Improving Your Vocabulary for the ASVAB

Having an extensive vocabulary can help you do well on the Word Knowledge ASVAB subtest. But even if you don't have a huge vocabulary, the strategies in this article can help you make up for that.

You can acquire vocabulary words in the short term as well as over a long period of time. Combining both approaches is best, but if you're pressed for time, focus on short-term memorization and test-taking skills.

Reading your way to a larger vocabulary

To build your vocabulary, you have to read — it's that simple. Studies consistently show that those who read for enjoyment have a much larger vocabulary than those who dislike reading. You have to see the words in print, not just hear someone say them. Besides, people can read and understand many more words than they could ever use in conversation.

If you don't read much, you can start with your daily newspaper, a news magazine, or any type of reading material that's just a notch or two above what you ordinarily read. Choose topics that interest you. If you're interested in the subject matter, you'll enjoy reading more. Plus, you may just learn something new!

When you encounter a word you don't know, try to understand what it means by the context in which the word is used. For example, if you read, "The scientist extrapolated from the data," and you don't know what extrapolated means, you can try substituting words you do know to see if they would make sense. For example, the scientist probably didn't hide from the data. She probably used the data to make some sort of decision, judgment, or guess. To confirm your understanding of the word, check your dictionary. You may even consider keeping a running list of terms you come across as you read, along with their definitions.

On the Word Knowledge section of the ASVAB, you often won't be able to guess what a word means from its context (because in many cases, there's no context in the test because the words aren't used in sentences). You also won't be able to look the word up in the dictionary. But considering context and consulting a dictionary are two great ways to discover vocabulary words during your test preparation.

Keeping a list and checking it twice

Not long ago, an 11-year-old girl went through the entire dictionary and made a list of all the words she didn't know. (The process took several months.) She then studied the list faithfully for a year and went on to win first place in the National Spelling Bee finals. You don't have to go to this extent, but even putting in a tenth of her effort can dramatically improve your scores on the Word Knowledge subtest.

One way to improve your vocabulary is to keep a word list similar to the girl's in the preceding example. Here's how that list works:

1. When you hear or read a word that you don't understand, jot it down.

2. When you have a chance, look the word up in the dictionary and then write the meaning down on your list.

3. Use the word in a sentence that you make up. Write the sentence down, too.

4. Use your new words in everyday conversation.

Finding a way to work the word zenith into a description of last night's basketball game requires creativity, but you won't forget what the word means.

Arrange your list by related items so that the words are easier to remember. For example, list the words having to do with your work on one page, words related to mechanical knowledge on another page, and so on.

If you're looking for a few good resources to help you with vocabulary, check out these sources:

  • Internet keyword searches: You can find Web sites that offer lists of words if you spend a few minutes surfing. Try using search phrases such as vocabulary words and SAT words.
  • www.freevocabulary.com: Free Vocabulary offers a free list of over 5,000 collegiate words, along with brief definitions.
  • www.dictionary.com: Dictionary.com includes a great online dictionary, thesaurus, and word of the day.
  • Merriam Webster Online: Merriam Webster online is another useful site with a free online dictionary, thesaurus, and word of the day.
  • Books: A ton of books exist to help build your vocabulary. In fact, searching for vocabulary here at Dummies.com will yield a good book or two.

Sounding off by sounding it out

Sometimes you actually know a word because you've heard it in conversation, but you don't recognize it when you see it written down. For instance, the word subtle (pronounced SUH-tl) could confuse anyone encountering it in writing for the first time. A student who'd heard the word placebo (pronounced plah-SEE-bow) might know that it means an inactive substance, like a sugar pill. But, when she came across it in writing, she might not recognize it, thinking it should be pronounced "PLACE-bow."

So when you see a word on the ASVAB that you don't recognize, try pronouncing it (not out loud, please) a couple of different ways. The following pronunciation rules can help you out:

  • Sometimes sounds are silent (like the b in subtle or the k in knight). Often, a letter at the end of a word is silent. For instance, coup is pronounced "coo."
  • Some sounds have unusual pronunciations in certain contexts. Think of the first l in colonel, which is pronounced like kernel.
  • C can sound like s or k and sometimes like ch (especially if two cs are in a row).
  • The letter i after a t can form a sound like she. Think of the word initiate.
  • X can be pronounced like z, and it's sometimes silent.
  • A vowel at the end of a word can change the pronunciation of letters in the word. The word wag has different a and g sounds than the word wage.
  • When several vowels are right next to each other, they can be pronounced many different ways (consider boo, boa, and bout). Try a couple of different possibilities. For instance, if you see the word feint, you may think that it should be pronounced "feent" or "fiynt," but in fact, it sounds like faint. It means fake or pretend.
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