Under the Hood

The science of vocabulary building

Vocabulary Begets Vocabulary: The More You Know, the More You Learn

Ever notice that the more you play the Challenge, or learn a Vocabulary List, or even just look up words you don’t know in the Dictionary, the faster you start learning the new words you see and hear in everyday life?

Don’t chalk this up to that recent uptick in your coffee consumption. Scientific research on vocabulary building suggests that the more vocabulary you know, the more you learn.

Back in the 1980s, in a research study out of the University of Texas at Austin, John L. Shefelbine asked 32 sixth graders to define words they were unlikely to know: bolted, clamber, makeshift, manipulating, and lodge, among others. First they saw the words cold. A week later, they had a go at them in context.

Shefelbine knew that all the students would do better with context clues. What he didn’t know, though, was which students would make the largest gains. Was it the students he’d included in the study due to their above-average analytic reasoning skills? Or the students he’d hand-picked for their above-average vocabularies? (He included below-average students in both groups as well.)

Would you guess it was the “above average vocabulary level” students? You’re right! Shefelbine showed that students who knew the most words going into the study had learned the most new words by the end of it, hands-down. He also showed that analytical reasoning skills were not a factor — the kids with poor analytical abilities but high vocabulary levels left their potentially “smarter” counterparts in dust.

So good news, Vocabularians. Just by being here, you’re learning. The more you play the Challenge, the more you’ll learn, on and off the site.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 22nd 2012, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Ed A. (OH)
This result seems right in line with the idea that kids should use "context clues" to decipher new words.

The more words they already know, the more "context clues" they recognize while reading.
Friday February 24th 2012, 5:50 PM
Comment by: John P.
32 is a pretty poor sample size and it's difficult to draw conclusions from such a small study.
Saturday February 25th 2012, 10:59 AM
Comment by: bethsy G.
This Website is really great I learn a lot of words everyday. Love it
Saturday February 25th 2012, 7:18 PM
Comment by: Sue C.
Who is teaching the person or persons reciting the audio portio of a word? They are pronouncing some words wrong. Hinder with a long i. I don't think so. The word grave with two syllables. That is only a few errors.
Sunday February 26th 2012, 2:41 AM
Comment by: Chris M.
Not so sure I'm fond of the tone the article takes in the last statement of the fifth paragraph. Don't downplay the significance of analytical and quantitative skills.
Monday February 27th 2012, 12:01 AM
Comment by: Stuart the Maniac
I don't think the article denigrates those with analytical skills. It merely points out that there is a higher correlation to ability to learn vocabulary among those who have a high vocabulary already than among those with an analytical bent.
Tuesday March 6th 2012, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Thomas C.
I'm really just starting with this site and very much appreciate the power of this tool. I would like return my thanks and contribute with feedback and ideas.
Does anyone know where the feedback/ questions area is? There doesn't seem to be on.
I'm building a personal vocab list. Some of the words are "not learnable". Why is this? Can I make them "learnable" so I may be tested? Is it just a shortfall of the system and the words may one day be programmed to be tested?

I'd appreciate any fedback,

Thank you
Monday March 12th 2012, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Vocabulary.com (NY)Visual Thesaurus Moderator
Thanks for the comment, Sue. You'll notice variant pronunciations were
Friday March 30th 2012, 1:05 PM
Comment by: Julius Z.
This is by far the best website I have ever encountered regarding to building up vocabulary. Nice UI, easy to navigate, not to mention the best ever way to learn new vocabulary (Challenge and Dictionary which contextualize the cold word).
Saturday June 23rd 2012, 10:37 AM
Comment by: Mac V.
I agree with John P. - 32 sixth grade students makes a flimsy case for a universal law of vocabulary acceleration.
Wednesday July 18th 2012, 1:58 PM
Comment by: Amit G.
I think taking a challenge randomly will not work for below average students.
What People with below average vocabulary should do that they should learn words from a list and then start taking challenge out of these words.

It will increase their confidence and motivate them to learn new words and take more challange from the list.
Thursday August 2nd 2012, 5:33 PM
Comment by: briana X.
vocabulary.com would be smarter if it had more learnable words. Specialty or professional words are extremely helpful for college students like me trying to memorize the lexicon specific for their majors. I tried to learn words from my textbooks but less than half were learnable among the words I searched.
Sunday November 4th 2012, 2:12 AM
Comment by: solid W.
Guys,this site rocks, my only wish is that you develop an android app, and include all the features of the site in the app. it would be a great help to have vocabulary.com on the go!
Friday November 23rd 2012, 2:23 AM
Comment by: Gavin G.
I think it is a little diffcult to me.I don't know most of the vocabularis.Oh,so sad!
Wednesday December 12th 2012, 7:50 PM
Comment by: Edson C. (CA)
Back in the 1980s, in a research study out of the University of Texas at Austin, John L. Shefelbine asked 32 sixth graders -_- do you guys have recent stuff?!
Tuesday February 12th 2013, 2:54 AM
Comment by: T.Bladel (IA)
Why in the world are there so many complaints. It's a blog post with useful information. If you want research on so and so, find a peer reviewed site. This whining is a bit puerile.
Tuesday February 26th 2013, 7:19 PM
Comment by: Taylor B.
I am a 9th grade student doing a writing project for school on why students and all people would be greatly benefited by a higher knowledge of vocabulary.
Does anyone know of some good sources that prove this is true? I am looking for statistics ,facts,etc.

I would be very grateful for any help. Thank you!
Thursday March 7th 2013, 2:48 PM
Comment by: Mmo S. (AL)
Well thats good, my analytical skills isnt all that. Im just here so I can pass my GED english scores.
Wednesday March 27th 2013, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Josh
Is there a word to describe people who use too many unnecessary words when they speak? I have immense respect for words and I think a healthy vocabulary enriches your experience of life...but when people just spout bog words to sound intelligent its just pretentious. Is there a specific word for using words unnecessarily? I couldn't find one on the net, but this would be the place to ask.
Wednesday April 17th 2013, 3:18 PM
Comment by: Taymour_S (Saudi Arabia)
Its an great experiment that was done in the 1980s, but right now we are at 2013 so it might be a bit different
Choosing 32 students only is alright, but not accurate or even close to accurate, a small sample was picked, it should be more students.
Wednesday May 8th 2013, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Taylor B.
They more you know , the more you learn! SO Neat! i never knew that! Is it only that way with vocabulary learning I wonder.
Friday May 17th 2013, 6:35 PM
Comment by: Lafayette (AZ)
I believe that a number of factors are being engaged when I'm doing the challenge. If I see an unfamiliar word I try to analyze the way the word is used in the sentence. If this doesn't work I look to see if the word looks like a word that I know. If these two ploys don't work I guess.

Dennis M.
Wednesday October 23rd 2013, 7:42 PM
Comment by: Sputnik (Australia)
Isn't it possible that the kids who already have above-average vocabulary levels simply possess an increased natural inclination to learn and remember words and were simply excerising this ability in learning the new words faster? As opposed to the size of their vocablaries exponentially increasing their ability to learn words, as seems to be implied here.
Thursday October 24th 2013, 5:27 PM
Comment by: NippleKid
You have to wonder if this study has been replicated. How valid is a study from thirty years ago?
Tuesday January 21st 2014, 8:52 AM
Comment by: IdyllicIDIOT (India)
Thanks to this website I can win Spelling competitions with people twice my age !
I'm just 16

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