Take it Easy

For intermediate and advanced English students, one of the best ways to learn new vocabulary in English — and get a better understanding of how native speakers put words together — is to read an article that expresses an opinion on a topic that interests you. The nice thing about an opinion article — such as this one in Slate about how to encourage more women to study science at university — is that the vocabulary is precise and expressive, but also informal and colloquial — in other words, it’s like listening to a well-spoken, interesting person at the dinner table. Speaking of listening… you can listen to a podcast of this article as well (scroll down the list of podcasts to June 7).

When you’re reading something difficult, first read through the whole article fairly quickly and try to get a general idea of the the topic and the thesis (the main argument). Then go back to the beginning and read more slowly, looking up words you don’t know and paying close attention to how the words are put together.

For example, in the first couple of paragraphs we find the phrase take the helm – a common expression in business English meaning to take charge, to become the leader of something, in this case referring to Ursula Burns becoming the new CEO of Xerox. The word comes from the nautical world, since helm means the wheel or tiller by which a ship is steered.

Next up is the verb balk (rhymes with walk), which means to stop, as at an obstacle, and refuse to proceed or to do something specified (usually followed by at). Here, Burns’s predecessor as CEO of Xerox, Ann Mulcahy, refutes the idea that Burns would have had a harder time reaching the top if Mulcahy hadn’t broken the glass ceiling at Xerox. Balk is also a term used in baseball, when the pitcher interrupts his pitching motion to fake a throw to one of the bases – an illegal move that allows a baserunner to advance.

This leads into a discussion of the paucity of women in senior positions. Paucity is a noun which means that there isn’t enough of something.

Don’t feel frustrated if it takes you half an hour and you’re still not even halfway through the article. Who cares how many pages or paragraphs you read? The important thing is you’ve learned a few new words in context, and that context will help you understand those words the next time you encounter them in print or on the web.

Bonus article on the topic of women in science: from a science blog, short bios of top women scientists past and present.

Have any of your own tips about learning vocabulary through reading, or about the issues raised in the Slate article about women in science?

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