Word Power Made Easy

by Norman Lewis

Excerpt - Introduction

But if you are the average adult, your vocabulary is barely one-and-one-half times as large as that of a child of ten.

And you know only one fourth as many words as the average college sophomore.

BUT that’s the least of it.

What is infinitely more significant is that you are now increasing your vocabulary at no more than one one-hundredth your rate when you were in the lower grades of elementary school.

These accusations may sound insulting—but they are not intended to be. They are only an attempt to get to to face the facts about vocabulary development that educational testing has turned op in recent years.

Let’s examine some of the facts.

According to a typical investigation by Professor Robert H. Seashore, chairman of the Department of Psychology of Northwestern University , the average child of ten knows the meanings of 34,300 different terms, and since his sixth year has been learning new words at the rate of 5,000 a year.

The results of a similar investigation, conducted by Columbia University Professor George W. Hartmann among the students of the Alabama Institute of Technology, shows that the average college sophomore has a vocabulary of approximately 200,000 words.

I have obtained data on adult vocabularies by testing hundreds of students in the Adult Education Program of the City College of New York. These data show:

1. That the average adult vocabulary is 50,000 words—one-fourth the size of a college sophomore, only one-and-one-half times as large as the vocabulary of a ten year old.

2. That the constant rate of increase among adults is in the neighborhood of fifty words a year.—one one-hundredth the rate of children between six and ten.

WHEN you have finished working with this book YOU WILL NO LONGER BE THE SAME PERSON--------YOU CAN’T BE.

If you honestly read every page, if you do every exercise, if you take every test, if you follow every principle, you will go through an intellectual experience that will effect a radical change in you.

For if you systematically increase your vocabulary, you will also sharpen and enrich your thinking: push back your intellectual horizons; build your self-assurance; improve your facility in handling the English language and thereby your ability to express your thoughts effectively; and acquire a deeper understanding of the world in general and of yourself in particular.

Increasing your vocabulary does not mean merely learning the definitions of large numbers of obscure words; it does not mean memorizing scores of unrelated terms. What it means------ What it can only mean-----is becoming acquainted with the multitudinous and fasinating phenomena of human existence for which words are, obviously, only the verbal descriptions.

Increasing your vocabulary—properly, intelligently, and systematically—means treating yourself to an all-round, liberal education.

And surely you cannot deny that such an experience will change you intellectually----Will have a discernible effect on your methods of thinking—on your store of information—on your ability to express your ideas—on your understanding of human problems.

In a review of Caroline Pratt’sook, I Learn from Children, Roland Gelatt states somewhat the same idea in the following words: All normal human beings are born with a powerful urge to learn. All most all of them lose this urge, even before they have reached maturity. It is only the few .....who are so constituted that lack of learning becomes a nuisance. This is perhaps the most insidious of human tragedies.”

Children are wonders at increasing their vocabularies because of their “powerful urge to learn.” They do not learn solely by means of words, but as their knowledge increases, so does their vocabulary—for words are the symbols of ideas and understanding.

(If you are a parent, you perhaps remember that crucial and trying period in which your child constantly asked, “Why”. The “Why” is the child’s method of finding out. How many adults that you know go about asking and thinking “Why? How often do you yourself do it?)

The adults who “lose this urge”, who no longer feel that “lack of learning becomes a nuisance,” stop building their vocabularies. They stop learning, they stop growing intellectually, they stop developing mentally, they stop changing. When and if this period of life is finally reached, then, as Mr. Gelatt so truly says, “This is perhaps the most insidious of human tragedies.”

But----fortunately, the process is Not irreversible.

We have not yet learned to bring back life to a dead body. But we do know how to breathe life into a stalled mind, how to revive intellectual curiosity, how to restore the “powerful urge to learn.” In short, we do know to help an adult to start his vocabulary growing again even if it has been quiescent for many years.

I asm not talking theory. For years I have been working face to face with thousands of adults who have been taking vocabulary-improvement courses in the City College of New York..

As the result of my experience with these adults, I can state as a fact, and without qualification, that: The person who can recapture “the powerful urge to learn” w ith which he was born can go on increasing his vocabulary at a prodigious rate--------No matter what his present age.


Remember Professor Robert H. Seashore? He was famous for his investigation of children’s recognition vocabularies. Here are some of his findings:

  • At the age of four, the average child has a vocabulary of 5,600 basic words.
  • At the age of five, he knows 9,600 words.
  • At the age of six, he knows 14,700 words.
  • At the age of seven, 21,200 words.
  • At the age of eight, 26,300 words.
  • At the age of nine 29,300 words.

And Professor Seashore found that at the ripe old age of ten the average child is able to recognize and understand 34,,300 different words----and has been building his vocabulary at an approximate of 5,000 words a year since his sixth birthday.


You may be laboring under a delusion common to many older people. You may think that after you pass the twenties you rapidly and inevitably lose your ability to learn. This is simply not true.

There is no doubt that the years up to eighteen or twenty are the best period for learning. Your own experience bears that out. And of course with the average person more learning is done up to twenty than ever thereafter, even if he lives to be older than Methuselah.

BUT------(and follow me closely, please) The fact that most learning is accomplished before the age of twenty does not mean that very little learning can be done beyond that age.

What is done by most people and what CAN be done under proper guidance and motivation are two very, very different things----as scientific experiments have conclusively shown.


The fact that one’s learning ability is best up to twenty does not mean that it is absolutely useless as soon as the twentieth birthday has passed.

Quite the contrary, Edward Thorndike, the famous educational psychologist, found in experiments with people of all ages that although the learning curve rises spectacularly up to twenty it remains steady for at least another five years. After that, ability to learn ( according to Profesor Thorndike) drops very, very slowly up to the age of thirty-five, a little more rapidly but still slowly beyond that age. AND----right up to senility the total decrease in learning ability after age twenty is never more than 15 per cent. That does not sound, I submit, as if no one can learn anything new after the age of twenty.

Believe me, the old saw that claims you can not teach an old dog new tricks is a baseless, if popular, superstition.

So I repeat: NO MATTER WHAT YOUR AGE, you can go on learning efficiently, or start learning once again if perhaps you have stopped.

You can be thirty, or forty, or fifty, or sixty, or seventy, or eighty—or older. No matter what your age ,you can once again increase your vocabulary at a prodigious rate—providing you recapture the “powerful urge to learn” that is the key to vocabulary improvement.

Not the urge to learn “words.”----words are only the symbols of ideas. But the urge to learn facts, theories, concepts, information, knowledge, understanding—call it what you will.

Words are the symbols of knowledge, the keys to accurate thinking. Is it any wonder then that the most successful and intelligent people in this country have the best vocabularies? It was not their large vocabularies that made these people successful and intelligent, but their knowledge.

Knowledge, however. is gained largely through words. In the process of increasing their knowledge, these successful people increased their vocabularies.

Let us examine, briefly, some of the scientific evidence that points to the intimate relationship between vocabulary and personal, professional, and intellectual success.

The Human Engineering Laboratory, an institution which tests people’s aptitudes, has found that the only----only common characteristic of successful people in this country is an usual grasp of the meaning of words.. The Laboratory has tested the vocabularies of thousands of people of all age groups and in all walks of life—and has discovered that the men drawing down the highest salaries have made the highest scores. I want you to consider very thoughtfully the explanation that Dr. Johnson O’Connor, director of the Laboratory, offers for the close relationship between vocabulaary and success:

“Why do large vocabularies characterize executives and possibly outstanding men and women in other fields? The final answer seems to be that words are the instruments by means of which men and women grasp the thoughts of others and with which they do much of their own thinking. They are the tools of thought.”

There is still other evidence. At many universities today, groups of freshmen, are put into experimental classes for the sole puspose of increasing their knowledge of English words. These groups do better in their sophomore, junior, and senior years than control groups of similarly endowed students who do not receive such freshman training.

And still more evidence.

At the University of Illinois, entering students are given a simple twenty-nine-word vocabulary test. The results of this test can be used, according to Professor William D. Templeman, to make an accurate prediction of future academic success–or lack of success—over the entire four year college course. “If a student has a superior vocabulary,” states Professor Templeman, “it will probably follow that he will do better work academically.”

AND FINALLY: Educational research has discovered, in recent years, that a person’s I.Q., is intimately related to his vocabulary. Take a standard vocabulary test and then an intelligence test—the results in both will be substantially the same.

I rest my case.

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