What is the best way to learn GRE vocab words?: introducing a new approach to vocab acquisition

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Okay, so we’ve circled around a specific topic I want to get into today in the past couple of episodes, which is vocab. A couple of episodes ago, we were talking about specific strategies for the vocab test. That means the vocab questions on the verbal section of the test. And then we talked about how vocab can be a serious consideration when organizing the time that you’re going to dedicate to preparation for the GRE. So let’s hone in on this specific topic a little more, because it’s one of the bottlenecks you’ve expressed for both your ability to perform well on the verbal section and also a bottleneck on how much time you need to dedicate. You have to cast a wider net with the verbal section in order to see improvements; it’s not, as you mentioned, granular. So, what is the best way to study vocab in an effective way for the GRE test?

Orion: Yeah, that’s a great question and a good summary as well. The vocabulary really does exert a ceiling effect on a student’s overall verbal score. And it’s the most onerous and time-consuming process of GRE prep, all things being equal. There are tens of thousands of words you can potentially be tested on, and there is no master vocab list. This means that you can’t cram thousands of words the week before the test; that’s impossible. It’s also difficult because if you space it out and reinforce your learning, we’re really talking about studying thousands of words, usually over months, in order to consolidate those gains into lasting memory. So, it’s a lot of time and it’s really, really boring. It’s tough to learn a new vocabulary.

Davis: Is it rote memorization? I mean, I know, for example, I have kids in elementary school, and when there’s this whole thing about if you can read, you know, the kids who read 20 minutes a day, every day, by the time they go into middle school, or whatever, they’ve got like 20,000-plus vocab words, whereas the kids who only read five minutes a day end up with only like 6,000-7,000 vocab words. So, how do you consolidate this? Is it just rote memorization of flashcards, or is it better in context reading? You kind of made two points there. So, let me guess which one to turn to. So, absolutely, the stat you shared about the kids and their vocabulary acquisition?

Orion: Yeah, the best way to prepare your vocab for the GRE is to be well-read. You know, if you are a wide reader, if you read often, you will have passively acquired a significantly larger vocabulary base than somebody who doesn’t read as extensively or as often. So, the best way to prepare for the GRE is just to love reading and to have spent a lifetime reading. But if we weren’t at three months, but that your point is well taken.

Davis: So, the best way to acquire vocabulary is just to read much and read often. So, how do you actually go about acquiring vocabulary?

Orion: Well, most people do it poorly, and I’ll explain why that is. If you go on Amazon and look at GRE vocab resources, you’ll usually find decks of flashcards. You can download free to low-cost GRE vocab apps on your phone; they’re virtual flashcards. And in almost all cases, the way that students approach vocabulary acquisition is by looking at a word on one side of a card and the dictionary definition on the other side. This is not a great way of learning vocabulary for the GRE, and there are two very obvious reasons why.

One is that you will never be asked to define a word on the GRE.

Davis: Why spend all that time and energy learning definitions when that’s not actually what you’re going to be tested on? The GRE isn’t tested on context, so what are you being tested on?

Orion: That’s a tricky question. You’re being tested on logical relationships between a few different words, and you have to deeply parse the sentence grammatically. You’re also being tested on whether words kind of mean the same thing or kind of don’t mean the same thing. You can’t ignore the definitions entirely – that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that it’s wasted time and effort to memorize the actual literal dictionary definition of words. Okay, because the question on the GRE will never be, “What does obstreperous mean?” It will never be that. That’s why I was driving into context a little more. So, is a better strategy to learn the vocab word rather than just, “Here’s the word, flip it over, here’s the definition.” Put it in the context of a sentence that’s used correctly; you can do that.

I think that the best way to learn a word forever is to create a mnemonic. And mnemonics are sticky; they stick in your memory to the extent that they are unusual, vivid, and connect either the look of the word or the sound of the word to the meaning.

Okay, so like, for example, I just used the word obstreperous, which is one of those words that I just had a lot of trouble memorizing back in the day. And so I came up with this image of this really annoying, aggressive man just yelling until he became so hoarse, like with strep throat, like he couldn’t speak anymore, because he was just so angry and rageful. And so I’ve connected the sound of the word “obstreperous” – “strep” – with this image of this red-faced man losing his voice with the definition of obstreperous, which is sort of loud and angry.

Okay, I’m never going to forget that word until the day I die. But that’s an energy-intensive thing, because I had to come up with this image that links the sound of the word with a definition, and that takes time too. So you can do that. But that’s time-intensive; you probably only have to do that with words that, for whatever reason, you struggle to remember. That’s why I did it for obstreperous and not for voluptuous. I’m never going to forget voluptuous.

Davis: Well, character insight, there you go.

Orion: So, the other reason why it’s not a good idea to learn the vocab, the dictionary definitions, is that it’s just so time and energy intensive, dry, and easy to forget. Also, it’s extremely easy to forget, yeah. So, you’re not being tested on the GRE on being able to recall the actual dictionary definitions of words, and it slows you down and drains your energy.

So those are the two kind of obvious reasons why learning the dictionary definition of words is not in your best interests.

Davis: So what should you do instead?

Orion: Well, like we said in a previous episode, since equivalence questions are really about kind of sorting for synonym pairs. And that’s also an elimination strategy for the text completion, we kind of just need to know what these words generally mean. And that these words kind of go together and that these words kind of don’t go together.

When it comes to GRE vocab, you want to prioritize quantity over quality. It’s better to learn a whole bunch of words kind of than to learn a smaller subset of words.

Davis: Exactly. Right.

Orion: So, the way that I’ve developed for approaching vocab acquisition in Stellar is using something called semantic clusters. So rather than learn the very specific nuanced dictionary definitions of a bunch of words, I’ve grouped a bunch of GRE-level words under a very simple heading, like a common definition. Do they all exactly mean the same thing? No, there are nuances and distinctions between the words, but they generally fall under that category.

Like, for example, I have a category for ‘talks too much.’ And under that category is loquacious, garrulous, prolix, logorrheic, verbose.

Davis: Are there nuanced definitions between those words?

Orion: Yeah.

Davis: Do you need to know them?

Orion: No, no, they all mean you can’t shut up, you talk too much.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And so, if you can just put on one side of a card ‘talks too much,’ and you can put on the other side these five or six GRE-level words, that’s going to improve your vocab acquisition significantly. It’s going to make it more efficient; you’re going to learn five words or six words where you would have just learned one before. And you learn the words at a lower resolution, which is actually more beneficial for you in terms of prep.

And finally, it helps you study words more in the context of what you actually have to do on the GRE, which is to recognize that certain words are synonym pairs. Basically, well, that’s what I was going to point out, is that this particular strategy is goal-oriented. You’re looking at the types of questions that the GRE poses to the test taker. And then, you’ve already developed a strategy. We’ve already gone over it in previous episodes about how to filter through the answer choices based on synonyms, based on pairs of synonyms. And then you’re creating or elaborating on the way to study for words based on those end goals in mind.

And as far as I know, Stellar is the only GRE prep program that utilizes the semantic cluster approach.

Davis: So where can people find your version of flashcards?

Orion: Oh, that’s a good question. Right now, you can go to stellargre.com. I’m working on an app right now. That should be released through, you know, like on your phone, but it’s not ready.

Davis: So, you’re kind of hinting at something that’s in the works, and I hope to get it out soon, but everyone’s going to have to exercise patience for a little bit longer.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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