I've created lists of words that have a common base meaning to help grow a great vocabulary. These types of lists are not hard to find, but they are usually alphabetically or randomly ordered. I order them based on levels of meaning. By that I mean that the word which is least strong in meaning is the first in the list and the words follow as they become stronger in feeling, size, etc. Some of the words on the list will be very familar which will give context to the unknown words.
As the student starts to work with the words, simply focus on learning that all of these words mean, for example, "happy." As you master the base meaning you can begin to take in the nuances of an already comprehensible word. Growing vocabulary not only will help with vocabulary based tests, but will also improve reading comprehension, writing, and verbal communication. Diction (word choice) is what makes communication clear and interesting. If all I can communicate, verbally or on the page, is "I'm happy I got into Harvard." I'm not going to communicate anything that is interesting or surprising. If I write, "I'm content that I got into Harvard." I've communicated a great deal more. I'm either ambivalent about it or very sure of myself. If I say, "I'm ecstatic I got into Harvard" my listeners are going to understand my very different feelings. Happy is a perfectly good word when what you really mean is 'happy,' but when you want to express other shades of meaning, you need to have better words at your disposal than very and not very.
Example- base meaning- happy
This is not, of course, a hard science. For one thing, there can be argument as to whether merry is any happier than gay- are they synonyms or is gay slightly happier than merry? We'll leave that to the serious etymologists. For the purposes of improving vocabulary I think it is easier to create a stream of words with each word adding a bit more extreme meaning.
I'll be adding lists under the post title Vocabulary Building Help regularly, so keep coming back for more!