Building Vocabulary through Activities

Studies show that people learn words best by engaging as many of the five senses as possible. Associating a new word with a smell, touch, taste, or sound helps us recall the word for later use. So in addition to reading on a daily basis and listening to speakers who use a different vocabulary than you do, you can add words to your working vocabulary list by exploring new activities.

The following suggested activities will boost your vocabulary by engaging more of your senses and putting you into word-rich environments.

1. Take a class, any class. Learn a new skill. The skill could be knitting or sport fishing, cooking or carpentry, dancing or playing an instrument. Choose something you are interested in and which requires you to use your hands. Each craft or skill will have its own vocabulary. There will be words to describe the equipment, the processes, and the materials. Since you will be doing something with your hands (and maybe more parts of your body as in dancing), you will trigger more activity in your brain than if you just read the words on a page. The increased activity will create more connections in your brain. Not only will you see the word, you will have an experience to tie to it. You will have paired the word with a motor memory (a physical process you have learned to do like knitting) and sensory memories about the material and tools you work with (like the feel of the knitting needles and yarn in your hands). The greater number of connections your brain is able to make with the word, the more likely it is that the word will become part of your working vocabulary.

2. Visit a museum. Children’s museums are a great choice because they often feature interactive displays. Another good option is a “living museum” where you can talk with a docent who can answer your questions about the exhibits. Many “living museums” (Colonial Williamsburg would be one example) have programs where you get to participate. You’ll learn the words associated with the focus of the museum. Your brain will link the experience of the museum, the items you touched, the activities you participated in, and everything else your senses will record about the trip.

3. Go to the zoo. You’ll find interesting animals with exotic names which originate from many different languages depending on where the animal normally lives. English is a living language which adopts foreign words to name things. The word “yak”, for instance, is from the Tibetan word gyak. You will also learn about each animal’s food and habitat requirements. Many zoos now present shows where a trainer works with an animal and explains about that animal’s particular needs and capabilities. Who can resist a cuddly koala supping on eucalyptus leaves? Once again, your mind will be absorbing the new words along with plenty of additional sensory information to link to the word memory.

4. Garden. The lexicon of gardening is rich with Latin-based words describing plants – their names, the parts of the plant, and their life cycles. Latin provides the roots to many English words in the areas of law, science, and religion. The word “vegetable” for example originated in the Latin word vegetare meaning to enliven, bring to life, or quicken. The word “flower” came from the Latin word flos or floris meaning –surprise! – a flower. Understanding the Latin portions (prefixes, suffixes, and roots) of words can help you deduce the meaning of other words that are new to you. In addition to adding lovely flowers to your hall table or fresh vegetables to your kitchen table, gardening will add valuable words to your vocabulary.

Learning new words can be easier, more enjoyable, and result in better retention if you can use multiple senses in the word-learning process. So add a new activity to your life and you’ll soon master a whole new group of words!

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