Step 2 to Building Your Vocabulary: Looking It Up

This is the step we all know and often resist.  And sometimes resistance is a reasonable response.  If you look at the context, the surrounding words, sometimes you can get a sense of what the word means.  And even if you can’t, that context will help you choose the correct definition when you do look it up.

So the first thing to do is look at the setting of the unknown word – are there are clues to its meaning?  Any synonyms or antonyms (words that seem to have a similar or opposite meaning)?  Any examples that give you a sense of the new meaning? What about whether the word seems to be positive or negative?  All of these things can provide helpful clues.

The next thing to do is look at the word itself and see if there are any parts of it you already know.  If you know enough of the parts, you can make a reasonable guess and move on.  For example, say you come across the word “bio-ethics” and have never seen it before.  But you know “bio-” has to do with life and “ethics” has to do with moral principles.  So bio-ethics must be ethical principles about life.  Good enough to keep you moving forward in the text.

If the context and parts don’t give you enough to move forward and the word seems important, the next step is to look it up, either online or in a physical dictionary.  If there is only one meaning, yay.  If there are multiple meanings, go back to the context of the word and decide on the one that makes the most sense.

Last of all, write it down!  Write down the new word and the most likely meaning in a dedicated space – your own personal dictionary.  And most important, also write down the sentence in which it appeared.  This will be a key tool in the final steps – learning the word well enough to actually use it.



OBSTREPEROUS – Word of the Week, August 3, 2016

Definition (adj):  Stubborn, defiant, difficult to deal with

Usage Example:  Because my brother is obstreperous, he often gets into trouble in school.


  • ob = against
  • strepere = make a noise
  • -ous = suffix meaning full of, having to do with
  • “to make a noise against, or in resistance to”


Step 1 to Building Your Vocabulary: Which New Words to Learn?

If you want to build your vocabulary, how do you decide which words to spend the time and effort on to really learn?  While there are a hundreds of lists out there and everybody’s list has different words, my advice is to create your own list.  Start noticing the words you keep seeing but don’t yet know well enough to use and write them down.

These are the words that will have the biggest pay-off if you learn them.  You have already seen them in action so, even though you may not think so, you already have some idea of how they are used and what kinds of words they are.  You will be more interested in finding out what they mean and how to use them because they are already in your world.

For now, just start making a list.  If you aren’t sure how to spell a word, write down your best guess, put a question mark by it, and fix it when you come across it in print.  If you are willing to do a little extra work, write down how the word was used (was it describing something?  If so, what?  Was it an action?  By whom?) But just listing the word is enough for now.  The act of writing it down will invite it into your brain.  In step 2 (coming in a few days) you will start to claim it as your own.