How to Ace Your Vocabulary Tests

Four Methods:Studying by Reading, Writing, and DrawingStudying by Speaking and ListeningStudying by DoingExpanding Your Vocabulary

Doing well on vocabulary tests can require a lot of memorization. It’s hard, however, to just sit down and memorize a list of words and their definitions. It’s also likely that those words will fade unless you really learn the words, tying them to pictures, sounds, gestures, or other stimuli. To learn a new word, you have to repeat it over and over – probably at least 10-20 times in order to really get it into your brain.

Method 1
Studying by Reading, Writing, and Drawing

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    Make a list of the words you don’t know. If you know the words you’re going to be tested on, that’s great, and you can easily make the list. If you’re studying for the ACT, SAT, or GRE, that makes it a little more complicated. However, there are many lists of words commonly used on these exams, so with a little online research, you can easily find a good number of words to start working on.[1]
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    Look up the words and write down definitions. Think about synonyms that you already know for the new words. As you write down the definition, focus strongly on that word. If you can, don’t write down all the definitions at one time – it’s too much and the words can all run together. Do a few definitions at a time as you let the words sink in.
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    Make flash cards for each word. That way you can easily discard the ones you learn and focus on the more difficult ones. The act of making flash cards can also be useful in and of itself – you have to write the words and their definitions down. It’s also very helpful for mixing up the order and getting someone else to quiz you.[2]
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    Break it down. Group the words in groups of 5. You could group them alphabetically, by type (noun, verb, adjective, etc.), kind (legal word, ancient/old word, foreign word), or with other words that have similar meaning. With them broken down, it becomes easier to study them, and feels less overwhelming.
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    Draw pictures. Make images of the words you’re trying to remember. Try drawing the words incorporated into a larger drawing that defines the word. Or, doodle with the letters in the word to come up with a way to help you remember the definition. Some examples would be:
    • Draw someone throwing up the word “regurgitate”
    • Draw the word “defenestration” being thrown out a window.
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    Make up mnemonics. Mnemonics are memory devices that help you remember something. That's it. They're usually formed by association.[3]
    • For example, if you wanted to learn the word "gregarious" (which means outgoing, vivacious, sociable), you might imagine a giraffe wearing a party hat. The giraffe's name is Greg Arious. Congratulations: now you have a mnemonic!
    • Another example might be the word "melange" (which means a mixture). Imagine putting together a melon and an orange - voila! You have a mixed-up mnemonic.
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    Take practice tests. For any of the major tests – ACT, SAT, GRE – there are practice tests for the vocabulary section. Take advantage of this, and test yourself. If you don’t own a test prep workbook that includes practice tests, check one out from the library. Most public libraries have many test preparation books, and it won’t matter if it’s for the most recent test – vocabulary words don’t change much![4]

Method 2
Studying by Speaking and Listening

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    Use the words in songs or quotes. Think of a word that means the same as the word you’re trying to learn. Then think of a song or quote that includes the word you already know, and switch the words. Sing or say these to yourself over and over again until you get them into your head. An example might be:[5]
    • “I’ve obtained you, babe” rather than “I’ve got you, babe”
    • “What’s the big notion?” rather than “What’s the big idea?”
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    Look for video footage. Search for your word in the search engine function of online video sites. It can be really helpful to hear the word spoken, see the footage, and be able to link the word and the video. If you play the video enough times, you will start to hear the word in your head in the voice of the person on the video. This can help you differentiate it from all the other words you’re studying.[6]
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    Make a podcast. Record yourself saying the words, then saying them in a sentence, or as part of a song or quote. Listen to your recording repeatedly. For many of us, listening to something over and over works even better than using flash cards.
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    Get a friend to quiz you. Using the list of vocabulary words you need to know, have a friend ask you what one means and then use it in a sentence. It’s a good way to force yourself to prove to someone else that you know the words, and saying it out loud can help in the memorization process.

Method 3
Studying by Doing

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    Take your words and exercise. While you’re running, on an elliptical machine, or doing whatever exercise you do, work on a group of five words. Say them over and over to yourself and think about them as you work through the rhythm of your workout. Do the first one from your flashcard, and then repeat the word and definition without it 10-20 more times.[7]
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    Make up gestures. If you’re really have a tough time remembering some of the words, you could make up different gestures to go with each word. The gesture you choose might have something to do with the meaning, but it could also be tied to the rhythm of the word, the number of syllables, or how it sounds. Find the gesture that most accurately mimics the word for you. Keep doing it over and over with your word.
    • Try kicks or jumps for the syllable with the most emphasis.
    • Try hand gestures or head motions for the syllables that aren't emphasized.
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    Study in a different position. Sometimes you need to get out of your comfort zone and do something different to help yourself remember the words. If you normally work at a desk, choose a different place in your study area to sit cross-legged on the floor. In that position, think about one word that you want to remember. Focus on that word and its definition. Repeat 10-20 times. For the next word, find a different position – standing by the window, sitting against the wall, leaning against the door – the position doesn’t matter. What matters is that then hopefully you will associate that word with being in that place and that position and remember the word.

Method 4
Expanding Your Vocabulary

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    Read widely. This means reading books and articles on a variety of topics. By reading a lot and about different topics, themes, and ideas, you’re going to start learning a whole new set of vocabulary words. Your new words will also start to pop up in other places, including vocabulary tests![8]
    • Read works written more than 50 years ago. These will include older words less in use now. Standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE love testing students on archaic vocabulary.
    • Check out some academic works in fields that interest you. Each academic field tends to have some specialized vocabulary.
    • Find books written in other countries that share your language. For example, British and American English have slightly different vocabularies and usage – you can learn great new words by reading books by Americans if you’re British, or vice versa.
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    Learn from context. When we see a new word for the first time, the first impulse most of us have is to try and learn what it means from the context. Sometimes you can get an almost complete sense of the word’s meaning just from the context. At other times, however, it’s obvious that it’s a specialized word, and you’ll need to look it up. But keep honing those context skills – they will stand you in good stead during a vocabulary test![9]
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    Keep track of new words. When you learn a new word, write it down, along with a definition. Keep it on your phone, on your computer, in a notebook – wherever is going to be the most convenient for you to make a note of the new word.
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    Learn another language. Even though this might sound counterintuitive, learning or knowing another language can be very helpful when it comes to vocabulary. Since many English words have roots in other languages, if you know another language sometimes it can help you piece together a meaning. For example, many words have Greek or Latin roots. Learning either of these languages (or just learning the important roots) can help immensely in both spelling and understanding words with which you aren’t familiar.[10]

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Categories: English Vocabulary | Tests and Exams