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The Power of Words. “Quick-Fix Workshop” Communications Centre.

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The Power of Words

“Quick-Fix Workshop”

Communications Centre

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Why do large vocabularies characterize executives and possibly outstanding men and women in other fields? The final answer seems to be that words are the instruments by means of which men and women grasp the thoughts of others and with which they do much of their own thinking. They are the “tools of thought.”

- Johnson O’Connor

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  • Everyone – from those just learning English to journalism veterans – knows the frustration of not having the right word immediately available in that lexicon (vocabulary) one carries between one’s ears

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  • Whether you’re reading a newspaper, billboard sign, cereal box, or textbook, it can be extremely frustrating to encounter words whose meanings elude us

  • Not knowing the meaning of certain words may hinder your success academically and in your daily life activities

    Remember: LANGUAGE = POWER

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A Few Interesting Facts

  • According to David Orr’s 2000 article, “Verbicide,”:

    • “In the past 50 years…the working vocabulary of the average 14 year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words. This is not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think.”

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  • The problem of language, however, is a global problem. Of the roughly 6500 languages now spoken on Earth, half are on the brink of extinction and only 150 or so are expected to survive to the year 2100.”

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  • Language everywhere is being whittled down to conform to the limited objectives of the global economy and homogenized to accord with the shallow imperatives of the ‘information age’.”

    So, what can we do to preserve and improve our crucial knowledge of words?

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Learning New Words

  • One of the best ways of learning new words is to meet them in context

  • In such situations it is very often possible, by reading a sentence carefully and by recognizing certain clues, to guess with reasonable accuracy the meaning of an unfamiliar word

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  • Sentences or paragraphs frequently offer the following clues to the meanings of unfamiliar words:

    • The general sense or meaning of the sentence or paragraph

    • Tone and point of view of the writer

    • Connectives such as and and or, which can signal a likeness, or but, yet and conversely can indicate a contrast

    • Punctuation marks such as a colon indicating a list, a dash indicating additional information, or an exclamation mark indicating intensity

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Using Context Clues

  • Try to determine the meaning of each of the following italicized words from its context in the sentence. Check a good dictionary to evaluate how close you have come

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1. Many doctors today endorse a holistic view of medicine – one that includes attention to nutrition, exercise, and psychological needs as well as to drugs and surgery.

Dictionary meaning?

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2. In spite of the fact that the clouds scudded across the sky overhead, there was not the suggestion of a breeze, much less a wind, in the harbour.

Dictionary meaning?

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3. I enjoyed meeting the affable owner of the shop; her easy-going and cheerful manner endeared her to me.

Dictionary meaning?

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Strategies for Remembering New Words

  • Say the word aloud several times:

    • Saying the word aloud, especially along with a short phrase, will help you remember it

    • Learn how to use the pronunciation guide in your dictionary, and if you are an ESL learner, ask a native speaker to pronounce new words into your tape recorder

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  • Tie new words to old:

    • When you encounter a new word, think of a method for recalling the meaning

    • This will often involve using a word that you already know

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  • Use visualization:

    • For example, to recall that draconian measures are harsh and extreme, visualize Dracula biting someone’s neck for missing class!

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  • Write vocabulary cards:

    • This technique DOES work

    • Keep a stack of cards in your pocket or bag and whenever you hear a new word, write it on a card

    • Set aside a few minutes each day to look up the words in a dictionary

    • On one side of the card write the word and its pronunciation cue

    • On the reverse side, write the definition (in your own words) and also a sentence for the word

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  • Make use of your new words

    • Share your new-found words with friends and family

    • Drop new words into a conversation

    • Teach your friends and family the meaning of your new words

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  • Review, review , review:

    • You can’t expect to learn a new word and never forget it

    • Periodically go back over the words you’ve learned and quiz yourself

    • Flag the words you missed and review them again

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Using All the Resources


  • There are many books about vocabulary building available in bookstores

  • Look for one that includes helpful exercises and the kinds of words that you would like to learn

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  • Read more and keep a dictionary nearby:

    • Reading widely is the most effective and natural way to improve your vocabulary

    • When you come upon an unfamiliar word, don’t ignore it but rather write it down and find its meaning in the dictionary

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  • Dictionaries and Thesauruses:

    • Buy two dictionaries; keep a quality dictionary at home (Oxford is best) and carry a small portable dictionary with you

    • Check online dictionaries, too – the online Merriam Webster’s WWWebster Dictionary

    • Consult a thesaurus for synonyms but make sure you understand the meaning of each word by looking it up in the dictionary

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  • Word puzzles

    • Try “Madlibs”– online or in book form

  • Crosswords

    • Make it a daily activity to complete one crossword from a book of crosswords or from a newspaper

  • Magnetic Poetry

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  • The Internet:

    • You can use the Internet as an aid to vocabulary development by exploring the abundant opportunities for reading

    • Read online newspapers:

      • The Globe and Mail

      • The Hamilton Spectator

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  • Choose online magazines such as Atlantic and Mother Jones that challenge your mind and vocabulary with full-text articles

  • Atlantic has a language section – select from “Word Court, “Word Fugitive”, and “Word Police”www.theatlantic.com/language/

  • Read the New York Times Book Review

    • www.nytimes.com

      (one-time registration is FREE!)

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