Ways to Improve Your Vocabulary (Part 1)

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One striking feature that sets proficient English speakers apart from those less competent is their lexical range. Quite often they exhibit a near-magical ability to summon just the right kind of word or phrase, with the result that they convey with precision what they wish to say.

Considering that words are the basic blocks using which we give and receive information, the broader your lexical range gets the easier it becomes to communicate. Here are some handy tips to expand your vocabulary.

1. Read regularly!

Anyone who has tried to work on their vocabulary must’ve had this advice time and again. After all, reading is the most obvious way to learn new vocabulary, because it exposes you to the same words and phrases at regular intervals. That said, building vocabulary may not be a priority when you are reading interesting stuff. So, note down unfamiliar words while reading. Afterwards pick out useful ones you wish to learn. Remember, reading can also provide reinforcement. When you come across vocabulary you’ve learnt recently, and you understand what it means, it is proof enough that you have learnt it well.

A confusion that many learners face is deciding what to read and what not to. While there are no hard and fast rules, see to it that you pick materials that interest you. And if that happens to be a lowbrow magazine on fashion, so be it. What’s important is to choose something you find enjoyable, with a view to possibly learning new words.

 

2. Learn vocabulary in context

Some learners make the mistake of learning vocabulary in isolation. In other words, they try to learn a random collection of new words off by heart. Instead, learn vocabulary in chunks or sentences so that a context begins to appear, helping you understand when and how the word can be used. The added benefit is that this way you get introduced to a lot of new words at the same time.

If done the right way, building vocabulary can be enjoyable and beneficial.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

reinforcement
Form : noun
Meaning : the act of making an idea stronger
Example : Jokes can sometimes be a reinforcement of gender stereotypes.

 

hard and fast
Form : phrase
Meaning : not able to be changed
Example : There are no hard and fast rules about how a film should end.

 

lowbrow
Form : adjective
Meaning : lacking serious cultural or artistic value
Example : Although his books are quite popular, critics consider them to be lowbrow literature. 

 

in isolation
Form : phrase
Meaning : separately
Example : Environmental damage cannot be considered in isolation, as it affects humans and animals.

 

by heart
Form : phrase
Meaning : to learn something so well that you are able to remember it without having to read it again
Example : Mike knows all the poems in his text book by heart. 

 

Train Yourself to Read Faster (Part 3)

Image courtesy of Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr (2.0)

 

So far in the series, we’ve discussed three things you should do and one you shouldn’t in order to read faster. Here are a couple more things to avoid.

 

Don’t sub-vocalise

Have you ever caught yourself pronouncing words quietly in your head while reading a text?

This habit of saying words in our mind as we read them is called sub-vocalising.

When we first begin to learn to read as children, we do so by saying words out aloud. This practice improves both comprehension and diction. As we grow older, we learn to be silent while reading, but the habit of pronouncing words one by one sort of stays with us. The difference, of course, is that by then it’s all done in our head.

There’s no doubt that vocalising text helps comprehension, but it also slows us down terribly, so it’s best to kick the habit.  One effective way to overcome this is to move the pointer faster than the speed at which you hear words in your mind.

 

Don’t re-read everything

Do you sometimes go back to a sentence you’ve just read and double-check to see if you’ve understood it correctly?

Don’t worry if the answer is ‘yes’, you’re not alone here.

When doing a reading exercise, however, fight the urge to re-read, because it may be a total waste of time. Instead, wait till you finish reading an entire section before you choose whether or not to go back to a sentence.

You’ll find that reading some more of the text can help you understand without having to re-read that first sentence.

 

Remember to follow these dos and don’ts, and you should be able to read faster with better comprehension.

 

GLOSSARY

Train Yourself to Read Faster (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr (cc 2.0)

 

In the first part, we spoke of how it is good practice to use a pointer while speed reading, and how to retain information. Here are a couple more tips you should try…

 

Practise regularly

As clichéd as it sounds, there is no doubt that practice makes perfect. Speed reading may appear to be challenging at first, but regular practice should help you master this skill. And once you get to that point, you’ll realise that it is quite possible to glace through entire sections of a document or book in a matter of minutes and get the gist of it.

Think about how much time speed reading can save you, and you’ll need no further motivation to put in the hard yards.

 

Don’t read every single word

When we first start learning to read as children, we are often told how it is important to read every single word to ensure complete understanding. Guess what? You can’t do this when you speed-read. Your focus should be on gaining a general understanding of the content, so trying to do anything more can slow you down.

So, which words should you focus on? Well, if not reading a word won’t affect your comprehension, feel confident to skip it. Allow your eyes to fix on the important words. Over time, your brain will pick these out and gloss over the less important ones.

Before you know it you’ll be reading super fast!

 

We’ll be back with some more advice in the next part.

 

Train Yourself to Read Faster (Part 1)

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In this digital age, information comes at you with lightning speed.

We are constantly swamped with different types of information too, in the form of messages, posts, emails, news stories, and so on.

 

So, how can you deal with this overload to get the information that’s important to you?

While there is no straight answer to this question, one way to cope with the problem is to use speed reading.

Put simply, speed reading refers to the activity of reading something faster than usual, focusing on the general meaning of a text rather than individual words.

 

Here are some dos and don’ts for training yourself to read faster….

 

1. Use a pointer

When we read, we mainly use two body parts – the eyes and the brain. Our eyes see the text in front of us, moving from left to right to read each sentence. The brain, on the other hand, absorbs this information, leading to comprehension.

In order for us to read faster, our eyes have to be trained to move quicker across texts. One way to achieve this is by using a pointer, such as our finger, a pencil, or a pen.

Initially, the pointer’s job would be to guide the eyes across the text rhythmically, gradually increasing the speed at which our eye balls move. Over time, the speed at which we read should correspond to the speed at which we move the pointer across a text.

 

2. Learn to retain information

Often people have the misconception that speed reading is all about flipping through the pages of a book as quick as they can, retaining very little of what they have read.

Nothing could be further from the truth. After all, if you cannot remember what you read, what is the point of reading something in the first place?

A skilful reader should know when to go at a steady pace and when to slow down. For example, when they come across a challenging concept or complex description, it’s best to go slower so that they are able to retain information better.

 

We’ll have more on speed reading in the next parts so watch this space.

 

 

Improving reading Comprehension (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr (cc 2.0)

 

In the previous part, we spoke of how speed reading and deducing meaning can lead to better comprehension. Here are some more techniques for you to try:

 

  1. Improve concentration

Your powers of concentration perhaps affect your ability to understand a piece of text more than anything else, so train yourself to concentrate well over long periods. Are you wondering how? Well, take one small step at a time. To begin with, see if you are able to focus on what you are reading for about 10 to 15 minutes, increasing the reading time as you go along. The ultimate goal should be to form an ability to concentrate on a task for as long as an hour.

 

  1. Widen vocabulary

Unfamiliar vocabulary is often a stumbling block to reading comprehension, so the more words you are able to recognise, the better you understand a text. One way to learn new vocabulary is by maintaining a running list of words you don’t understand; later, you can look them up in a dictionary. Of course, you need to make it a point to use the words too, while speaking or writing, so that they become a part of your active vocabulary.

 

  1. Expand background knowledge

Background knowledge and vocabulary sort of go hand in hand: an individual who doesn’t know much about factories may not understand words such as supply chain, reverse engineering, or lay-off.  Do not panic though, as there are several ways to acquire background knowledge about something – watching TV programmes, reading articles, talking to people with experience, making visits, etc.

 

  1. Read for pleasure

We commonly turn academic activities into a right struggle, not realising that it doesn’t have to be that way! Turn reading into a fun activity by reading for pleasure: read about your favourite movie star or an exotic holiday destination, or read a novel by your favourite author. This will help you truly engage with the text, because you are reading content that you find interesting.

 

Remember, there are no shortcuts to improving your reading ability. Keep at it, and your comprehension will get better with time.

 

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

stumbling block (to something)
Form : noun
Meaning : something that stops you from achieving something
Example : Lack of funding is the major stumbling block to completing this project.

 

running
Form : adjective
Meaning : continuous
Example : Stanley has had a running battle with the council over his new garage.

 

make it a point (to do something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : to make sure something happens
Example : Cindy makes it a point to avoid heavy meals while travelling.

 

go hand in hand
Form : phrase
Meaning : to be closely related
Example : It’s a fact that poverty and crime usually go hand in hand.

 

engage (with something)
Form : verb
Meaning : to be fully involved and try to understand something
Example : Young children engage with content that is full of colourful images.

 

keep at (something)
Form : phrasal verb
Meaning : to continue to work on something
Example : He kept at it and finally learnt how to take a free kick.

 

 

Improve Your Reading Comprehension (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Matthias Uhlig via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

Let’s face it, among all the language skills, reading is perhaps what most people least enjoy, especially if it happens to be an academic text. The reason for this can vary – a wandering mind, narrow vocabulary, or just impatience.

 

However, there are situations where this skill is a must; an exam perhaps being the best example. Almost all popular language tests have a reading component. IELTS, for instance, has a reading module designed to test a wide range of reading skills.

 

So, how do you improve your comprehension if you are not the reading kind? Here are some ways:

 

  1. Use speed reading

Speed reading is the technique of reading a text quickly with the aim of understanding its overall idea. In a reading comprehension test, this skill is priceless, as test takers find themselves in a race against the clock to answer all the questions. When dealing with long passages, the reader often focuses on content words – i.e. words that carry the message, such as nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. This way, they save time, allowing them to better focus understanding and answering those questions.

 

  1. Learn to deduce meaning

One thing that slows readers down is unfamiliar vocabulary. Each time they come across a word they don’t recognise, it hinders their reading speed, thereby affecting comprehension too. One way to overcome this problem is to develop the ability to deduce meaning. In other words, form an ability to guess the meaning of a word you don’t know by looking at words surrounding it. Let’s put this technique to test with the help of an example:

 

We drove past hyacinth fields in full bloom, the air filled with their sweet, lingering fragrance.

 

If you don’t recognise the word ‘hyacinth’, focus on words surrounding it – fields, in full bloom, sweet, lingering, and fragrance. From the context, it is clear that hyacinth is something that grows in fields, develops over time, and has a pleasant smell that is long-lasting. If your guess at this point is that it’s a flower, then you are dead right!

 

So, the next time you come across an unfamiliar word, try to deduce its meaning; then look it up in a dictionary to confirm you guessed right.

 

GLOSSARY

 

let’s face it
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to indicate what you are about to say is unpleasant but true
Example : Let’s face it, we both know you shouldn’t be marrying a guy like Jake.

 

wandering
Form : adjective
Meaning : moving aimless from one place to another
Example : Sally fares poorly in studies because of her wandering mind.

 

comprehension
Form : noun
Meaning : an individual’s ability to understand things
Example : Miguel had no comprehension of how difficult it was to raise a child.

 

a race against the clock
Form : phrase
Meaning : a situation when someone has to do something quickly, as they only have a limited amount of time
Example : Rescuing people during floods is always a race against the clock.

 

hinder
Form : verb
Meaning : to make it difficult for someone or something to make progress
Example : A leg injury hindered Roger from playing his best tennis.

 

What to Expect in a Decent Dictionary (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Chris Dlugosz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

The first part looked at some information that is typically found in most dictionaries – meaning(s), part of speech, pronunciation, verb forms, and miscellaneous grammar points.

 

Here’s some more information you are likely to come across:

 

  1. Synonyms and antonyms

A synonym is a word that has the same meaning, or nearly the same, as another word. An antonym, on the other hand, is a word that means the opposite of another word.

Example:

honest

Synonyms – truthful, sincere, trustworthy, straightforward, reliable

Antonym – dishonest, corrupt, deceitful, insincere, untrustworthy, unreliable

 

  1. Collocations

The word collocation refers to a word combination that happens naturally in a language. Learning such typical combinations is important because it broadens the scope for expressing ideas clearly.

Example:

food

Verb collocations – consume / eat / have / cook / make / prepare food

Adjective collocations – fast / junk / takeaway / fresh / organic / canned food

 

  1. Example sentences

Example sentences are perhaps the best way to learn how to use a word or phrase accurately in a sentence. They show us the way various grammatical features work together to form a sentence. Some dictionaries print fixed expressions or phrases in bold to help users learn faster.

Example:

The change in policy will do serious harm to our business.

Though I’m not particularly fond of my mother-in-law, I don’t wish her any harm.

I know our neighbour’s dog looks ferocious, but he means no harm.

 

  1. Register

The term register means the degree of formality associated with a word. At times, dictionaries also highlight words that are old-fashioned or offensive.

Example:

ascertain (formal) = to find out

ripping (old-fashioned) = wonderful

gaffer (informal) = an individual who is in charge of a group of people

dude (slang) = a man

bird (sometimes offensive) = a way of referring to a young woman

 

  1. Spelling

A lot of words have alternative spellings, depending on the version used – British English (BrE) or North American English (NAmE).

Example:

theatre (BrE) / theater (NAmE)

doughnut / donut (NAmE)

colour (BrE) / color (NAmE)

 

So, the next time you use a dictionary, gather different types of information that can help you better your English.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

miscellaneous
Form : adjective
Meaning : consisting of different kinds of things
Example : Tom has a box of miscellaneous items from his childhood.

 

scope (for something)
Form : noun
Meaning : the opportunity to do something
Example : Sally’s new job offers plenty of scope for international travel.

 

offensive
Form : adjective
Meaning : rude or unpleasant
Example : Students who use offensive language in the classroom will be punished.

 

alternative
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes something that can be used instead of something else
Example : Swimming is a good alternative to running when recovering from an injury

 

 

What to Expect in a Decent Dictionary (Part 1)

 

Image courtesy of Chris Dlugosz via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

A decent dictionary, be it printed or electronic, can be an invaluable tool when trying to improve your English. Sadly, not many language learners exploit it to the full.

 

So, what can you typically expect to find in one?

 

  1. The meaning(s) of an English word or phrase

Most words in the English language have more than one meaning, and dictionaries usually list them out.

Example:

run (verb)

  • to move quickly using legs
  • to manage a business
  • to use a computer program
  • (of liquid) to flow in a particular direction
  • to try to get elected to a job
  • to drive somebody to a place

 

  1. Part of speech

This refers to one of the grammatical groups that a word belongs to depending on how it is used in a sentence. Remember, a word could have different forms.

Example:

drive – verb (= when used to talk about operating a vehicle)

drive – noun (= when used to talk about someone’s energy or desire to do something)

 

  1. Pronunciation

The phonetic transcription of a word usually appears alongside it to help users pronounce the word accurately. Alternate ways of pronouncing the word can also be found in some dictionaries.

Example:

 

Word Pronunciation

(British English)

Pronunciation

(North American English)

restaurant /ˈrestrɒnt/ /ˈrestrɑːnt/
sure /ʃʊə(r)/ or /ʃɔː(r)/ /ʃʊr/

 

  1. Verb forms

Most verbs in English have between 3 and 5 forms; knowing them is essential to be able to make different grammatical structures.

Example:

 

Present simple

I / we / you / they

Present simple

he / she / it

Past simple Past participle -ing form
cut cuts cut cut cutting
dance dances danced danced dancing
eat eats ate eaten eating

 

  1. Other grammatical information

A comprehensive dictionary may also contain other important information, such as the plural form of a noun, or whether a noun is countable or uncountable.

Example:

thief (singular) – thieves (plural)

furniture (uncountable)

 

If you’ve just started learning English, using a dictionary regularly can help stretch your limited vocabulary, so be sure to use one.

 

GLOSSARY

 

decent
Form : adjective
Meaning : of good enough quality
Example : Is there a restaurant nearby where I can get a decent meal?

 

exploit
Form : verb
Meaning : to use something well in order to get benefit from it
Example : I don’t think students exploit the study resources in our library enough.

 

to the full
Form : phrase
Meaning : to the maximum
Example : Youngsters usually want to enjoy life to the full.

 

comprehensive
Form : adjective
Meaning : including many details
Example : He’s writing a comprehensive guide to tourism in Asia.

 

A Quick Guide to Prepositions of Time

Image courtesy of Christopher Allen via Flickr (CC 2.0)

 

A preposition is a relationship word which generally shows the location of something (in the hall), the time when something happens (at midnight), the way something is done (by train), and so on.

 

Learning them can be a little bit tricky, as there aren’t always rules to help you choose the correct one. To make matters worse, some prepositions can have many different uses. For example, according to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, the preposition on has eighteen different functions.

 

In this article, we’ll consider how to use three common prepositions of time: at, on, in.

 

When to use at

Use at when referring to a specific time that is relatively short.

 

clock times at 7 o’clock | at 6:30 pm
holiday periods at Christmas | at Easter
specific times of the day at noon | at midnight
meal times  at lunchtime | at dinner time

 

Of course, there are situations when at is used to show longer periods of time ‒ for instance, we say at night, or at the weekend.

 

When to use on

Use on when referring to days and dates in general.

 

days of the week on Monday | on Thursday
dates on the 15th of July | on 22nd February
special days on New Year’s Day | on Republic Day | on her birthday
parts of specific days on Friday morning | on Sunday night

 

When to use in

Use in when referring to longer periods of time.

 

parts of a day in the morning | in the afternoon | in the evening
seasons in winter | in autumn
months in February | in July
years in 1977 | in 2015
decades in the seventies | in the 1980s
centuries in the fifteenth century | in the twenty first century

 

Remember, we do not use a preposition before certain expressions of time, such as last, next, every, each, or this. For example, we say:

I saw that film last Saturday. (NOT I saw that film on last Saturday.)

I play tennis every Sunday. (NOT I play tennis on every Sunday.)

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

tricky
Form : adjective
Meaning : difficult to do
Example : Some people can find operating smartphones a bit tricky.

 

 

IELTS Reading: Dealing with Difficult Question Types (Part 3)

man-reading

Image courtesy of baraa_kell (CC Flickr)

 

So far in this series, we’ve considered two question types: Identifying information (True/False/Not Given) and Matching headings to paragraphs.

 

Let’s now look at a third variety that many find difficult: Multiple Choice (MCQ). Here, test takers have to choose the best answer from a list of alternatives that are lettered (A, B, C, etc.).

 

Here’s a sample exercise.

 

Reading text

Kathakali, a dance form that originated in the South Indian state of Kerala, is a visual treat, particularly to the discerning eye. A typical play entails dancers, who wear vibrant costumes and elaborate make-up, bringing to life characters from various Indian epics, while supported by musicians and vocalists. In doing so, they create the perfect blend of dance, music and acting. Artistes typically make use of various body parts while executing Kathakali movements, most of which are adopted from ancient martial art forms.

 

Choose the correct letter, A, B, C or D.
1. Which one of the following is mentioned in the paragraph?
A People with a good understanding of dance find Kathakali more enjoyable
B Colourful dresses are a part of only some Kathakali performances
C Music is a more integral part of Kathakali than dance
D Kathakali has influenced arts of olden times

 

Tips to answer

 

  • Begin by understanding what the question is asking – here, you need to identify which point appears in the text.
  • The easiest way to find the answer is by checking if any alternative appears in the text in a different form (i.e. a paraphrase). For example, here the answer is alternative A:

 

A People with a good understanding of dance find Kathakali more enjoyable
Text Kathakali is a visual treat, particularly to the discerning eye.

 

  • Sometimes spotting a paraphrase may be quite difficult, especially if your vocabulary is limited. Then, taking an indirect approach works better ‒ eliminate any alternative which you think cannot be correct. And how do you do it? Simple, by spotting contradictions (differences in what the text says and what the alternative says)!

 

B Colourful dresses are a part of only some Kathakali performances
Text A typical play entails dancers, who wear vibrant costumes and elaborate make-up…

 

C Music is a more integral part of Kathakali than dance
Text …while supported by musicians and vocalists.

 

D Kathakali has influenced arts of olden times
Text Kathakali movements, most of which are adopted from ancient martial art forms.

 

Remember, at first glance, it may look as though two (or more) alternatives may be correct. So, always read closely to identify contradictory information.

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

alternative
Form : noun
Meaning : a thing you can choose out of two or more possibilities
Example : An apple is a healthier alternative to chocolate.

 

paraphrase
Form : noun
Meaning : a statement that expresses something using different words
Example : This is a paraphrase of what he actually said at the meeting.

 

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