Yes, I’ve added more than 8,000 words and phrases to my active vocabulary.
Before we proceed further, here is a brief introductory distinction between active and passive vocabulary. Our active vocabulary comprises of words we can use in our speech and writing. Our passive vocabulary, in contrast, comprises of words we cannot use in our speech and writing though we can easily understand the meaning of these words while reading and listening.
Example, if you’re like most, you’ll understand the meaning of words such as hypnotize, alacrity, lame, ominous, and outsmart in reading and listening, but will struggle to use them in your speech and writing. They form part of your passive vocabulary. On the other hand, you must be using words such as get, sleep, walk, eat, and late in your speech and writing, besides, of course, understanding them in reading and listening. They form part of your active vocabulary.
All of us want to shift as many words from our passive vocabulary to active vocabulary.
(Note that recall & use of these 8,000+ words doesn’t work 100 percent, the laggards are especially those words that I haven’t used in ages. But, overall, it works quite well and I can recall & use most of them.)
What was my motivation to make such gigantic effort?
Building sound vocabulary is probably the hardest part in improving communication skills, and for precisely this reason strong vocabulary can be a differentiator over others. This and the fact that I’ll use it for the rest of my life were strong motivators for me to undertake this mammoth exercise.
Without further ado, here is how I went about the process of building my active vocabulary:
The process I followed
(Note: To provide an illustration of some of the words that have now entered my active vocabulary, I’ve highlighted these words in red font in the subsection that follows. I could understand these words earlier, but not use while speaking and writing.)
1. I collected words, preferably passive
The idea is to get most words from your passive vocabulary so that you build on words you’re already familiar with to some extent. That’s less work than working on completely new words. And most of us have large enough passive vocabularies to get plenty of words from.
I started building my vocabulary list by noting down passive words – and occasional new words – I came across during my reading and listening. (My passive vocabulary, like anyone else’s, was strong, but active was average.)
Once I had 20-25 words on the list, I would check the meaning, and equally important the usage in the form of examples, of each word on dictionary.com and/ or Cambridge English Dictionary and copy-paste them on a word document.
Thereafter, I would take a print and go through it few times over the next few months.
Few months after I started this exercise, one fine day the proverbial light bulb lit when I realized that I had started using some of these words in my speech as well as writing. Buoyed by the green shoots, I became more deliberate about improving my vocabulary. In the next few weeks, I streamlined the process to following:
1.1 I sourced passive words straight from the dictionary
So far, I was getting few words per week through reading and listening. I decided to up this. I dusted off my Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary and started noting down words alphabetically directly from there, all the while making sure they belonged to my passive vocabulary (this is key), whose meaning and usage, at least to some extent, I already knew.
However, I didn’t stop my earlier practice of drawing words from reading and listening. But this now formed a minuscule proportion of the total volume.
Some of you may get spooked at this stage imagining the ocean of words this exercise would result in. It was voluminous, no doubt, but – as you’ll see later in the post – manageable over several months. And some of you may be surprised that I finished the entire dictionary with only 7,000+ words even though a dictionary typically has many times more words. This is because I covered only key passive words, and that’s what is required.
Why did I follow the dictionary route and not worked organically through reading? Simple. I was in tearing hurry. But now, after finishing the bulk through the dictionary, I’m back to picking words and phrases through reading. It’s akin to driving like a Formula-1 driver for around 18 months followed by regular driving in perpetuity.
Shifting just few thousand words from passive to active vocabulary can lift your communication skills to a much higher pedestal. (Communication skills, of course, depend on number of factors, vocabulary being one of the strong ones.)
1.2 I noted meaning(s) and few example sentences of these words
Whenever I got time, I copy-pasted meaning and usage of these words from dictionary.com and Cambridge English Dictionary on to my word document. After I had 30-40 pages, I would print them and place them in a folder. A sample:
Let’s call this master page.
I also took a separate printout of just the list of words. The list for the above sample, for example, looks like this:
Let’s call this list page.
Note that I prepared notes/ flashcards in print form. You may use an App or any other medium to replicate the same.
2. I went through few words every day
I went through 12-13 words every day, looking at their meaning and usage, followed by a quick 60-second review to cap. This took 15-20 minutes. If you want to be regular at it, fix a particular part of the day when you take this up. (I covered one list page – see last image – in three days, and each such page accommodates 37 words. That’s the reason for 12-13 words a day. However, you don’t need such pace. As you’ll see toward the end of this post, even if you ace a word a day, in the medium term, you’ll be in top 0.01 percent of people with the strongest vocabularies.)
A tip here: make use of usage beyond just understanding how a word is used in sentences. To get more out of it, also look at how grammar, punctuation, and other words and phrases have been used in those sentences. You can even mark anything that attracts your attention on the print.
3. I reviewed yesterday’s work within a day: Spaced Repetition I
Within a day of learning those 12-13 words for the first time, I reviewed them. Here is what I did to get the maximum bang for the buck (I’ll explain why this works in a short while):
3.1 I recalled the meaning and spoke few examples of words from the list page
I carried the list page (unlike master page, this one has only words) with me and whenever I got time I looked at a particular word and recalled its meaning(s) and as many sentences (usage, in other words) as possible containing that word. I aimed for at least five usages. Sometimes, I came up with just two. Sometimes, seven or eight.
These usages weren’t necessarily the same that I copied in the master page. But because I had understood the meaning and had seen few usages in the master page, I could generate my own. Let your imagination run wild when thinking of these. Let few of them sound silly. Doesn’t matter. Not always possible, but wherever you can, try to come up with few usages that you’ve seen, heard, or experienced yourself. Nothing like anchoring what you’ve learnt to real-world experiences to consolidate the meaning and usage of a word.
If I got stuck at one or two usages, I gave up only after giving a fair amount of thinking.
I completed this first review of 12-13 words in 10-odd minutes, and this time came entirely from time-wasters such as commute and waiting time. That’s why I carried the list page with me.
3.2 I checked how I fared in the evening
In the evening, I did a quick check with the master page to see if I missed any meaning or a particular type of usage. (Each list page – 37 words – has approximately five corresponding master pages. Because of the bulk I don’t carry master pages, and refer to them in the evening.)
(If you notice, the two sets of pages act as flashcards. The list page provides cues and the master page contains the answer.)
In the initial months, I used to come up with examples containing only the word I looked at in the list page. But later on, as my vocabulary swelled, I started using multiple words in the same example. For example, I’ve used two words in one example here: He had unfettered access to the powers that be.
4. I reviewed few more times: Spaced Repetition II
I reviewed the same set of words the same way few more times – after a week, a month, and three months. These repetitions, along with the first one within a day, constituted what we call spaced repetition, the best way to embed anything to your long-term memory. In short, this process helps you retain stuff for long. You can use it even in your academics. I’ve used spaced repetition in variety of scenarios and have found it to work beautifully.
5. I practiced few vocabulary exercises
Shifting words from passive to active vocabulary requires use of those words multiple times.
If you noticed, I used words in sentences during my review sessions. But I went above and beyond to practice few exercises that mimic how we think and use words in a split second in real situations. I’ve covered these exercises in detail in the post on how to build vocabulary.
These five steps encapsulate the process I followed.
To end this section I repeat what I said earlier:
- I use physical papers as flashcards for spaced repetition. Feel free to use an app or any other method that works for you. Principles though remain the same.
- Major part of the above process was accomplished in time-wasters such as commuting and waiting.
I followed this process to build my active vocabulary. I still do, but at a much reduced scale, because now I source words and phrases only organically through reading and listening, and for me they come few and far between now.
The journey so far
Few months into this, I observed I had started using some of these words in my writing as well speech. This was real bottom-line, real success, which propelled me on a path that was more deliberate, efficient, and scientific – the one you’ve read so far in this post. (This is akin to scaling up after a pilot has worked.)
So in mid-2016, I started with the first page of my Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary, noting down words sitting in my passive vocabulary. In the remaining half of the year, I covered nearly 1,200 words, taking the total for the year to 1,574 words. Most of them were simple, commonly-used words that I hadn’t been using in writing or speech. Few examples:
Somehow, the momentum got lost in January and February 2017 when I could barely complete twenty words. I came back on track from the beginning of March, and continued my breakneck speed of 37 words every three days without diluting my process. This intense phase (@ 37 words every three days) lasted around 18 months. It’s not that I didn’t miss a single day since then. I did, may be on 3-4 occasions. But each time I bridged the gap the very next day.
Quick tip: if you’ve to make up for a lost day in any pursuit, spread the work over two sessions – one morning, one evening – and not finish in one. You’ll retain better this way. It’s similar to feeling bloated if you eat too much in one sitting after a fast.
I finished the dictionary at 7,000+ words. Although a dictionary contains many more words, these many words covered my purpose – commonly-used words and part of passive vocabulary. Imagine, an entire dictionary was done, and this at a quality that enables me to use these words. And most of this was accomplished in times that I otherwise used to waste.
Have I stopped after running through the dictionary?
I note down words and phrases (I come across while reading and listening) I would like to use in my speech and writing. The volume now, of course, has come down to a trickle. Few examples:
Note that you won’t find some of these words and phrases and usage in a dictionary.
This exercise was profoundly more difficult than correcting my pronunciation of more than 3,400 words. How did I keep going for such a long period at such high intensity?
As mentioned earlier, I tasted success at the beginning of my journey – I started using the words in my speech and writing. Success toward a meaningful goal is the fastest way to build passion for something, and I was no exception. (I’ve experienced this multiple times and if you take a hard look in the rearview mirror about things you’re motivated about, you’ll find a similar underlying story.) And if you develop passion for something, the journey becomes lot less arduous than what seems to others.
‘Should I follow what you did?’
Not at this scale – 37 words every three days.
Accumulating such large volume of vocabulary at a high quality – and that’s more important – wasn’t breeze for me, but, to be honest, was comfortably manageable. But still you’re highly unlikely to pull this off at this scale.
Even if you follow the process I outlined in this post for just a word a day, you’ll be ahead of 99.99 percent of people in the medium term. (Remember, most adults add just 25-50 words a year to their vocabulary. So a word a day will make you 10x faster, which is humongous.)
And even if you want to achieve more than a word a day, start small. Start with a word a day. Streamline process, build habit, and then expand.
A practical approach is to pick words organically from your daily reading and listening. (That’s what I do now.) Try to first figure out meaning of the words from the context in which you see them, then explore them in a dictionary, take notes, and follow Spaced Repitition to the extent you can.