worlds, teach you to do something new, expand your mind and help you learn new words and phrases - all with a nice cup of tea in your hand. Just how does reading expand your vocabulary?

Context is Everything

Words don't exist in a vacuum. People don't wake up one morning able to answer difficult crossword puzzles, it's a combination of good memory, practice and a lifetime of seeing those words in context and being able to extract them from your mind at the time they're needed. Students might find that flashcards with vocabulary and ideas they need to learn, will imprint on the short-term memory, but for words to go into the long-term memory banks the brain needs to see them in some context. Without this context the brain finds them hard to remember for any length of time. Reading a wide variety of books is a great way to see words in their natural habitat and help the brain to retain them and get a feel for how they can be used.

Not only is this a good way to learn new words, but is also the best way to become more familiar with words and phrases that you are not entirely comfortable with. Seeing the context on the page helps you to understand the meaning and connotations of the word, in many cases more effectively than a straightforward explanation. Regular reading reinforces this and widens your vocabulary naturally.

Read 'Good' Writing.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of light reading, but it shouldn't be the only thing you read. To get the most out of your reading, it needs to challenge you. That doesn't mean it must be dull, dry writing! Pick up a John Berger or a Terry Pratchett and enjoy the way they use words and ideas. Peruse a Neil Gaiman and appreciate the mythology and puns he employs. Have a gander at Dickens and glimpse an older world, immerse yourself in a different culture and understand the Victorian English class inequalities better while at the same time enjoying some great old slang!

Reading non-fiction is great way of realising that you can, in fact, understand subjects and terminologies that you were perhaps less good at in school. You could further your knowledge of evolutionary biology with a little Dawkins, or read what Freud actually wrote instead of half remembering the condensed version usually given to 12-year-old children. Great writing is as engaging as the fluff but stretches you that bit more, introducing you to new words and ideas, broadening your vocabulary while entertaining or teaching you (or often both).

Reading across genres and subjects will not only give you familiarity with an extended vocabulary, it will also increase your confidence in using them yourself; as you see words in different context and become familiar with not just the broader meaning but also the nuances of words.

English is a wonderful language with thousands of different words. If you're unfamiliar with a word, make a note of it and look it up straight away. That way it's fresh in your memory and your brain can process it properly in context. You might also find a little funny history of the word and some amusing uses or double meaning. What better way to enjoy words?

Recommended Read: Effective writing tips for online publishers


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