Words outside of the zoo

I have never been a huge advocate of monstrous vocabulary lists like those in the back of some of the popular SAT guides, and I always avoided flashcard vocabulary words as if they were coated with battery acid. Fortunately, I had a long bookshelf, and I read almost everything on it. Through some mystical process of repetition aided by the weekly dose of vocabulary in school, I absorbed a huge vocabulary that helped me ace the SAT.

Those of you who don’t spend your time reading literary essays on J.R.R. Tolkien and Dostoyevsky, however, have to get the words another way. Studying efficient, well-made vocabulary lists are one part of that process. Don’t start with the massive lists I discussed above. Instead, go to Direct Hits and buy both books. Their approach is interesting. Instead of giving you a list with a definition and a little sample sentence, they provide a rich paragraph with each word. These paragraphs talk about interesting topics like Spiderman and vampires, and they’re seeded not only with the word under discussion, but also with other words from the books, providing you an easy way to continue to test your knowledge. There are also some SAT-style tests in the back.

But you need to do more than just memorize–you need to see these words in the wild. I am not about to recommend that you slog through thick tomes of world literature in your spare time. You should, though, look into some magazines. Read anything. Read everything. Read National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Popular Science, the newspaper.

I hate to say this because it goes against everything that is good and beautiful, but read Twilight. My niece was reading me some deleted scenes from the first book last weekend (I consented under duress), and I noticed a rich density of SATable words nestled in the gauzy descriptions of cute, sparkly bloodsuckers.

Expose yourself to language, and you will encounter the words that you will see on the SAT. All of them? No. “Phlegmatic” and “lucubration” are unlikely to make an appearance in your hometown newspaper. But the majority of the words on the SAT aren’t so obscure. Go find them. You won’t even need binoculars.



A New Start

I have been so lazy around here. There are so many cobwebs.

The release of the new SAT specifications and the discussions around it have fueled a lot of discussions in person and online. High school juniors and seniors seemed particularly vexed about the changes in the days following the announcement. They seemed to think that the new test would be easier than the old one. I think it will be just about the same difficulty, though some parts will be easier and some, more difficult. The inclusion of a founding document sounds extremely difficult, as Erica Meltzer has detailed. I have read all of Hamilton’s Federalist papers, and they are harder than anything currently on the SAT. Knowing the basics of U.S. government and the debates of the Age of Enlightenment will help students decode these documents, but the language and syntax are so much more difficult that it’s ultimately just a wash.

I will be commenting on more later as I hack my way through the extremely long draft of questions. For now, here are a couple of sentences. How would you complete them?

1. Though many view him as a medical visionary, I think he is a                             who is merely using people’s fears to sell them useless medicine.

2. Though he seemed like a completely candid young man, Peter Parker actually lived a                     second life as the superhero Spiderman.

Leave responses in the comments!


Long knives out

Just so you know: some of the essays on the critical reading portion of the test will be boring. Wait, you already knew that?


This is a bad strategy.

There’s nothing you can do about the essays themselves, but you can modify your strategy for reading them to mitigate the boredom. It’s very easy: break them into pieces. Just like you wouldn’t eat a steak all in one bite, your probably shouldn’t scarf down the SAT reading passages. I like to attack them in paragraph chunks. Generally, paragraphs carry a smaller germ of an idea that’s easier to grasp, allowing you to focus on it instead of on the whole idea of the whole passage. So read the first paragraph (which is usually super-important anyway) and then start attacking any questions dealing with the lines cited in that paragraph. Skip any main idea or purpose questions–save them for last, when you have read through the whole passage. Then read the second paragraph and do the same as you did with the first paragraph: answer the questions dealing with any cited lines. Follow this procedure until you’re done with the second, and then complete any whole passage questions.

This strategy has a number of benefits.

  1. It cuts down on boredom. Instead of contending with an 80-line behemoth, you have to fight a much smaller creature–maybe 10 lines of text. This stops your mind from wandering, as it sometimes might do in the midst of one of the SAT’s longer passages.
  2. It keeps you focused on lines that questions are asking about. Instead of reading the whole passage and then going back and rereading certain lines, you answer questions about stuff you just ingested. The information is fresher, so you’ll be able to think about it more quickly.
  3. It allows you to complete questions more quickly. This is especially important for people who sometimes run out of time. By eschewing reading the entire passage, which can sometime take precious time, you get to the questions faster and actually put some answers on the page. If you have five minutes left and an entire passage to do, it’s probably pointless to read the whole thing. Target your resources intelligently to rack up as many points as possible.

Some people don’t like this method, preferring the traditional read-then-answer approach. If that works for you, fine. But try this out a few times, and you might start to see improved scores that come from the more intense focus that this method allows you to generate.

Words, words, words

One last note about vocabulary learning: you will meet new words all the time in your textual explorations. Don’t pause and look up every word like this guy apparently does*, but rather try to figure out a rough meaning from context. If the word is important enough, you’ll see it again, and you’ll be able to sharpen the word’s meaning. The more you see the word, the sharper its meaning will become, and eventually you’ll know it without having to pause at all.

That’s just one of the benefits of reading both deeply and widely.

*The article says that reading with book in one hand and dictionary in the other is an “old English major’s habit.” As an old English major myself, I can say that this is not typical of the behavior of any English major I studied with.

The Importance of Vocabulary (2)

I heard this excellent interview with basketball great Walt “Clyde” Frazier on NPR yesterday. He discusses a number of topics, but one that I felt was most important for my reader(s) was the importance of vocabulary. As his basketball career was winding down, he realized that he needed to sound smart if he wanted to be a broadcaster. To augment his word-hoard, he devoted himself to reading theater reviews, figuring that the vocabulary used to describe excellent and awful performances onstage could be modified to characterize performances on the court.

The Importance of Vocabulary

The writing section of the test is incredibly teachable: learn to do a few simple tricks, and you can boost your score by hundreds of points. Reading is a different beast entirely. Because it requires you to untangle the meanings of complicated sentences, you have to know the meanings of words that constitute those sentences, not just their grammatical status.

So I have bad news: you probably need to study vocabulary. If you are an avowed reader who tirelessly treks through mountains of books every year, congratulations, this advice probably isn’t true. I barely glanced at vocab lists before diving into the SAT, and I was somehow able to score a perfect 800 on the Critical Reading section. But I was also reading scholarly analyses of T.S. Eliot’s poetry during driving school in tenth grade. You were not. Trust me: study a vocabulary list. The most efficient one is the Direct Hits series.

You could also try to read some Modernist poetry. Or even some non-Modernist poetry. Just read. See the words that you learn on the lists in the wild, roaming free on the pale savannas in your book. Identify them there. Tag them and remember their meaning. The next time you stumble upon one, you will recognize it more readily. Eventually, you’ll have your own private menagerie of exotic words.