21 Foolproof GRE Verbal Strategies for Non-native Speakers
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Are you not comfortable with the Verbal section on the GRE?
Does the idea of learning a ton of vocabulary scare you?
Do you think that it is an uphill task for a non-native speaker to learn English quickly?
If your answer is yes, then this article is for you. We’ve got you covered, with our foolproof GRE verbal strategies.
During our conversations with several hundreds of students and test takers from all over the world, we have realized that almost all of the non-native speaking test takers are finding it incredibly hard to improve their verbal score, especially if they only have a few weeks to prepare for the GRE. This seems more prevalent among students who come from an engineering background.
Most of these students are under the impression that a vocabulary-heavy test like the GRE is disadvantageous to those test takers who are not native to speaking the English language. And many of these students believe that Math is not much of a concern to them, and that the Verbal section, especially the vocabulary part, is the only thing that is not letting them score higher on the GRE.
But having said that, if it is your dream to study in the US, it is inevitable that you take this test, and excel at both the Math and the Verbal sections.
And that is why, we have created a list of learning strategies that can help you get over your fear of vocabulary and the English language, and help you increase your Verbal score on the GRE. Here are 21 foolproof GRE verbal strategies that have been tested and used by thousands of successful test takers, who found them very useful in turning their nightmares into strengths.
Try and implement as many of these strategies as you can in the little time that you have, and you will definitely see a score boost on the Verbal section.
1. Don’t use dictionaries
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone asks you to learn the English vocabulary?
The dictionary, right? But do you really think that using the dictionary is the best way to learn a foreign language? Okay, let’s ask the same question differently. Did somebody give you a dictionary when you started learning your native language as a child? Did you use a dictionary to become an expert in your native language?
No? Then why do you keep using it when studying a foreign language, like English? Yes, we can all agree that the dictionary is probably a fantastic resource of vocabulary, pronunciation, and meanings to a ton of words. It has every word you can imagine in it, and it is certainly a wonderful tool to have in your arsenal.
But having said that, let us be a bit more practical here. Memorizing individual words makes absolutely no sense without learning the context in which it is used. You might see someone who has a list of 10,000 words that he may have learnt using the dictionary, but ask him how many of those words he can really use it in daily life. How many of those words can he *correctly* use when writing in English? Not too many, of course.
And that is why, you should use the dictionary sparingly, and only when needed. It is a great learning tool to have, but then you should not depend entirely on the dictionary.
2. Learn Contextual Usage of Words
Learning whole phrases or sentences is much more effective that learning individual words. This is because, what is the point in learning a word when you don’t know what’s the right way to use it? How do you know when to use it right if you don’t know how it should be used?
For example, take the word “malicious”, which means harmful. It sounds great, doesn’t it? But if you are learning it for the first time, and if you just remember the word and the meaning, you probably will forget it sooner than you think.
Worse yet, you may confuse it with other similar sounding words, such as malleable, or malignant, or malinger, or any other homophonic word. If you tried to memorize it just as it is, you probably wouldn’t succeed. But if you put it into a sentence, for example, like “Snakes are malicious beings.”, or “The burglars maliciously took away everything they have, and now they are homeless.”, then it is bound to stay in your mind forever.
3. Read Journals, Magazines, and Newspapers
Some of the best resources to improving your vocabulary in the context of the GRE, are journals. There are a ton of journals available on the internet that deal with a myriad of topics, and they can certainly help you learn lots of new words in context.
For example, you can study journals from some of the most popular ones, including Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review, IEEE, etc. In addition to the journals, you should also refer to some of the most comprehensive magazines and newspapers that you can read, such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, Scientific American, and The Economist.
These resources will not only help improve your language, but they also help you practice reading a diverse range of topics for several minutes together, and hence will boost your performance on the Reading Comprehension section on the GRE, which is usually considered as the toughest part of the test. Two birds killed with one stone.
4. Read Lots of Books and Novels
Books and novels are an underrated sources of great vocabulary and language. So, the next time your parents criticize you for wasting time on novels instead of studying for the GRE, show them this article. Our recommendations for some of the best books you can read to improve your English Language are: Of Mice and Men, Pride and Prejudice, Lolita, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.
Try to read these books a few pages a day, preferably at the end of the day, before you sleep. And whenever you come across a new word, immediately look up the meaning, write it down somewhere, and reread the same sentence, so you will now not only understand the meaning of the word, but also understand the context in which it is used in the book. Doing that will help you remember the words you have learnt for a long time.
5. Watch English Movies, News and TV
If you are an auditory learner, or someone who prefers to learn by hearing words, then reading a lot may not help you a lot. Although you should still continue to learn by reading, you could greatly benefit from watching English movies and TV. There are several American, and British movies and TV serials that can introduce a ton of new vocabulary to you.
If you are looking for some recommendations, watch these TV shows: Breaking Bad, The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, Sherlock, The Simpsons, etc. Alternatively, you could also watch English news channels such as BBC, CNBC, among several others. And any good English movie has a ton of vocabulary that you can learn.
But then having said that, don’t waste your precious time on watching all these when you have your GRE coming up in the next few weeks. This suggestion is only beginners, or for someone who has several months, or probably years before their test.
6. Think in English
It is more important to think in English, than it is to speak in English. What do you mean by thinking in English? Well, if you are a non-native speaker, then chances are that you tend to think in your native language. What this means is, whenever someone says something to you in English, you unconsciously translate that into your native language inside your head, then find an answer for that in your language, then translate that again into English, and then speak it out. All this happens inside your head within a few seconds.
That is why, you see non-native speakers speak slowly. They also take a few seconds to think before they speak out, and they also tend to break a lot between their sentences. This happens because they are not thinking in English. If you can start “thinking” in English, you will be a lot more spontaneous, and you will also rapidly improve your vocabulary, because you won’t have the barrier – your native language. When you start thinking in English, you take the shortcut and learn better and faster.
7. Learn the root words
We all know that most of the words in English have root words, prefixes, and suffixes. The English language has its roots derived from ancient languages like Greek and Latin. An understanding of the common root words will help you learn a lot of words quickly, and it will also help you make educated guesses during the test, about the meaning of new words. Learning root words is a smart way to study vocabulary, and within a short period of time, you can substantially strengthen your vocabulary. Check out some websites that help you do so, and keep a journal of root words, in case you forget them.
8. Active Reading
It is very important to read actively. A lot of students tend to read passively. Passive reading is for knowledge, or for pleasure, but not to score high on a competitive test like the GRE. Whenever you are reading to learn something new, like vocabulary, you need to actively extract information, instead of passively absorbing it. Focus on the main points. Be strategic. Get used to reading only certain parts of a passage carefully, like the opening paragraph, the conclusion.
These parts help you answer straightforward questions like: What is the author’s main point? Why is the author writing this? What is the author’s writing style?, What is the author’s attitude towards the topic?, etc., which is vital when you are answering some tough questions on the Reading Comprehension section.
9. Keep a journal
Always maintain a journal of the words that you learn every day, and revise them at the end of the day before you go to bed. This is etch those words into your long-term memory, and this means you won’t have to spend too much time revising them again and again the week before your final test. Use your smartphone to keep track of all words you have learnt, use apps like Notepad, or Diaro, and make a note of all the words you have learnt so far.
10. Learn 10 – 20 words a day
Face it. You cannot learn 3000 words in a week, or even a month’s time. Learning a new language, and new vocabulary takes a lot of time, and patience. But at the same time, it will require that you keep in touch with the language every day without fail. And you can do so, if you have small but achievable daily targets. Aim to learn at least 10 or 20 words perfectly every day.
While this may seem too less for some of you, realize that if you can do this properly and follow a strict deadline, you can easily learn more than 500 words per month. Which means, within a few months’ time, you will be ready to take the GRE without any fear of vocabulary. Hence, make it a point to learn words gradually, with a bare minimum of at least 10 words per day.
11. Text your friends in English
Whenever you have a conversation with someone, you must try to use English. Even if you are just texting your friends. Tell your friends that you are learning vocabulary for the GRE, and that you want to talk to them or text them only in English. And when we say English, we really mean it. Texting lingo or chat language don’t count as proper English. If you’re doing something, do it right.
If possible, pick a friend who is also studying for the GRE with you, and challenge him or her to use GRE vocab in your daily conversations. That way, you will learn vocab from each other, and it will also be a fun daily exercise to you both.
12. Play word games
Few resources are better for improving your English language than word games. There are quite a few resources available online that can help you learn vocabulary while playing games and puzzles. This means, you will not feel bored or tired like you usually do when studying, but instead you will find this kind of learning fun and useful at the same time.
Check out websites like Word Games, and Merriam Webster which can give you some really good games that can help you learn more vocab for your GRE, and for general purposes. These tools can come in handy when you are bored of studying for the GRE, and you want to take a small break. Why not use the break effectively, instead of playing Temple Run, or COD?
13. Always Speak in English
Always make it a point to speak in English no matter where you are, or what time of the day it is, or with whom you are speaking to. Whether you are at home, college, office, or at a coffee shop, use English as a medium of communication. It will break barriers, help you lose shyness, and also will improve your language. Try to incorporate speaking in English as much as you can in your daily activities, and encourage your friends and family to talk to you only in English. This constant bombardment of the language will get you acquainted with speaking in English without hesitation, and it will be very resourceful to your GRE prep as well.
14. Study Quality Word Lists
If you aren’t very new to the world of GRE, you probably must be aware of the fact that there exist several ‘GRE word lists’ that can help you learn more and more GRE vocabulary in a short time. While you might think that would be helpful for your cause, you must also be careful about what kind of a list you are going to study. Admittedly, learning several hundreds of new words is not a simple ordeal, and would require lots of time and effort from your end.
And that is why, you would want to do it right. You should look into word lists that have quality GRE words, instead of attractive but not-so-good word lists that you see everywhere on the internet. You could start off with some high-frequency word lists and only when you think you have finished them entirely, you can then move on to other quality word lists on the market.
Apart from the widely popular CrunchPrep’s 101 High-Frequency GRE Words, you can also look at other wordlists like Manhattan’s 800, or Barron’s 333. But, always remember that quality trumps quantity. Learning a few words perfectly is better than learning thousands of words imperfectly.
15. Study Math Vocab for Word Problems
It is very common to get stuck with the verbal section, that many test takers tend to forget that vocabulary is important to ace the Math section as well. Especially when it comes to confusingly worded, and twisted questions on Word Problems. If you are not used to seeing such twisted questions and confusing wording on math questions, you should probably allocate a bit more of your prep time to solving difficult Word Problems.
Sometimes, it really boils down to understanding a math questions properly, in order to quickly solve it. If you aren’t able to get the main idea, or if you miss that cunning little trap within the question, you either end up spending too much time on one question, you end up answering it too fast and get it wrong. At the end of the day, you would want to avoid either of those situations, and if you do, then you must also concentrate on the language used in Word Problems.
This will not need much effort from your end, and you certainly don’t have to remember a ton of vocabulary. Just make sure you understand each question clearly, and that you are able to decipher the questions easily and quickly. This will need a bit of practice, but it will give you some very good results in the end.
16. Analyze Mistakes
A lot of people think that practice is what makes you perfect, but it is not entirely true. It is not just the practice that counts. You cannot simply practice a skill for thousands of hours, and expect to become an expert on that. Unless you do one thing: analysis. Yes, analysis is as important as practice itself, because if you skip the analysis part, you cannot know if what you are doing is right or wrong, and sometimes you end up practicing the wrong way.
And that will make you better at making more mistakes, instead of helping you avoid making them. So, whenever you are taking a practice test or a quiz to test yourself, try to spend as much time on the analysis part, as you spend on the test itself. Use this analysis to review your performance thoroughly, and you will improve your performance over time. Learn what words you are frequently getting wrong and learn the reasons behind it. Change your method of preparation accordingly, and study smarter.
17. Use Online Tools
There are several tools available online, such as YouTube channels, smartphone apps, and other websites that are dedicated to teaching the English language. For example, you can use Rosetta Stone, the world famous app that teaches you several languages including English, you can try using some language fluency tools like Forvo, and Fluentu, you can learn words and idioms from Memrise, or you can browse through YouTube for a ton of dedicated channels on learning the English language. There are also several apps available on Android and iOS that help you learn new words every day.
18. Make friends with people who speak other languages
If you can, try and make friends with people from other parts of the country you live in, or better yet, from other parts of the world. For example, if you are Spanish, and you have a Chinese friend, you know that it is difficult for either of you to learn Mandarin or Spanish. So, you will have to talk to each other in English only. And when you converse in English every day, you will certainly polish your language, your accent, and on the way, you will also learn some new words, phrases, or idioms.
If you want to speed up your learning process, try and see if you can make friends with a native English speaker. Since they are already good at the language, it will be easy for you to pick up their vocabulary, and you will not only learn the right pronunciation of words, but you will also learn contextual usage of certain words and phrases.
19. Use Mnemonics
Another fantastic way to learn the meanings of new words is with the help of mnemonics. Mnemonics are defined as a system of learning that improves your memory. Many successful people, especially test takers, use mnemonics effectively, and remember thousands of foreign words.
Let us look at a simple example: abash. It is a very popular GRE word. If you don’t know the meaning to this word, you can easily substitute the word to something you can easily remember later on. So, you can split the word and give your own meaning, and try to see if the meaning sounds sane enough to remember even after several days.
So, abash can be thought of as “always bashed”. If you are always bashing someone, it means that you are humiliating or embarrassing them. And the word abash means ‘to embarrass someone’. Sounds good enough, does it? This way, you will remember it forever, and it will be easy to recollect such words during the test. Always create your own mnemonics, because it will then be easy to remember. Also, you can create mnemonics in your own language, since mnemonics are only about remembering the meaning, and sometimes a mnemonic in your own language may help you remember better.
20. Write summaries
You are very good a particular language if you are able to cut short a long story in a few simple sentences, and if you can write down a summary of it. So, if you want to improve not just your language abilities, but also your reading comprehension abilities, then you should definitely do this. You don’t need a lot of material or a lot of hard work for this. All you need to do is take the newspaper, read the top stories entirely, and try and write down their summaries on your own.
Do at least two to three summaries every day, and you will definitely improve your comprehension. If you don’t have a newspaper at your disposal, you can try this technique on pretty much any book, novel, magazine, or any reading material for that matter. Just make it a point to read one entire article, and try to summarize it in five or six sentences. This will be of great help to your reading comprehension, and it will certainly boost your performance on the GRE RC passages.
21. Don’t Sweat It Much
While memorizing vocabulary, or learning new words is not the end-all and be-all of language learning, it constitutes a huge chunk of your GRE prep. After all, the GRE Verbal section is a test of your language skills, and you’ll need to build up a huge reserve of the different words used in the English language if you’re going to succeed on the test.
But then, don’t be under the impression that vocabulary is the only way to get there. If you cannot learn a lot of words, so be it. Do the best you can, instead of worrying about the test or the scores. Worrying over the fact that you have weak vocabulary is not at all going to help you in your conquest of the GRE. So, stop sweating it in case you can’t. Focus on what you are good at and try to give your best on the other topics of the test.
Now It’s Your Turn
So, those are some useful, and practicable Verbal strategies for pretty much anyone, but especially for those of you who aren’t native speakers of the English language. If you can follow these simple tips and strategies, you are sure to get some good value from these strategies, and see your score improve by a lot.
What do you think about these 21 strategies? Do you like them? Do you think they’ll be useful to you? Or do you have any other learning strategy that has worked for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
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