This morning I was scrolling through a news briefing, and I came across a word I didn’t know: excoriate. A senator excoriated President Trump for not conceding the election. I commented to my son about learning a new word. Then and there I looked it up in the dictionary to make sure my guess from context was right and to hear the pronunciation.

My son, of course, didn’t lose the opportunity to comment wryly, “But you’re an English teacher. Don’t you know that word?”
“No,” I responded, “but I know similar words like admonish and reprimand.

Who says “excoriate” in conversation? Well, over the course of the day, I think I worked in enough practice with this word to make it stick in my head, but the effort wasn’t really necessary. “Excoriate” would do just fine sitting my vault of passive vocabulary. I’m not embarrassed that it took me more than four decades to learn “excoriate.” Now I know it. It would be more embarrassing not to know higher frequency words like rebuke, criticize, and censure.

This episode made me think of a question I recently received. A high intermediate student asked about the challenge of encountering unfamiliar words and words that look vaguely familiar, but not enough to be easily recognizable. I explained the basic idea of needing multiple encounters to learn a word and the tendency to have a lot more passive vocabulary than active vocabulary. I encouraged him to continue reading and listening regularly for exposure.

Sometimes, however, a demonstration is necessary. If you wish to model how to work with one’s existing word knowledge to make sense of more challenging vocabulary, please check out my 20-question quiz. It prompts students to make use of context clues, examine suffixes, think of synonyms, and consider register.

One way to view vocabulary is to see it like an onion. Some words are going to sit there with the peel in tact. We know it’s an onion, but we don’t need to cut it up. Other words are worth peeling back and dicing up. If you try to cut up too much, though, you’ll cry. You can’t memorize too much at once or convert all your passive vocabulary into active vocabulary overnight. Peel the layers back gradually. No one will excoriate you for learning at a moderate rate. Repetition and review are key. Like a slow-cooked stew, vocabulary acquisition takes time.

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