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  • Writer's pictureallieyohn

On increasing vocabulary (aka how Reader's Digest helped me get into college)

While I've aspired to be a writer for most of my life, I was not always a great reader.


Shocking, I know, but absolutely true.


I had a mental block about learning to read when I was younger. In the second grade I was in the bluebirds reading group (the slowest reading group) and had resigned myself to never being a great reader.


My never being a great reader made a certain kind of sense. Some things run in the family, maybe trouble reading was one of them.


My maternal grandfather was many things in his life: a Harley Davidson employee who raced motorcycles and won a trophy case full of awards, a father to seven incorrigible daughters, a plant dad who kept an entire room of his house filled with thriving houseplants, and a man who turned the dining room dish cupboards into displays for a collection of cookbooks.


He was also functionally illiterate.


One of my early memories is watching my older male cousins, Brandon and Michael, reading the newspaper to him in the dining room.


From my journalism days, I can tell you that most newspaper articles are written at about a third to fourth grade level. Writing at that level allows more people the option to know what's going on in the world- trouble with reading above that level is a secretly big issue in our country. And it's one that people struggling with reading are ashamed to speak about.


If you can't read well, or at all, the world tells you that you're lazy or stupid. Which, of course, ignores that many people are struggling with undiagnosed learning disorders (such as dyslexia) or were victims of failed reading programs in grade school.


The latter was my grandfather's issue. He went to grade school in a time before phonics was the preferred way to teach children to read. Instead, he was expected to read words by the teacher pointing at the word, telling the class what it said, and then magically know the word the next time they encountered said word. This worked about as well as you'd suspect. Combine that with him dropping out of school around WWII and you have a man who was incredibly smart who never actually learned to read beyond maybe a first grade level (and even that was a struggle).


I struggled through reading in the bluebird group until the day I overheard a conversation my teacher was having with another instructor about the group. The exact phrasing has been lost in my memory but the sentiment was this: the kids in the bluebird group would never learn to read and she didn't know why she even bothered.


Something many people don't know about me is how motivated I am by defiance. People telling me I can't do something means I must, of course, do that thing if only to prove to them they can't tell me what to do.


In this case, hearing my teacher say I'd never learn to read motivated me to become the best reader in our class.


The resource that helped me meet that goal was a pile of Reader's Digest magazines at my grandmother's house.


The first book I read on my own was The Cat in the Hat (as I'm sure it was for many children. It's a classic). The first chapter book I read on my own was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (because we were reading it in school and I hated waiting for the next chapter).

But in between those two books, there was this stack of magazines.


Reader's Digest fascinated me. It's basically the cozy mystery version of a newspaper. On one page of the magazine you might have an article about whether a dog really loves their owner, on another a plain text article about changes physicians and scientists now recommend for good health and the studies supporting them, and on another a list of the best small towns in America.


Those articles fascinated me and I worked hard to decipher every single word. But the best part of the Reader's Digest was at the back. A little quiz in every issue called "Word Power."


For those unfamiliar, Word Power is a themed vocabulary quiz. Typically there are fifteen terms with 3 possible answers listed below. There's also a rating scale after to tell you how you did. The scale this month is 9 & below: Phew!, 10-12: Splendid, and 13-15: Magnificent.


I'm not sure why I was so drawn to it the first time I took one, but I tried it, miserably failed (I think I managed to correctly pick the definition of 3 words), and became hooked on the quizzes.


Whenever I visited my grandma, I'd dig through the piles of Reader's Digest and take the quizzes. Grade myself, then memorize the words and take it again. I saved the words and took them home and tested myself on them multiple times, then added on new words the next time I visited.


By middle school, those extra vocabulary lessons had helped to an extraordinary extent. 7th grade they gave every student in my grade a reading quiz to determine which class track you should be in: remedial (where you focused on things you didn't quite get in grade school to catch you up to where you needed to be), normal track (where you learned what you were expected to learn during that school year), and accelerated (what would typically be the gifted program). When it came to math and science, I was stuck in the remedial program. Math and I have never gotten along and science was iffy for me.

But when it came to reading? It turned out I was already reading at a college level. I missed exactly one question on the test, which I successfully got overturned because the question was worded incorrectly.


This score enabled me to take the accelerated English class. It also enabled me to help my older cousin with his high school English homework (or "how my cousin tricked me into reading The Old Man and the Sea so he wouldn't have to").


Knowing that I read at that level gave me confidence that my dream of becoming a writer wasn't as crazy as it seemed.


I've spoken before about growing up poor. When you grow up in poverty, there is a narrowing of options you see as available to you.


Most adults I knew worked minimum wage jobs, received government benefits that barely bridged the gap between their bills and their salaries, and visited food banks to avoid starvation. And they didn't go to college.


The idea of pursuing a creative career, or even of working a salaried office job, was inconceivable. Those options were for other, better, people.


Right up until the end of my sophomore year of high school, I didn't really think I'd ever go to college. My grades weren't horrible, but there was usually one class -math- keeping me from the honor role. My low scores in math class almost made me ineligible to be in Forensics a couple of semesters.


Then in junior year my grandmother took me to a school sponsored event talking about applying to colleges and how to apply for federal financial aid. I didn't absorb too much of the session because my mind was too busy screaming one thing at me.


I could go to college.


The idea was overwhelming.


The idea was intoxicating.


I'd love to say that the idea I'd go to college helped me to buckle down in school. Unfortunately for me, issues with my bipolar disorder and undiagnosed ADHD made that pretty impossible.


But there was one thing I could control. And that was studying for the ACT.


I knew I'd never pass the math or science sections with anything approaching a good score. I won't tell you which section, but on one I received a score of 14 the first time I took the ACT and a 15 the second. Those scores were out of 36.


The sections I could control were the language. And I had the Reader's Digest to help me. I studied those old Word Power quizzes like my future depended on it because it absolutely did. (I will add that my high school also did weekly vocabulary quizzes on frequently missed words on the ACT and SAT, which helped as well.)


When I got my ACT scores back, I scored a 30 and a 36 on the language sections for an overall score in the high 20s.


There is nothing I could do to adequately thank Reader's Digest for the Word Power quiz. This little game, tucked far back in their magazine, did more to change my life than I could ever express. Increasing my vocabulary made me more confident in reading, it upped my English class writing scores, and it helped me earn great scores in the ACTs.


There is one magazine subscription I always keep, no matter what else is going on in my life and that is the Reader's Digest. And you can bet that every month, the first thing I do is flip to the back and take that quiz.


The quiz this month was themed around Wordle answers.


I got a perfect score. Magnificent.


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