In a world where sounding articulate is one of the strongest predictors of one’s intelligence, products and pundits offering vocabulary-building solutions proliferate faster than you can say “verbose.” Experts proudly tout all sorts of new and traditional lexicon augmentation techniques, while often ignoring the question of how efficiently these techniques actually work. Below is my attempt to rate the effectiveness of the top 10 methods best vocab builder techniques used by today’s vocab enthusiasts.
(NOTE: The winner is at the end of the list.)
An Analysis of the Top Ten Personalized Learning Methods to Learn Vocab and Their Effectiveness
1. Reading Frequently and Looking Up New Words in a Dictionary
Reading high-quality writing has always been a great way both to expose yourself to new words and to reinforce your existing vocabulary and word usage techniques. But if you are trying to improve your vocabulary in a short amount of time (say, for a test or a big new job), it’s hard to suddenly double your vocabulary by hitting the books. At best, you will come across only a few new words per dozen pages, and you will have to do a lot of manual work to seek the definitions and bookmark them for later reinforcement. It’s not the most efficient method in the world, although it can be helpful when combined with some of the other techniques below.
Efficiency score: 6/10
2. Playing Specific Vocab-Building Games
The advent of web and mobile applications has made it easier than ever for developers to create fun ways for you to practice your vocabulary. While some of these games are more effective than others from a learning sciences standpoint, they are all at least somewhat helpful in that they engage you in vocab-building activities that may have otherwise bored you sooner. The main issue with most games is that they are rarely integrated with your other learning experiences in a way that allows you to most conveniently track your progress over a long period of time.
Efficiency score (range): 3 – 8/10
3. Vocabulary Lessons and Workbooks
Many of us can remember those painful weeks in school when our English teachers broke out the Vocabulary workbooks for tedious Definition-matching, Sentence Completion, and Analogy exercises. While these certainly weren’t the most fun activities in the world, I have to say, they really worked for me! The extensive repetition – both in the lessons themselves and while studying for my end-of-semester Vocabulary exams – seems to be responsible for a lot of the bigger words I use to this day. The only problem is that once the semester was over, there was no way to guarantee that those words would still appear in my ongoing study mix for future semesters or in the real world.
Efficiency score: 8/10
4. Using New Words in Your Conversation and Writing
One of the best ways to solidify words you’ve recently learned is to use them in real-world conversation. (This is especially true for foreign languages – you can’t fully own a word until you speak it in the real world.) The problem is that you’re not guaranteed to have a real-world opportunity to use every word you have recently learned until it may be too late. And you also need to have learned the word already elsewhere! Using words in conversation therefore cannot stand alone as your only method of vocab augmentation.
Efficiency score: 6/10
5. Listening to Audio Tapes
Countless audio products claim to improve your vocabulary through creative patterns of repetition and usage in sentences or full-on stories. At first glance, these seem to be an amazing way to fill otherwise unproductive time when driving or at the gym. But the problem with any audio-only solution is that it is passive. Without any user interaction, the program cannot be adaptive, and you may end up spending excessive time repeating words you already know perfectly while not spending enough attention on the words you really need to practice. Worse, you can only learn the words as quickly as the voice on the tape can speak, which is often much slower than you can read and/or answer questions. Audio tapes may be better than nothing during your down time, but they are not a panacea for quickly building a vocabulary.
Efficiency score: 4/10
6. Subscribing to Word-of-the-Day Gimmicks
Everyone has seen a website or page-a-day calendar purporting to build your vocabulary by featuring a new word each day. The problem is that there are only 365 days in a year, and it may take thousands of new words to significantly improve your vocabulary. Worse, once you’ve seen a word and thrown away the page, you’re unlikely to remember it forever unless you are diligent about studying past words and using constantly them in sentences. You need at least some sort of repetition to effectively learn something.
Efficiency score: 2/10
7. Creating Mnemonic Devices
Mnemonic devices seem to be the darling of the old-school vocab-building community. The problem is that every time you create a mnemonic to help you remember a particular word, you now have two things to remember: the mnemonic and the word! Consider one example I just saw on a vocab-building site, for the word EGREGIOUS (extremely bad). They encourage learners to think “EGG REACH US”, then imagine we’ve made a mistake so bad that they are throwing eggs at us and a rotten EGG REACHes US. Huh? That’s a pretty big leap from meaning to visualization. Seems like it would be easier to just remember the word/definition pair if it had been presented in the right way with the right pattern of repetition.
Efficiency score: 3/10
8. Making Flashcards
Flashcards may be admittedly one of the most “boring” ways to study. But there’s a reason that flashcards have been a preferred study method for hundreds of years: they friggin’ work! While they won’t necessarily instill focus and motivation in an otherwise helpless student, vocab flashcards will help you engage active recall activities in your brain, assess your own knowledge using metacognition, and control your own pattern of study using confidence-based repetition. The only problem is that making hundreds of paper flashcards can be time-consuming and cumbersome, while requiring a lot of extra mental effort to make sure you are reviewing the flashcards in the best pattern for your brain. Traditional flashcards are almost an amazing learning tool.
Efficiency score: 8/10
9. Using Smart Mobile Flashcards
Thanks to new web & mobile technologies, companies like Brainscape the best flashcards app have been able to take the vocab-building benefits of traditional flashcards to a whole new level. Not only do Brainscape’s web/mobile flashcard packages present vocab words in a wide variety of ways (including definitions, sentences, and roots), but they automate the process of confidence-based repetition based on the user’s own feedback and a scientifically optimized machine-learning algorithm. Smart online flashcards are the most effective way for you to study for SAT, GRE, or just casual vocabulary no matter where you are.
Check out Brainscape’s GRE Vocab flashcards today!
Efficiency score: 10/10
Full disclosure: I’m the founder of Brainscape 🙂 But this is all based on years of research. You can read our full research white paper here. Happy learning!
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