Are you preparing to take the GRE? This is the second of a series of five posts by Manhattan GRE’s Jennifer Dziura on study tips for the exam.
Tip #2: Learn Vocabulary in Context
Many students make the mistake of memorizing dictionary definitions of words without really understanding those definitions or being able to comfortably use those words in sentences.
You want to learn words like “traduce” and “bonhomie” the same way you know words like “study” and “mistake” – that is, you can barely even remember a time when you didn’t know those words.
While vocabulary lists, flashcards, and the like are important, some of the best vocabulary accrual occurs when you are reading difficult material (try The Economist, any of the articles posted on http://www.aldaily.com, or any book by Christopher Hitchens), and you go look up a word you just read in context.
If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, think about the words that were easiest to learn. When you’re in class, most of the words you learn (stove, tire, classroom, grandmother) seem equally important. But when you are actually in a foreign country, trying to speak that language, it is very, very easy to learn and remember words and phrases like “bathroom” and “How much?” and “No pigs’ feet, please.” That is, the easiest things to learn are things that you really wanted to know at the time that you looked them up. It’s easier to retain a new word when there’s a “hole” in your knowledge that you just cannot wait to fill.
Similarly, if you are reading something interesting and come across a word you don’t know, then you look up the word and consider its usage in the sentence you were just puzzling over – well, that’s almost as good as learning the word “bathroom” when you really needed to use one.
Finally, don’t hesitate to look up or ask someone about words you thought you knew, but seem to be used in novel ways. (Did you notice what I did just there? As a noun, a “novel” is a book-length work of fiction, but as an adjective, “novel” means “new, original.”) How about the use of “informed by” in the sentence, “Her historical analysis of family dynamics in the antebellum South is informed by an academic background in feminist theory”? (Clearly, the “academic background in feminist theory” isn’t talking – “informed by” means “influenced by” in this context). Or the use of “qualified” in “Dr. Wong could give only qualified approval to the theory, as the available data was limited in scope.” (“Qualified” here means “limited, conditional, holding back”).
If you read a definition of a word – on a flashcard, in a test prep book, or anywhere else – and it doesn’t make sense to you, look the word up in several online dictionaries http://www.dictionary.com, http://www.thefreedictionary.com, http://www.m-w.com, ask someone, and/or simply Google the word to see how other people are using it.
Once you’ve studied the definition, read the word in context, and worked the word into conversation three times (this can cause your friends to look at you funny, but it’ll be worth it!), that word is probably yours for life.