I am going a bit back into my teacher mode for this blog, so consider this your warning.
Remember back in high school, your English teacher would give you a list of words on Monday, Tuesday the words had to be in sentences, and Friday was the test? Now, think about it…how many of those words do you really remember? Are they now part of your vocabulary, or did they fly out of your head as soon as you left the classroom that Friday?
Most people lost the words on Friday. Some may have held onto them until Saturday. But regardless, those words didn’t make it into your long-term memory because you didn’t really learn the meaning of the words. You could identify them and identify the proposed definition, but that is about it.
Simply put, when you learn something through rote memory, it just becomes automatic and you really haven’t learned it. I will admit that I did teach my students a bit like the above format. I just added a bit of a twist. On Wednesday, they had to draw pictures of the meaning of the words. They loved having that small creative outlet and they always tried to (very successfully) make me laugh with what they drew. But I was getting them to really understand the words because they were really thinking about them. Also, they had a picture in their head of the word and it is always easier to remember something you have a picture to associate the thing with.
Another good way to learn vocabulary is through reading. We all know that better readers become better writers. Now, add that better readers have a better vocabulary. Sometimes you can’t always stop and run to the dictionary to look up a word, so context clues are very important when reading. However, if you think you understand the word, you will most likely just continue reading and not give that word a second thought. I suggest that you take a few seconds to somehow highlight that word and the sentence the word is in.
Let me give you an example. When I was student teaching, I had to teach the poem “Oranges” by Gary Soto. For those of you unfamiliar with the poem, it is about a young boy on his date with his first crush and he buys her an orange with a nickel. Although I knew the meaning of the word orange already, I wanted to know what was so special about this word. Why didn’t he pick grapes or an apple? Well, orange is a color between red (love) and yellow (fear). Think about your first crush. Oranges seem to fit because your first crush was between the stages of being in love and being afraid.
Authors pick words for a reason. If you see a word you really like that an author uses, I think it is only proper that you take a few minutes to investigate the word a bit more. If for nothing else, you will learn a cool new word you can use and impress your friends.
So, becoming a better writer isn’t just about writing until your fingers bleed words. It is also about reading and building your vocabulary. Sure, you can use those vocab workbooks, but just me; you won’t really remember those words. The best way to learn new words is slowly (not ten at a time). Find one or two words that you like from a book you are reading. Write down the words and the sentence it is in on an index card. On the back of the index card, write the meaning. Pretty soon, you will have your own set of flash cards that you will really use because you created them. Learning only really occurs when you take ownership of it. Build your vocabulary by reading and making your own workbook.