Why SAT vocabulary lists aren't everything

Plenty of SAT prep resources promise that you can achieve a higher Critical Reading score simply by memorizing hundreds – if not thousands – of words.  While being exposed to a greater array of words can make a difference, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all to success on the test.  If you want proof that just memorizing every word in the dictionary is not the key to success, try watching the National Spelling Bee. (Fun fact: yours truly was a competitor many years ago.) Sure, the best spellers know many words.  Yet even they don’t memorize the half million or so words in an unabridged dictionary. They can’t. What they rely on instead is pattern and process.

Spellers use patterns by learning language rules for a variety of languages. For SAT students, it’s even simpler.  Use your current knowledge of English to recognize familiar letter groupings in unfamiliar English words.  Spot prefixes (like un- and re-) and suffixes (like -ly and -ive).  Use your knowledge of word parts to distinguish negative words (usually those starting with un- or non- or dis- or de-) from positive words.  Group words in lists or stacks of flashcards that include all the words that communicate the same general idea.  Teach yourself to analyze and understand new words in the context of what you already know about the English language.

Along with pattern recognition, top spellers also use process to their advantage – that is, they approach a word, familiar or not, the same way every time.  The “detective work” of checking definition, language of origin, sentence placement, and so on, can even lead a student to correctly spell a word he or she hasn’t seen.  Likewise, an SAT student can use consistent process to great advantage. Structure your learning of each new word the same way.  Don’t blindly memorize definitions – learn how the words are actually used and practice using them in context.  When you get to the actual SAT, repeating this word-analysis approach will serve you well, even on the toughest questions. In fact, high scorers systematically use both context and word-analysis to eliminate wrong answers.

So the next time someone shoves a list of 5000 words in your direction, you’ll know that big list is only a small piece of the puzzle.  Maximize your vocabulary study time with a strategy that combines exposure to new words, pattern recognition, and a consistent word-analysis process.  This will help you achieve a higher score on the SAT Critical Reading section – and make you a better reader overall.

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