How to use Flashcards and Reading to Improve Vocabulary

Learning vocabulary can be tricky, and there are pros and cons to the various methods that students use to expand their vocabulary. Some prefer the flashcard method, which is incredibly useful because you can learn a large number of words in a fairly short period of time. However, flashcards don't provide you context, within which, you would find the particular word that you are studying. Reading for vocabulary is useful because it does provide that context! However, alone, reading is a very slow method of learning and retaining new vocabulary words. We recommend that you use both methods to expand your vocabulary! =D


How to Use the Magoosh Flashcard App

What is nice about our flashcards is that we eliminate the the arduous task of creating and organizing your cards into a coherent deck of vocabulary words. Our desks are ready to go, as is, no questions asked (unless you want to ask us a question about them, using the green 'help' button =D)!

When using our flashcards, try to be honest with the system. If you know that you understand a word, select "I know this word," and our system will generate that word less often than newer words while you are practicing. It's a fairly practical system: we don't want you spending an inordinate amount of time working on words that you already know! =D

Once you have mastered many decks, if you want to review past decks, you might like to reset your progress so the system can once again sort out words you know and words you don't know, in order to repeat the unknown words more often. You can reset your decks by going to the top right of the screen within Magoosh flashcards and clicking Account-->Flashcard Settings-->Reset All Decks.

Remember to pace yourself! In general, it's very hard to learn more than a few new words per day, so don't try to go through multiple decks in one sitting! If you have seen more than 5 or 10 new words in a day, it's almost definitely too much to really remember. =D


Reading to Improve Your Vocabulary

As mentioned earlier, reading for vocabulary improvement is an incredibly useful (and necessary) technique for the GRE. It's extremely important to see the words in real, natural English, which means doing a lot of reading. We generally recommend reading for about 1 hour per day, if you have time! If you're working with a tight schedule, try to read at least 30 minutes per day. As a general rule, the more you read, the better. =D

As you read, make flashcards of the vocabulary words that you don't know. Pause every so often, and recap the main message in your own words. This will help you retain the words that you see as you read.


There are a lot of materials to read out there, but we have found that the 5 materials that are listed below are the gold standard of reading for the GRE:

  1. The New York Times
  2. BBC
  3. The Economist
  4. Art & Letters Daily
  5. The New Yorker

We have found that these resources most accurately replicate the rigor of the reading found on the actual GRE! Moreover, these materials use exquisite vocabulary: I would be willing to bet that you can't read through a single article in one of these materials without finding a GRE vocabulary word.

For some specific articles suggestions, I'd recommend browsing through our "GRE Article of the Month" series. About once a month, Chris selects an GRE-level article and provides both GRE vocabulary for you to focus on as you read, as well as a brief discussion of the piece.

I know, I know! You're thinking that "I would much rather read a good book than an article from The Economist." To that, I say "To each his/her own!" For you book-lovers, check out this post for fiction and non-fiction book recommendations!

There is more to reading for vocabulary than just picking up some literature and thumbing through it for vocabulary. I don't want to skim over these details, so for tips on how to use these reading sources to learn really vocabulary in context, check out these blog posts:


GRE Vocabulary Word Highlighter
Also, to help you identify important vocabulary words as you read, Magoosh has a Google Chrome extension that highlights high-frequency GRE words on any website!  =)  By using this tool at the sites recommended earlier, you can quickly identify real-life examples of the words found on our list of the 1000 Most Important GRE Words.  Then, by examining the surrounding context, you can gain a deeper understanding of how these words are actually used.

I like to treat our vocabulary highlighter like it's a game (yes, I have it installed in my computer browser too). Here's how you play:

Treat every sentence that contains a highlighted word as if it is a Text Completion question. Pretend that the highlighted word is a blank space in the question. Read through the sentence, and insert your own word to complete the sentence. The object of the game is to insert your own word, such that you don't change the meaning of the sentence. Then, go back and reinsert the highlighted word. Does the sentence that you created have the same meaning as the original sentence? This is a great way to attach a simplified vocabulary word to some of the more complex vocabulary words that the GRE expects you to know! Try it out! Remember that you can use sites such as or to look up the actual definition and see additional example sentences of the highlighted word in use. =D

It's also good to employ this strategy whenever you come across unfamiliar words that aren't highlighted!  Again, you ultimately want to be a "word detective" as you read, using the surrounding clues to help you determine the meaning of any words you don't know.  This is exactly what you're asked to do on the GRE, so it's a great thing to practice as you read!  =)

Between the flashcards and regular reading, and ideally some mnemonics, too, you'll be building your vocabulary as efficiently as possible! =D

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