Repetition Repetition

Last night I met with a student for the first time since the end of the school year. After a nice discussion of our various summer activities, I asked her if she had done any studying for the SAT, and she gave me a sheepish look. 

Not only had she avoided all structured test prep all summer long and avoided reading even one book, but she had also neglected even to look at the vocabulary words that she had been working on. Not one single glance. Not shockingly, she’s lost almost every word that she had worked so hard to gain. 

Learning vocabulary is a long process that requires daily repetition. If you don’t read books and encounter new words all the time, you have to dedicate yourself to less pleasant shortcuts, like vocabulary cards or lists. But study something every day–review ten or twenty words, read an article in The New Republic, or even pay attention to the dialogue in shows like Suits, which has a surprising number of SAT words in every episode. When you learn a new word, write it down somewhere so you’ll see it again. After you see or use a word a few dozen times, it will be in your head. 


“Just SAT words”

This New York Times article gives an informative preview of the changes looming for the SAT and the ACT.  

It has a lot of interesting tidbits, but I want to spend a little time nitpicking. First of all, the current College Board president, David Coleman, says that he wants to cleanse the test of words that are “just SAT words” like “pugnacious,” “depreciatory,” “redolent,” “treacly” and “jettison” while including words that are more relevant, like “distill” and “transform.” 

This seems like code for “make the test easier.” There’s nothing particularly arcane about the words the article cites as “just SAT words”: you see them all the time in college-level texts, especially but not only in the humanities. (Yes, the humanities are declining, but they still constitute a large percentage of undergraduate study, and comprehension of difficult texts is a skill applicable across the academic spectrum.) 

But the fault may lie with the journalist, not the interviewee. Why? Well, later in the piece, we see this little morsel:

Competition between the two tests has not let up: for the first time last year, the ACT surpassed the SAT in market share. With the new redesign, the SAT seems likely to inch even closer in content to the ACT, which focuses more on grammar, usage and mechanics than on vocabulary.


The writer is comparing apples to, at the very least, oranges here. The SAT critical reading section, which tests a student’s vocabulary and reading skills, is not designed to test grammar, mechanics, and usage. However, since 2005 the SAT has had a writing section that tests those aspects of verbal knowledge. 

I wonder if the journalist neglected to mention the writing section of the test out of ignorance, or whether Coleman chose not to mention it because the College Board is considering phasing it out.