College entrance exams require a sound grasp of advanced vocabulary so you can score higher.
And when you use advanced vocabulary in your writing in both high school and college, your grades are often much better.
Specific subjects and fields have their own sets of technical jargon you will need to know in order to apply what you’ve learned effectively.
And as you progress through your schooling, and into the workplace, you will find the need to express complex, specific ideas and thoughts, with nuance and precision.
Whether you are writing a paper which will make the difference between a pass or fail grade, sending an email to a potential client you need to impress, or conducting a presentation, advanced vocabulary is essential.
And while the Synonyms feature on Microsoft Word comes in handy every once in a while when you need to spice up your writing, you communicate best when the exact words you need come to your mind naturally.
One last benefit for advanced vocabulary: hundreds of studies over the past 100 years connects vocabulary size to higher socioeconomic status and greater educational achievement.
The bottom line – people with stronger and more advanced vocabularies tend to have jobs with higher paychecks as well.
But how do you go about developing an impressive stock of words you can wield at will?
Here are 3 advanced vocabulary learning strategies to help you expand your ability to express yourself.
3 Advanced Vocabulary Learning Strategies
1. Learn Advanced Vocabulary by Reading
Imagine if I asked you to flip to the glossary at the back of a textbook and learn all the definitions there one by one.
Sounds pretty dull, right?
Although a glossary is helpful to quickly check the meaning of a technical word you came across in your reading, memorizing a long list of words alphabetically does not lead to long-term retention.
This is simply not how the brain learns best.
When your brain encounters new information, it creates connections between your brain cells.
Whenever these neural pathways activate, because you came across the information again, applied it, recalled it, reviewed it, etc., your memory of that information grows more permanent.
Practice and rehearsal of new vocabulary, along with teaching it to someone else, creates more permanent memory.
On the other hand, if you memorize a long list of words and sit for a quiz, even scoring full points for all the questions, you are most likely not going to be able to remember all those words a few weeks later.
This is because when you no longer engage with a specific piece of information, your brain deems it unimportant, and your brain “literally” prunes the neural connection away.
If you’ve ever tried to cram or memorize right before an exam or big presentation, and suddenly found yourself unable to remember what you learned, this is why.
For long-term memory to develop, your brain needs to create a meaningful connection with what it’s learning.
A long list of keywords out of the glossary or an SAT guidebook isn’t personally relevant to you, even though you are reading the words and their definitions.
On the other hand, imagine you’re reading a text where you come across a technical term you don’t know.
When you find out what the word means, and reread that passage again, the text gets new meaning within the context of what you’re reading.
Every time that word comes up in the text, you will know what it means not only through its definition but also how it is applied and imparts meaning within your reading of the text.
“And when you practice spaced-repetition,” says Pat Wyman, university instructor and CEO of HowtoLearn.com, “which means you rehearse your knowledge of the new words after 1 day, a week, and a month, you are cementing the words into your long-term memory.”
The same applies for other reading material – novels, journal articles, newspapers etc. – which all expose you to vocabulary within a context that gives it greater meaning.
Developing a regular reading habit – and not just by reading your textbooks, but a wide variety of material in genres and categories you enjoy – naturally builds up your vocabulary.
Your brain creates associations and processes the relevancy of words that you frequently come across, and this translates into your long-term memory of not just the word, but also its usage.
For example, imagine you are trying to describe someone walking.
A thesaurus might suggest the synonyms “sauntering” or “pacing” to you.
But these words mean distinctly different things, and knowing the nuances of such terms can help you use the right word in the right context.
Note that, when selecting your reading material, it’s important to do so thoughtfully.
Begin with something at your reading level, ideally something you enjoy reading and genuinely wish to learn more about.
Gradually, choose reading material of slightly more advanced levels, and progress up the difficulty scale as you establish your comfort level with the reading material.
It’s important not to jump into very technical and difficult texts right away – you will end up demotivating yourself, and rather than a natural process, it may feel like a chore instead.
2. Learn Advanced Vocabulary Using Your Mind Palace
Thousands of years ago, poems, speeches, stories and records used to be stored in the oldest memory disk known to man – the brain.
Scholars, politicians, philosophers and poets in ancient Greece and Rome would store vast amounts of information – including epics like The Odyssey, which is about 3 hours worth of reading – in their heads.
And to this day, the memory champions you’ll see on TV rattling off a random list of words and numbers with perfect accuracy use the same techniques they did.
The good news is, you can use their strategy to learn advanced vocabulary too.
The mind palace or memory palace essentially builds on the fact that the brain processes images much faster than it does words.
In fact, research suggests the brain’s visual processing capacity is 60,000 times faster than processing words!
Images are easier and quicker to recall, and they can elicit emotional and cognitive responses and engagement compared to decoding strings of letters.
If I asked you to think of the Statue of Liberty, what happens faster – the image you get in your head, or those three words spelled out, letter by letter?
This is why memory champions fine-tune something visual learners do naturally – they convert what they need to remember into images, through mnemonic association.
And when it comes to storing and retrieving a considerable amount of information, like a string of words and numbers, they place these images within their mind palace in a certain sequence.
A mind palace is a place you are familiar with, that you can visualize clearly.
It could be your home, your office building, the route you take to work, etc.
As you mentally move through your mind palace, you put down the images and words you’ve created of the things you need to remember, one by one, at specific locations.
Moreover, the more animated and humorous the images you create, the more memorable they will be.
Let’s say you are given the following words to recall for a quiz – “avarice”, “insipid”, and “extricate”.
“Avarice” – which refers to an intense greed or desire for material possessions or wealth – could become an image of a person called Ava hoarding a ton of rice at your front door.
“Insipid” – which refers to something bland or flavorless – could translate into someone in your hall, “in” the living room door, while they “sip” some tea, making a face because it’s too weak.
“Extricate” – meaning to free or release someone or something – might remind you of a similar word, “extract”.
Breaking it up into syllables could separate the sounds “tri” and “cate” which may remind you of “tree” and “Kate.”
So why not imagine Kate (Winslet or Middleton or your neighbor Kate) trying to extract herself from a tree right outside the window in your front hall?
The more memorable and relevant the images are to you, the more likely you will be to remember them.
Then, when you have to recall a specific word, you mentally put yourself in your mind palace – remember this is a lot faster than trying to recall letter by letter a word you memorized.
Locate the image associated with the word you need, and with enough practice, any new word you come across becomes a permanent resident in your mind palace, waiting there whenever you need it!
3. Learn Advanced Vocabulary with the Right Software
If you’re still doubting that learning advanced vocabulary can be effortless and, in fact, fun, why not try software or apps focused on enriching your word bank?
Gamified platforms like Vocabulary Quest create a seamless, immersive experience designed specifically to capitalize off how you learn best.
Why are games infinitely easier to lose yourself in, despite the difficulty level, than, say, reading a textbook?
A good game usually incorporates a series of frequent rewards early on.
This activates the reward pathways of your brain, releasing a neurotransmitter called dopamine.
Dopamine helps you feel focused and motivated, and you derive pleasure from the anticipation of a reward, more than the reward itself.
So, after the first couple of rewards, as these achievements start becoming more difficult to attain, you keep playing, because of the dopamine circulating in your system creating the expectation of a reward.
Gamified software like Vocabulary Quest apply the same principle to learning – elements like scoreboards, badges, rankings and progress bars create incentive for players to keep progressing.
And in order to progress, due to the anticipation of rewards from all that dopamine, you have the motivation you need to learn the words you need to unlock the next stage.
This format for learning taps into several neuroscience-backed strategies into how learning occurs best.
By prompting you to recall specific words from hints and definitions in order to move on with the game, you need to consciously retrieve what you have learned.
The game can pick up on words you tend to forget and ensure they help you review these more frequently.
These regular review sessions strengthen those neural pathways we talked about earlier, making your memory of the words and their meaning more permanent.
By prompting you to apply the words you learn, recalling them as part of a task to level up etc., they also create relevance – another important aspect of learning advanced vocabulary.
Unlike studying from a book or printouts, your engagement is constant when it comes to gamified learning – you are interacting with information in real-time and receiving immediate feedback.
As a result, you are constantly aware of how well you are doing, and are able to fix any errors you might discover yourself making right away, while your dopamine levels keep you motivated to continue.
With the right practice and these, expanding your stockpile of words to perfectly express yourself can occur almost effortlessly.
Why not give them a go and see the results for yourself?
Jason Manilla is the Founder and owner of VocabularyQuest.com.
This site is used by both children and adults around the world.
Vocabulary Quest trains learners to master advanced vocabulary through game-based learning.