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Enlarging your lexicon

A "lexicon" is a dictionary; your lexicon is the set of words that are meaningful to you. If a word is in your lexicon, you can recognize it immediately, and dull as the assignment may be, I urge you to go through the vocabulary list at the back of this workbook and highlight every word that you do not know. Then, put a check-mark beside each of those words as you learn them. The definitions given in the vocabulary list are much too brief to be used for learning the meaning of the words, but they should be enough to remind you of the meaning once you know it. I recommend that you select ten or a dozen words that you do not know and that seem like ones you would find useful. Put each word on a small slip of paper, look up the word in a college dictionary, and put some cue to its meaning on the back of the slip. Then carry these slips with you to study when you would otherwise be doing nothing mental. Once you have learned a word, put the slip in a separate pile for later review and replace it with a new word to be learned. When you are deliberately learning new words, do NOT simply try to MEMORIZE their verbal definitions. Recall that the real meaning of words is non-verbal and a definition is useful only if it is, in turn, meaningful to you. For example, if I define ethereal as the feeling one has when regaining consciousness after being knocked out, you could memorize the words but still not know what ethereal means if you have never been knocked out. The point is that you need to associate a word with its non-verbal meaning, not with its definition. Learning new words requires MENTAL IMAGERY. . .visual, auditory, tactual, gustatory ideas. First, use the verbal definition to bring that idea to mind; then try to find some feature of the word that you can readily associate with that idea. Then make up a sentence using the new word. This added bit of cognitive effort will probably be enough to effect learning then and there. However, do not put that slip in your "learned" pile until you have once used the word. It is when you have spoken or written the word in the normal course of your everyday life that the word is a part of your lexicon. I am going to give a number of illustrations of this method in order to help you get the hang of it. But the method works best when you create the images yourself. This is simply because ideas that occur to you once are more likely to occur to you again. So please read these examples for their method, not their content.

ABERRANT=not normal. Imagine a nest of ants running around, one of which is shaped like a tiny bear. "A bear ant" represents the non-verbal idea of something that is "not normal." A common football score of 21-20 would be aberrant in baseball. ABUSE=improper use. Say to yourself, "AB-use is BAD-use," while thinking of a good example such as a knife with a bent tip because it was used (improperly) to pry open a can. Making a dog-ear of the corner of a page is one way to abuse a good book.

ACCELERATION=increase rate. Think of the accelerator in your car and imagine feeling the car take off when you step on the gas. I used to burn rubber to feel the fast acceleration. ACUITY=see clearly. Perhaps there's a "dirty old man" cleaning his glasses so that he can see "a cutie" more clearly. Newborns have very poor visual acuity. ADAGE=saying. For "age," think "old," and then try to recall an "old ad" that has a line (saying) you remember. . .such as, "Be all that you can be, in the Army." You can probably find a fitting adage for almost any occasion.

ADAPT=fit conditions. Something that is "apt" is "suitable." Think of an ad that was changed to make it an "apt ad," such as, "If you smoke, please try this brand." You have to be able to adapt to each professor's style.

ADHERE=stick to. Try to think of something that makes you want to stick an "ad here." Possibly a picture of a fat person that you stick to the refrigerator door to remind you to eat carefully. Wise shoppers adhere to their budgets. ADMONISH=scold gently. Sometimes I can't make a connection, but just forming an image and studying the word is often sufficient. For example, imagine a parent explaining to a child why something the child did was wrong, and try out possible cues such as "bad-monish," "monastery," "punish." Even unsuccessful cognitive effort helps. It is often better to admonish a child rather than to punish. ADVENTITIOUS=accidental. This word sounds like, "adventurous," and leads to imagining an episode of venturing into a new part of town and accidentally running into someone you know. You can enjoy a prize even if winning is adventitious. After just reading the illustrations, you may have no trouble in reading this paragraph: Learning new words is usually adventitious. Sometimes you hear an aberrant word in an adage, such as one that admonishes you about abusing your eyes lest your acuity is decreased. You do not have to adhere strictly to my method of learning but should adapt it to your own style. You will soon see an acceleration in your learning words. Once you make a commitment to learn these words, you may find it helpful to put a few of your word-slips in places where you might have a chance to study them: the bathroom, the dining table, the car seat, etc. In this way, you can build your super-highway lexicon by using time that you would otherwise waste. Count up how many words you would learn if you added one every time you brush your teeth!

1. . 2 . .3 . .4 . . Associations

To say that you know the meaning of a word is to say that you have learned an association between the word and the non-verbal idea that it represents. However, there are two contexts in which you may encounter the word, namely when you hear it spoken or when you see it written. For most words in your lexicon, if you know the word in one of these contexts, you also know it in the other. However, for words with which you are not very familiar, you may do better when reading than when listening. This is because you can stop reading while you search your memory for the meaning of a word, whereas when listening, the lecture or conversation usually continues without regard to your awareness of the meaning of the words.

Hence, your reading lexicon is probably somewhat larger than than your listening lexicon. Symbolically,

Association 1. Written word --> Nonverbal idea (meaning) Association 2. Spoken word --> Nonverbal idea (meaning)

Association 1 may be stronger than Association 2. Furthermore, these associations are not symmetrical. That is to say, the following two associations are very probably weaker than the first two:

Association 3. Nonverbal idea --> Written word Association 4. Nonverbal idea --> Spoken word

Association 3 is required when you are writing, and again, you often can pause long enough to try to think of the word the represents the idea you have in mind. Association 4 is required when you are talking and most people don't like to stumble around while searching for just the right word.

The asymmetry in associations is familiar. For example, we all know the frustration of knowing a person's name but not being able to think of it at the moment. Thus, the association name-->person is stronger than the reverse association, person-->name. Similarly, most high school graduates recognize the names Madison, Polk, Hoover, and Wilson as presidents of the United States, but few of them recall those names if asked to name presidents. In general, ÷it is usually˛ ÷more difficult to generate the word than to recognize it˛.

The reason that I said generating the word is "usually" more difficult is because the strength of an association depends on how frequently it has been practiced. There is nothing inherently more difficult about associations 3 and 4 compared with 1 and 2; we simply don't normally use as many words when we are speaking as we see when we are reading. In one study, it was found that a vocabulary of only 200 words would enable a person to understand over 95 that was said in a college student union building!

In order to increase your functional lexicon, you must practice all four kinds of associations. Being able to think of a word during normal conversation is the best sign that the word is truly in your lexicon. The next few pages provide some helpful verbal exercises.

Vocabulary Matching

Indicate the definition below that fits the capitalized words:

___ 1. One characteristic ASCRIBED to professors is absentmindedness.

___ 2. The soldier pledged ALLEGIANCE to the country.

___ 3. The scientist ASSIMILATED the idea into her theory.

___ 4. The CONCEPT of learning is described in "Ways and Whys."

___ 5. The COHENSION of the group was remarkable in that situation.

___ 6. The roads CONVERGED at the race track.

___ 7. Good multiple-choice exams require difficult DISCRIMINATIONS.

___ 8. It is difficult to DETER a determined child.

___ 9. Imagery FACILITATES learning the meaning of words.

___ 10. The students were asked to GENERATE questions in class.

___ 11. Teachers sometimes give away answers INADVERTENTLY.

___ 12. The product was INFERIOR to what we usually receive.

___ 13. The LITERAL meaning of the statement caused confusion.

___ 14. The pilots try to MINIMIZE flying into bumpy air.

___ 15. The engineers took PRECISE measurements.

___ 16. Coal is one our country's natural RESOURCES.

___ 17. Learning strategies has a SIGNIFICANT effect on memory.

___ 18. The student's STATUS in class was uncertain.

___ 19. There may only be a SUBTLE difference between our opinions.

___ 20. The doctor SYSTEMATICALLY tested the patient.


a. the act of perceiving differences k. an idea or general notion
b. to produce l. position in rank
c. hardly noticeable m. approach a common point
d. to reduce n. methodically
e. to make a part of o. loyalty
f. not deliberate p. make easier
g. asset q. accurate
h. lower in quality r. union, held firmly together
i. considered as belonging to s. in a basic or strict sense
j. prevent/restrain from proceeding t. full of meaning

Make up several sentences using these same words. If possible, make up sentences that contain two or more of the words (e.g. "A soldier's allegiance is sometimes more ascribed than real.")

next up previous contents
Next: On Mnemonics Up: Vocabulary Previous: Vocabulary
Derek Hamilton