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Words Matter: Vocabulary.com

Updated: Nov 27


Why study vocabulary?

A breadth and depth of vocabulary is essential to reading newspaper articles, academic papers, college assignments, and standardized test passages. There is no way around it – without a strong vocabulary it is significantly harder to understand what an author is saying.


We both know you will continue to encounter unknown vocabulary regardless of how many words you learn, and there are strategies for working around new words while reading. However, the more vocab you know before starting to read the better!


Methods

The Best Way

Hands down, the best way to learn vocabulary is by reading. The downside? It takes a long time – certainly more than the few months most people set aside to prepare for a standardized test.


If you have the time, learn through reading. If not, you’ll have to be more intentional about learning vocabulary. That’s where vocabulary.com comes in.


Why Vocabulary.com?

Vocabulary.com is set up with many of the best learning techniques: spaced repetition, variance, testing, and interleaving. However, most questions are missing one key feature: active recall. But, as I explain further below, there is an easy fix for that!


Why not {insert your current method here}?

The best method is the one you use. If you already study vocab – awesome! The other study tips below should help with any vocab learning program.


My only caveat: make sure you spend the majority of your time learning, not preparing to learn.


For example, I think Anki is the best flashcard app out there. However, when I was using it for vocab, I spent a huge amount of time creating flashcards or editing someone else’s cards. This can be helpful studying in and of itself, but I found myself procrastinating on learning because I didn’t want to make new flashcards.

 

In Practice

The Challenge

This is the main way you’ll practice vocabulary, and can be found on the top left of the home screen. The challenge quizzes you on words chosen from what you’ve answered before or inputted as a list (see below).


There are many question types, many of which are multiple choice. The most effective way is to cover up the answers!


I personally like holding up an index card to cover them, but other options are to use a post-it note, make the window smaller so that it only shows the question, or even using your hand to cover the answer choices.


Covering the answers makes sure you use active recall and not recognition, so it’s really really important for making the most of your time.


Answering Questions

Identifying the Meaning

The first thing you want to do is make a guess before looking at the answers. Remember: the answers should be hidden (use an index card, post-it-note, your hand, etc.).


You could guess by listing synonyms; in this case good synonyms would be boyfriend, suitor, or beau. Alternatively, you could define it using your own words. For example, "a person she's dating.” Then you look at the options and pick the best match.


Fill in the Blank

First I would try to guess the word, in this case binomial. However, often you may have difficulty thinking of just one word. In that case, try to define the missing word in a phrase or by describing the type of word you need.


Here I might think, “it’s an adjective that means using two names to identify something.” Then I would look at the options and find the one that best matches my guess.


After You Answer the Question:

  1. Try to define the other answer choices in your own words. If there is a word in the answer choices you don’t know, add it to your list!

  2. If you got the question right, look to the short summary of the word below the question box. This is a great way to check your guess and make sure you know the how the word is used in this sentence.

  3. If you were on the fence, or got the question wrong, read through the definition on the right. At the end of reading, before moving on to the next question, minimize the window and try to define the missed word using your own words.

  4. New or unfamiliar word? Click the “Listen” button to hear the word and then say it out loud yourself.

  5. Need to learn the word soon? Set the learning priority to "High" instead of "Auto."


Using Lists

There may be vocabulary lists you want to study from. These could come from a class you’re in, a test you’re preparing for, or a book you’re reading. Vocabulary.com has pre-made lists for the SAT, ACT, and GRE as well as for many books taught in high school and college.


It is also possible to create your own list. You can add to this as you come across words while reading, or if there is an article you find challenging you can use their text generated list feature.


All of this can be found under the lists section of the website, with videos showing how to create, edit, and find lists below under "Vocabulary.com's Videos."


When using the list section, generally work to have “100%” on your current list before moving on to the next. It could take days to weeks to reach 100% on a list depending on how much time you spend per day. So, make sure you are practicing in the “challenge” section of the website every day too.


In all cases, the words you practice (whether first seen in the list section or challenge section) will be incorporated into your daily “challenge” so that they are not forgotten!


How much you need to complete in a given day depends on how long until your test. Personally, I recommend starting with 10 questions from the list section and then moving to the challenge section until 15 minutes is up. If needed, this can be slowly geared up until you are completing 1 practice session with the list and 15 additional minutes in the challenge section.


NOTE: For test-takers, make sure not to push too hard – it is much, much better to practice every day than to practice more words less frequently. It’s the words you remember on test day that matter, not how many words you’ve looked at while studying.
 

Vocabulary.com’s Videos

All of their how-to videos can be found here and play from the same website. Videos you may find useful are:

  • Getting started as a student

  • Using the “learn” part of vocabulary.com (including “the challenge”)

  • Collections

  • Creating a list

  • Practicing a list

  • Editing a list


 

Additional Methods

Vince Kotchian, an excellent SAT and GRE tutor, has a great guide on how to learn vocabulary. He also has a wonderful app, especially if mnemonics work well for you!


GregMat, another great GRE tutor, has an amazing video quiz series in addition to videos with vocab words used in TV and movie scenes. He has also several GRE vocabulary lists in the “Resources” section of his website. Make sure you have a method for using active recall when using the vocabulary lists – no reading the list over and over!

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