Everyone has three vocabularies in every language he or she speaks a reading vocabulary, a listening vocabulary, and a speaking vocabulary. You’ve read words you have never heard, and heard words you’ve never read. Your speaking vocabulary may ignore many words you have either read or heard but do not use. As you explore the vocabulary in this article, think about bringing these three large sets of words together into a rich and useful database that will serve you well.
Discovering words you don’t know may send your anxiety level soaring, and nobody does their best work when they’re anxious. With practice, though, you can learn to take unknown words in stride. Here’s how to start.
- Start small. Don’t tackle the whole sentence at once. There are several techniques for breaking sentences into smaller units. One way you can do this is to find a verb (an action word that tells you what’s happening) and gradually incorporate the words around it into an increasingly longer phrase as you decipher its meaning. The verb provides an anchor for the meaning because it tells you what is being done.
You can also use trial and error to find islands of meaning in a sentence. Find a word or a phrase you understand and start adding a word or two on either side. As you discover several such islands and gradually enlarge each one, you will eventually see how they fit together; and then you will understand the dynamics of the whole sentence.
- If the vocabulary in a sentence is a problem, look at the words around it. Usually you can figure out what function a word is serving in the sentence. Ask yourself if it’s an action word. If so, it’s a verb. Is it describing something? Then it’s an adjective or adverb. Is it the subject—the person, place or thing performing the action in the sentence? It’s a noun or pronoun.
Use the surrounding context to help you guess the meaning or at least the part of speech of an unfamiliar word.
- As you are reading a sentence with blanks or with words you don’t know, it can ease your anxiety to substitute words or sounds of your choosing in place of the unknown words. The words something and whatever work well in many situations. You may find you prefer nonsense words instead. As the meaning of the sentence gradually becomes clear, you can start substituting words that might work in the sentence.
- Obtaining a better vocabulary doesn’t have to be hard work. It mostly takes curiosity. Remember those unfamiliar words you encounter in conversations or while reading. Take them apart. Welcome them to your world. Share them with your coworkers, friends, or family. You’ll be greatly rewarded for your efforts— because long after you have finished this article and taken the TOEFL iBT, you’ll still possess a wealthy vocabulary of English words!