How to Learn New Words By Reading Stories About Them

by Kenney Jacob

After taking a degree in computer science and engineering I decide to go to the United States for a Masters degree. For that I needed to write the GRE exam, which had two main subjects, mathematics and English. The maths part was easy, for all the mock tests, I was getting a full score. English was tough and was mostly about vocabulary.

My vocabulary was not great. I decided to learn a few words so that I can get a good score for this exam. Like most GRE students, I too tried using word lists, flash cards and almost every trick available out there to improve vocabulary fast. But none of those were working for me. Using a word list was one of the most frustrating experiences. Even after many revisions, I was not even able to get these words into my memory let alone use them in my sentences. Then I knew something was wrong with this approach.

During school days, my father used to mention the importance of having a good vocabulary and tried to make me learn new words. But I never listened to him at that age; I was more interested in computers and programming, I should have listened to my father.

According to him, the only means to get words into your active vocabulary is reading books and using a dictionary to refer words that you are unfamiliar with. Read a page, write down the words that you don’t know, refer the dictionary and jot down their meaning along with the words and periodically revise, that was his strategy. Since every other trick failed, I tried this approach and it was working, though a bit slow, I was learning new words without much frustration.

Then I knew, the essence of learning new words is getting to see them used in their proper context.

Lets look at an example. Do you know this word ?


The dictionary defines it as follows.

“Divided by vertical bars or piers usually of stone”

Even though you read the dictionary meaning, it is still not fully clear. Now take a look at a phrase in which the word is used.

“arched and mullioned windows”

As soon as you see the phrase you know one thing, that it has got something to do with windows. Now let's look at a full sentence.

“The room was very spacious, lighted on one side by three arched and mullioned windows, while opposite was a huge fireplace”

Now the meaning is very clear. You know exactly what mullioned means. You found the word in a context, you referred the dictionary meaning to be precise and both together reinforces a mental picture which will make sure that you will never forget the word ever again.

Reading a book, referring words and revising was working for me, but it was a slow process and interrupted the reading flow when flipping pages of the dictionary. So I created a set of books that looks like the one here below:


With text on the left and definition of difficult words in that page on the right, you could read, refer and learn without hindering the flow. This approach was tested with many sets of vocabulary students and found to be very effective.

In the process of creating such books I must have learned at least a 1000 new words. Also the process got me interested in words and their origins. It was interesting to note that most English words have a Greek or Italian origin. A lot of words we use are derived from names of Greek gods and their behaviour. Many of the modern day companies have names that have got stories to tell. Names of medicines we use have origins in vocabulary and etymology.

Every day, I found new and interesting facts about words and stories associated with them. I have compiled - WordZo, a collection of many such stories. This is not an English textbook and I am not a language expert. This book is about short, interesting anecdotes about many words in English. You learn from the anecdotes where these words came from, how they evolved and how we are using it right now. With this context in place, you will never forget these words and you will be able to add it to your active vocabulary easily.

An excerpt from WordZo (Root word - Ducere/duc/duct)

When you are being educated, you are being led to gain more knowledge. Similarly, when you introduce yourself to somebody, you expect that it will lead you to know the other person better. But when you seduce somebody, you may be leading them on the wrong path. Or you may be hoping that you can lead them to do what you want. Deduction is yet another word that is derived from ducere. When information or facts leads you to draw a particular conclusion, you have used your powers of deduction.

WordZo is available both on print and e-book. I assure, you will find WordZo an unheard collection of stories- an interesting read with takeaways on history, science, mythology, politics and more. The same time, you will be passively memorizing the words to your active vocabulary. Happy reading!


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