Academic Success

Seven Actions that will Help You Quickly Expand Your Vocabulary

1. Find your True Motivation for Improving Your Vocabulary

Like with anything in life: if you want to positively change your habits and behavior, you need fuel in the form of motivation. Fortunately there are many, many direct (and some immediate) benefits to methodically strengthening your vocabulary that could help fuel your consistent efforts.

The Evidence-Backed Benefits

The research is conclusive in a myriad of disciplines: improving your vocabulary, will help you become a better student, a more successful professional and a more intelligent and confident person overall.

Specifically, improving your vocabulary will help you …

Sound smarter, project an image of intelligence and competence
Become smarter, directly increase your IQ
Write faster, more clearly, and more persuasively
Read faster and comprehend more information
Present and speak with confidence and poise
Communicate with minimum misunderstandings, and maximum effectiveness

By determining your primary outcome and connecting it to the small steps required to improve your vocabulary, you will be way more likely to stick with it and create lasting change in your life professionally and personally.

2. Separate Passive Vs Active Vocabulary

When it comes to improving your vocabulary, it’s important to understand the distinction between building and expanding your Active Vocabulary versus relying on your Passive Vocabulary to drive progress.

Passive Vocabulary: all the words you can define or understand in context

Active Vocabulary: all the words you actively use in written & verbal communication

Passive Vocabulary

Your passive vocabulary is most beneficial for reading comprehension and learning. The more words you have in your passive vocabulary, the better your reading comprehension. If you don’t understand what a word means and you can’t deduce its meaning from context, then there is a good chance you are not going to comprehend what you’re reading.

In the past when most text was printed, looking up words required getting on your computer or referencing your large dictionary. It was cumbersome and time consuming looking up words. I used to have a Quicktionary Pen(don’t judge) which I used to scan printed text to quickly look up words.

Fast forward to today, with most text being digital and dictionaries quickly accessible on our phone, it is much easier and faster to look up new, unknown words. A robust passive vocabulary is still important for reading comprehension, but it’s secondary to the strengthening of your active vocabulary.

Active Vocabulary

Your active vocabulary is most beneficial for your written and verbal communication. The more words you have in your active vocabulary, the better you will be able to clearly and succinctly articulate your thoughts and ideas. You’ll find that your writing is better and faster, which means you will appear (and be) more knowledgeable and competent and productive. You will also display more confidence speaking in front of people since you’ll the find the right words rapidly.


Building and expanding your active vocabulary creates the highest positive impact in your life.

3. Become an Active Reader and Listener

Research shows that the vast majority of words are learned from context. The best way to be exposed to words in context, and hence the best way to improve your vocabulary, is to read more. BUT, you already knew that, right?!?! You didn’t visit this page to be told that you need to read more.

Reading is important for improving your vocabulary, however, becoming an active reader will enable you to accelerate your vocabulary building and will help improve your reading comprehension.

Active Reading

Active Reading involves you actively seeking out two types of words: words that are new to you and words that are in your passive vocabulary. Identifying words that are new to you is easy. You’ll know when you don’t know a word. Obviously it is important to look up the word, so that you can fully comprehend the text you are reading.

Identifying words that are in your passive vocabulary requires a little more nuance. Be on the lookout for impressive words that precisely and succinctly complete a thought or idea. Develop an appreciation for good writing and word selection. Marvel at a writer’s use of a perfect word to clearly articulate an idea. Then, think how you could use that same word in your own active communication.

Active Listening

The same rule applies to listening. Whether you are listening to a lecture, a colleague speak, watching television or socializing with friends, it’s important to become an active listener. As with active reading you will want to listen for both, new words, and words that are trapped in your passive vocabulary.

As you practice active listening, you should find that you can improve your vocabulary by watching movies and television. Film and television writers tend to have expansive vocabularies, which often translates to their characters having good vocabularies.

Movies and television shows about business, law and politics tend to have characters with large and eloquent vocabularies. Shows like Billions, Suits, Goliath and House of Cards all have high-power characters with robust vocabularies. To amplify your learning, turn on captions so you have the added benefit of reading words as you hear them. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how many new and passive vocabulary words you will encounter and learn by actively watching television.

BONUS: Active Reading and Active Listening will Amplify and Accelerate Your Learning

By virtue of becoming an active reader and an active listener, you will find that your comprehension and learning improves. After all, reading comprehension is essentially vocabulary comprehension. The better you understand the words you read and hear, the easier it is to comprehend and learn new information. So when you take action and home-in on new words or words that you only passively understand, you will see a marked improvement in your comprehension and ultimately your absorption and assimilation of new information.

4. Use a Vocabulary Journal

One of the best ways to capture all the new words you encounter during active reading and listening is with a vocabulary journal. A vocabulary journal is exactly what it sounds like, a journal where you document two types of vocabulary words: words that are new to you and words that are in your passive vocabulary that you would like to move to your active vocabulary.

For the best results, integrate your vocabulary journaling with your active reading and listening. When you encounter a word that you want to add to your journal, it is important that you document the complete sentence and context as soon as possible. I find using the notes app in my iPhone and iPad is the easiest and quickest way of doing this, unless I am in a business meeting. In business meetings, I still handwrite all my notes. So if a colleague uses an impressive word, I will write down the sentence as part of my meeting notes.

At the end of each day, or every couple days, I will transcribe the sentence from my digital device or my business notebook into my vocabulary journal. This keeps your vocabulary journal nice and clean with words you want to learn and the context in which you learned them.

Although you may be tempted to have a digital journal for ease of use, we highly recommend a written journal – typing doesn’t have nearly as much effect as handwriting. It has to do with the physical act of creating the letters on the page, which triggers the change in your brain. And this isn’t airy-fairy theory: over the last 3 decades, one study after another has proven that the brain physically changes its pathways and connections, depending on our activities. The physical act of writing does a better job of remapping your brain for easier recall of words, which is a critical step in the process of moving a word from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary.

5. Apply the Vocabulary Rule of 10 x 3

During my deep dive into the world of vocabulary building, I dug into academic papers, pored over research studies, and watched lectures by neuroscientists. And from this effort, I discovered an interesting rule:

“You have to encounter a word 10-times + use that word 3-times in order to move it from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary.”

The first part of the rule is gaining 10 exposures to a word. Unfortunately, garnering 10 exposures to a word can take years or decades. BUT, by virtue of becoming an active reader and listener and using your vocabulary journal, you can shorten this time period, or even better you can reduce the number of exposures needed to master a new word.

The reason active reading, listening and journaling is able to hack the 10 exposures rule is because these activities place words in your conscious mind. This psychological effect is one you’ve likely encountered before. Say that you notice the new Tesla Roadster in deep blue metallic. You mention it to a couple of your friends at work. Then, magically, this unicorn of a car starts showing up everywhere – parking lots, highways, commuter lanes and the Starbucks drive thru.

You’ll find that vocabulary works the same way. Once you become consciously aware of a word, you’ll start reading and hearing the word used regularly. It’s a fascinating phenomenon and one you can exploit with active listening, reading and journaling.

BUT, What about the other part of the equation: using a word three times. We suggest you use the word as quickly as possible. Use it in an email to a colleague at work, sneak it into a comment on Facebook and unleash it on Siri or Alexa to see how they react. Sometimes, I’ll write a word on a sticky and post it to my computer as a reminder to use it. The bottom line: The sooner you deploy the word in writing and conversation, the quicker the word will become part of your active, easily accessible memory. Incidentally, we explore a powerful technique for using new words in Action Step Six: Practice Verbal Mirroring.

6. Practice Verbal Mirroring

If you have read any Tony Robbins then you know that he is a big proponent of Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP). One of the main techniques of NLP is mirroring– this is when you mirror the body movements and language of the person you are interacting with. This approach subconsciously develops rapport with that person. In addition to rapidly developing rapport, it’s an excellent way to rapidly build your vocabulary.

For instance, if you are in a business meeting and a client or the CEO use an impressive vocabulary word, be sure to respond using the same word. For example, let’s say your CEO makes a statement: “I believe this project will require us to coalesce resources from several of our International divisions” and you agree, and you liked her use of the word coalesce, you could reply, “Yes, I concur– we will likely need to coalesce resources from several of our international divisions.”

Here’s another example: let’s pretend your colleague noted in a meeting, “I think we could forge a nice partnership with their company, but we’ll need to perform due diligence to vet them first.” You could reply, “I agree wholeheartedly, they seem to be a great company to forge a partnership with. I also agree it will be important to perform due diligence and vet them before making any final determinations.”

If you are in school, mirroring works brilliantly with professors when commenting in class or answering written questions on a test. Professors love it when you use their words to demonstrate understanding and knowledge of subject matter. For example, when a professor says to you, “Are you sure you’ve used the right coagulant in your solution, or do you need to run another test to ascertain the result?” then you might reply, “I’m fairly certain I did, but I am going to run another test to ascertain whether or not I used the right coagulant.”

Verbal mirroring is particularly effective in helping you move words from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary. So during conversations listen attentively for words that are in your passive vocabulary as you will have an immediate opportunity to actively use the word in your own communication. The same applies with email when you are corresponding back and forth with someone. And with email you have the added benefit of taking more time to craft your response mirroring the word in your typed correspondence.

7. Learn How to Master Words

The final step is to learn how to master new words. We define word-mastery as the ability to confidently us a word in your active communication.

Getting Started

The starting point is your vocabulary journal. If you have been doing a good job of listening for and seeking out new vocabulary words, then each week you should have a list of new words. When you first begin this process, you will likely hear or see a lot of new words. Initially, it could be as many as 10 per day. But once you are doing this for some time, your vocabulary will grow and you will be familiar with many more words, so it will actually be more difficult for you to identify new words.
You should set aside some time each week to sit down and review the new words that you have documented in your vocabulary journal. Try to schedule a set day and time each week to do this.

Make words personally meaningful

The next step is to make new words personally meaningful to you. There are two ways to do this. First, you will want to define each word in your own words. The reason you want to do this is because the word doesn’t really become yours until you can define it in your own words, and it will make it much easier to remember the definition if it’s in your own words. Once you can define a word using your own definition, then you truly understand the word’s meaning.

The second thing you need to do, in order to personalize the word, is to create a personalized example. The best way of creating a personalized example is to think about recent conversations you have had or envision conversations in the future. It could be a conversation with your spouse or a friend, it could be a discussion with a colleague or a client at work. Try to think of any conversation or discussion you have had where you could have used this word and then create a sentence with the word. Or better yet, try to envision a future conversation or discussion that you will have where you could use this word.

Difficult to Master Words

You will likely have some words that are in your journal that you have not used yet. Determine why, Is it because you simply haven’t had the right opportunity, or is it because you’re not comfortable using the word? It’s very important that you identify the reason you have not used a new word.
If the right scenario hasn’t occurred, that’s okay; eventually it will and you will use the word and it will become part of your active vocabulary

If you are not quite comfortable with the word, it is most likely because you are not confident that you are using the word in the correct context. So I suggest you go online and visit one of your favorite newspapers (e.g. New York Times, Wall Street Journal). Each of the online versions of these papers has a search box that will enable you to search recent articles. If you enter a word which you are not completely comfortable using, you will see a listing of articles that include that word. Use the search feature in your browser and it will take you to that word in the article. This will provide you with contemporary contextual examples. Review these examples to gain a better understanding of how this word is used. Once you gain a better understanding of how this word is correctly used, you will be much more confident using the word in your own communication

Written by Greg Ragland, President, CEO of CommEdge LLC producers of Vocabulary Zone and the corresponding Vocabulary Certifications: College Preparedness, Ph.D. Vocabulary and Executive Level Vocabulary

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