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Reading Vocabulary in Context: Where Should I Start?

Reading at random from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly is much like walking straight into a dense, vast forest, and hoping you will find a path through the woods.

Amidst insightful, nuanced articles, one has to contend with the weeds and underbrush – to continue the bosky metaphor – of articles based mainly on ephemera: Hollywood happenings, or those articles that are time-sensitive, and provide little reflection from their respective authors.

Avoid the political tracker, the latest news, and any scandal (you can think of them as the bears in the woods). Even news on the Middle East, which has seen an unprecedented and historic uprising, has also seen a flurry of articles that deal more with reporting the latest happening than providing an in-depth analysis.

However, just because a piece falls under one of the above doesn’t mean it is always made up of easily digestible bits, free of any intimidating words. Here is a political opinion piece that makes a nuanced, albeit impassioned, point.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/10/stop-forcing-journalists-to-conceal-their-views-from-the-public/247571/

In general, if there are trails on this forest of reading, they are best found in the Science, Arts/Literature/Essays. Perhaps the trail metaphor is a bit misleading – even paradoxical – for these articles are hardly easy reading. And they shouldn’t be – if you are prepping for the Revised GRE, you want to challenge yourself with reading.

Challenging reading tends to be vocabulary dense (and no, don’t think of vocabulary as weeds), insightful, and complex. Below are three areas you want to have in mind when choosing which article, out of the vast forest, to read.

Subject Matter

The more esoteric the better. After all, the new GRE does not choose passages based on familiarity. This week, there is a profile of Helene Grimaud, a classical pianist known for her unorthodox style, and bold interpretations of the usual suspects from the classical oeuvre.

The piece discusses how she approaches learning pieces and, on a deeper level, how she interprets classical music – what is “proper,” what is innovative, and what is simply an abomination of the composer’s original work. Uh, you still with me? Forcing yourself outside of your knowledge comfort zone will help you immensely on test day.

Even seemingly prosaic topics, such as maple syrup, can, in the right hands, become a fascinating exploration of history.

http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/05/making-the-grade-why-the-cheapest-maple-syrup-tastes-best/239133/

Length

If you become accustomed to reading longer articles, your brain will develop more reading endurance. Because the new GRE is a marathon, and not a sprint, you will want to practice improving your endurance, or, enduring long pieces, as it were.

Many feature articles from The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly can run ten pages. You don’t have to read the entire article in one sitting (remember if you are just stringing words together, you are not really reading).  Understanding what you read, and taking an interest, as much as is possible, will help).

A New Yorker feature about a rogue scientist unraveling the mystery of the Neanderthals is a great place to start. It’s nine pages long, reflects on our existence, and, also, that of our erstwhile, hirsute relative, and offers GRE vocabulary – many you’ve seen before, many you haven’t.

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/15/110815fa_fact_kolbert

Analysis

You don’t want an article that simply reports the facts; you do want an article that offers an opinion or viewpoint. Almost all of the longer GRE passages fall into this category. Better still, a viewpoint that is complex and nuanced will challenge you to really think about what a writer is saying about a particular area.  This is a skill you will definitely need on the GRE.

Density

Rumor has it that the GRE takes already complex passages, and makes them even more complex. Therefore, try to find articles/features in which the author favors long, winding sentences, chock full of big ideas and big words. Who knows, maybe that author even works for ETS.

Choosing Your Own Articles

So, venture forth – and see which fascinating piece of writing you can unearth from the forest of magazines and periodicals.

About the Author

Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT for the last 10 years. He is the Lead Content Developer and Tutor for Magoosh. His favorite food is wasabi-flavored almonds. Follow him on Google+!

41 Responses to Reading Vocabulary in Context: Where Should I Start?

  1. PRAFULL SHARMA April 14, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    Hello Chris. You people are doing great job, Magoosh carries everything one needs to prepare for the GRE.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 15, 2014 at 10:59 am #

      Thanks for the kind words :)

  2. Yen June 10, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    Hi,
    Could you guys come up with a reading list per week, or an article per day… and send to subscribers? That would be nice
    Thanks.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 10, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

      Hi Yen,

      Thanks for the suggestion :)! For now, we are doing an article of month post. Making it more frequent would make the weekly blog a bit crowded, with Vocab Wednesday and all. For a resource that gives a daily dosage of difficult articles, aldaily.com is excellent.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Diksha June 9, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    I am following your Verbal and math focused study plans. It mentions to learn new words – 10/20 each day….. fine so far….

    But then when I read classics like “Gone with the Wind” and even news stories – I come across many more words in the same day that I have no clue about and that I should learn. So the number of words everyday is more than 50 at times and I know even you would agree that it is too high for anyone to effectively learn and recall.

    What should I do?

    Thanks

  4. Kenny August 19, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I am interested in science.

    Do you think I should read more in science articles, which is easier for me to understand? Or do you think I should read those articles with different topic, like business, art and social science, in which I am less familiar with?

    Further more, do you think reading opinions pages like the SundayReview in NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/pages/opinion/index.html#sundayreview) is also good?

    Kenny

    • Chris Lele
      Chris August 21, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

      Good question!

      I would definitely focus on less scientific-oriented passages. You know, those ones that gush on about the latest Virginia Woolf biography. Reading outside your comfort zone will definitely help test day, esp. if you end up getting a passage on the use of foreshadowing by Virginia Woolf :).

      As for opinion pages, I’d recommend them more for SAT students; the SAT is filled with first-person narratives. For the GRE, I’d focus more on articles from the aforementioned fields.

      Hope that helps :)

      • Amr Fouda August 27, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

        I have a question which baffle me !! when i get a new word to learn and open the dictionary to find it most of words have lot of meaning and can use in different context with different meanings,so should i study all the meaning of each word but this will take long time or there is some meanings are rarely used and others are popular..i hope you can help

        • Chris Lele
          Chris August 29, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

          This is a tough question to answer :).

          See if I take a word such as ‘set’, which has hundreds of definitions, then of course learning all those different definitions would take forever. Usually, for GRE level words there should be, at most, three different definitions.

          As for using the word across the different contexts, get a feel for the contexts. Let’s say I use the word ‘debase’ – seeing it used in several different example sentences (you can use ‘wordnik’ to do so), should give you a strong feel for the word.

          Hope that helps!

  5. Virginia July 9, 2012 at 8:28 am #

    Thanks, Chris!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      You are very welcome :).

  6. Sivabalan Umapathy June 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    Honestly – this blog is awesome! Thanks Chris! (btw I just raised a question on this front from my magoosh account – and hours later landed on your blog

    Your points about getting out of “Knowledge comfort zone” is a key one.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris June 26, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

      Great! I’m happy you’ve found the blog helpful!

      Let me know if you have any questions as you read through it :).

  7. Blue April 6, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    Thanks again Mr.Chris.Certainly it will help. Your vocab advices are working nicely. I am asking a lot of questions.Sorry for that. Would you please give me a complete guideline for AWA and which book to follow?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 6, 2012 at 9:41 am #

      Hi Blue,

      No problem :).

      For AWA, I’d recommend Barron’s. Follow that up by practicing on the essay prompt question bank available on the gre.org site.

  8. Blue April 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Thanks for the link. It will help me a lot to my preparation. Would u please give me a Math books review based on your own view point? which books are better and how to follow? I found your idea works on me. :D

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      Hi Blue,

      For starting off, McGraw Hill math is very helpful. Magoosh also has all the math concepts nicely arranged. Book-wise Manhattan GRE is a good mix of concepts and practice questions.

      Hope that helps!

  9. Blue April 2, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    I will let you know if it works well.

    Also i will ask u a question which is really irrelevant in this post but i have to ask that i need a strong step by step GRE math preparation guideline.I want to do better in GRE math.

    Would u please give me ” Chris’s step by step GRE Math preparation guideline?? :P

    Thanks in advance.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 3, 2012 at 11:07 am #

      Hi Blue,

      Honestly, I cannot think of a better step-by-step plan then working through the Magoosh math video lessons and questions. Each question is tagged to a certain lesson video, so you do a few questions and, when you don’t know the answer, go to the pertinent lesson video.

      Below is our study guide that fleshes this out over a 3-month period:

      http://magoosh.com/gre/2012/90-day-gre-study-plan-math-focused/

      Hope that helps :).

  10. Blue April 1, 2012 at 12:47 am #

    At last i found a guy who is helping from heart. Yea his name is CHRIS. Thanks MR.CHRIS. I am fan of ur articles, youtube videos about GRE. Today i decided to start my GRE preparation and planing to take GRE test during September. I will be very happy if u give me a proper guideline for this journey.

    I am starting the journey with vocabulary building.Would u please give me some advices about step by step Vocabulary building? How can i start?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 2, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

      Hi Blue,

      Thanks for the kudos :).

      A good step-by-step approach is to take unfamiliar words you encounter in context and turn them into flashcards (you can always do so in e-form on quizlet.com – it’s great for smart phone users). Quiz yourself regularly on these words. Constantly reading and doing GRE exercises will help reinforce words.

      For a vocab book that offers a week-by-week approach, I recommend Barron’s 1100 Word You Need to Know.

      Let me know if that helps :).

  11. Abhishek March 23, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    Thanks Chris. Eagerly waiting for the blog post:)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 23, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Working on it as we speak :).

      Should be up soon!

  12. Abhishek March 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    Hi Chris,
    Your advisory articles on GRE vocabulary building and RC improvement are very helpful. These articles are helping me give a proper orientation to my study plans. I always wonder that what do efficient readers think while reading any passage? I mean, given the large availability of articles on different subjects, I generally end up reading quite a hefty lot by the end of the day but spend too little time analyzing or thinking more deeply over what I have read. So most of the times it just becomes a skimming exercise with no proper thought to the subject actually. Can you advise on what percent of the time should be spent in self questioning, reasoning and introspection on what we read on a daily basis. I would think that these should constitute major part of our reading habit in orfer to develop a proper understanding of the material. Would be glad if you could share your own reading style.

    Thanks,
    Abhishek

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 19, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      This is definitely a great question!

      Two readers can read the exact same passage and nearly identical speeds, but it is the way in which they are reading that counts.

      Constant skimming – something that most of us inveterately do on the Internet – has become the norm. However, as a GRE test taker you want to synthesize what you read, stopping every few minutes and asking yourself what you read. This process forces you to not only recall info. but to also make connections.

      Think of it this way – it is far better to read 20 pages this way vs. 100 pages in which you skim.

      That said, this is such a good question that it has inspired a blog post. Stay tuned, I should have one up in a couple of weeks that illustrates what I talk about in this post.

      Thanks again :).

  13. Aman March 17, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    Seems effective will try this one

    Thanks Chris

  14. Aman March 15, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    Hey Chris,
    Sorry to bother you again but there is one more problem regarding reading comprehension which i forgot to include earlier .
    Its like this ,when i read a particular passage (for RC or generally ) loudly enough to be heard by me ,I am able to both germinate interest and keep on with my speed ,hence able to do the questions based on the passage .But ,when it comes to mock exam(in a examination center) as i am not allowed to speak, i loose interest and detour from the topic .

    I know this issue of mine is a bit abberation but i guess this is a very crucial aspect in GRE…….

    Please help me out ,as u always do….. :)
    Thanks

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 16, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

      Not an aberration at all – I was just discussing this very issue with an SAT student.

      My advice: move your lips, sounding out the words to yourself. Nobody in the testing center will be bothered – unless they can’t stop staring at your lips (which is their problem, not yours) :).

  15. Aman March 15, 2012 at 4:31 am #

    Hi Chris ,

    Thanks for the update .I tried NY times earlier but articles are very prolonged and irksome ,i tried reading some but lost interest earlier and so, found it difficult to relate words with it.
    I guess may be i should try different category now.

    Anyways,thanks for your valuable support and advice.

    Keep helping us … :D

  16. Chris Lele
    Chris March 14, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    Hi Aman,

    Thanks for the kudos :)

    So by “interesting” I am not sure exactly what you mean. Everyone has different tastes. But let’s say you like sports. Read the nytimes.com sports section. If you like fashion, read the nytimes fashion section. If you are looking for heart-stopping action and constant suspense, then maybe John Grisham. Unfortunately John Grisham does not use any GRE words.

    Ultimately, GRE words usually pop up in sources that are slightly academic in bent. I enjoy reading some New Yorker extended pieces. I find them interesting – though not everyone agrees with me.

    Anyhow, make sure to do plenty of practice GRE questions as well, both to reinforce words you already know and to pick up news ones.

    Good luck!

  17. Aman March 14, 2012 at 4:57 am #

    Hey Chris, these are great for practice. BTW, I was going through your youtube channel, and it’s quite impressive… great work. From the time I started, it has become habit-forming; keep this good stuff up! :)

    I am facing some problems in the word list – I just started with your strategies on vocab. Can you tell a site where some INTERESTING articles could be found that contain GRE words? Actually, I’m taking my GRE in a month or so and lack in vocab. I found the relating method to be beneficial, so I thought to try to up my performance with this technique. Please help me…

    And thanks for providing these great video tutorials!

  18. Akshay December 26, 2011 at 8:21 am #

    good stuff.you intersperselot of high level words.looks like i have to access dictionary for abomination and prosaic let alone read the NY times

    • Chris Lele
      Chris December 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

      Yes, you will definitely want to access the dictionary as much as possible. Even if you think you know a word from context, look up the word to see whether you are right. To assume your definition is correct is risky.

  19. shuddha November 7, 2011 at 6:23 am #

    hello,Chris….I am a member of your Premium program,Which I joined very recently and simply loved it…For vocabulary..I simply want to know is barron’s 3000 is still essential or is it required to learn less words than that?I am learning those words using a software called “Vocaboly” and its simply great also…But for reading comprehension…I am in trouble because sometimes its really very tough to keep pace with the article and worrying for time problem..Is New York times or New Workers and the economist or the atlantic enhance my reading skill dramatically or should I follow another way?I am looking for a very high score in both verbal and math part.That is why i am preparing very hard for the verbal part.Could you kindly give me some suggestion?I am from Bangladesh and I am a electrical engineering Final year student.If I maintain 90 percentile on verbal and 96-98 percentile on quantitative should I apply to Top universties like Texas A&M college station,UT Austin and UIUC,Georgia Tech,Ucla?
    Thank you

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

      Hi Shudda,

      I would continue recommend reading articles but make sure you always do this in conjunction with learning words. So don’t just learn a bunch of Barron’s words without improving your knowledge of how these words function in a sentence.

      In the end a 90% for verbal is very difficult to attain. And since you are applying to electrical engineering, I really wouldn’t worry about your verbal score too much. Obviously the verbal score is important, but those schools are going to be focusing more on your quant score. As long as your verbal score is around 60% that should be competitive for those programs. More importantly those programs will look at your work experience.

      Still, I would continue working with the Magoosh product as well as the Vocaboly program, which looks like a fun way to learn vocab.

      Good luck!

  20. Kiran November 5, 2011 at 7:38 am #

    Hi christopher,

    Thanks a lot for this article. RC was the major hurdle for me when i appeared for GRE for the first time:(. Got only 410/800 in verbal. So gearing up to take up gre again. Found this post to be very useful.

    thanks and regards
    kiran

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 5, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

      Kiran,

      Great, I’m happy these articles helped. Let me know how your reading goes.

  21. Sebastian November 4, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    Hi Chris, thanks for the posts!

    Btw, the hyperlink above,

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/15/110815fa_fact_kolbert

    was actually hyperlinked to the maple syrup article.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 4, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

      Thanks, Sebastian! It should be fixed now.

  22. Aashish November 3, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Thanks Chris. This is a great help in terms of vocabulary and also for reading practice.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 4, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

      You’re welcome, I’m glad I could help!


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