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5 steps to improving your vocabulary, your SAT or ACT score, and your life

5 steps to improving your vocabulary, your SAT or ACT score, and your life

Let's start with a dad joke.

Lisa Speransky
Lisa Speransky
Study Tips

Q: How do you talk to a giant?

A: Use big words.

Childrens' vocabulary should double between grades 3 and 7. However, the reality is that New York State schools are suffering a decade-long decline in literacy levels and reading test scores. Most English teachers now teach vocabulary in the context of reading and conversation and have stopped asking students to memorize vocabulary lists. Could this be part of the problem?

Gone are the days of poring over long lists of boring, esoteric words (those extraneous giant words) or learning Latin and Greek roots and studying common suffixes and prefixes.

The SAT eliminated sentence completion questions and analogies based on obscure vocabulary. That may sound like good news, but what we’re actually finding is that poor vocabulary is still a huge impediment to doing well on the SAT or ACT. Reading comprehension questions can pivot on a single word and misconstruing that word might sabotage all your answers for that entire section.

Increasing the number of words you understand and employ will not only help you achieve a higher baseline SAT or ACT score, but it will make you a better and faster reader in college, where you will likely be expected to read up to 10 times more than in high school! And you’ll amaze friends, colleagues, and teachers with scintillatingconversation and astute observations because of your facility with the English language. To quote Goethe: “The limits of my language are the limits of my universe.”

So here’s what you can do to improve your vocabulary without old school, rote memorization.

1. Read it.

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan insists that students should read at least an hour a day to acquire knowledge and build vocabulary. Reading is the most painless way to learn vocabulary. If you develop a daily habit of it, over the months and years, your vocabulary will grow naturally. Most standardized tests have shifted to nonfiction reading passages. So start here: decide on a topic that excites you and read articles on that topic. Do you love science fiction? Reading about new inventions? Or even reading about fashion? It’s all fair game! We love the DK series for young readers. High schoolers should try The New York Times Science Section (Tuesdays), The Economist, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. We know that time is tight, but we recommend blocking off time in your calendar for reading -- make it part of your day, every day!

use reading to improve your vocabulary for the SAT or ACT

2. Hear it.

If you’re a parent, read aloud to your kids -- even after they have learned to read on their own -- if they will let you. Pick books you love. Ask if they understand unfamiliar and challenging words. Give them other examples of those words in context with their interests.

If you’re a student, listen to audiobooks and/or watch TedTalks. Try to make passive listening (while cooking, cleaning or working out, for example) active! You can do this by jotting down the words you don’t know or you aren’t sure you know. Make sure to look them up later and add them to a vocabulary list in your notebook.


A fun website that helps you learn words quickly by hearing them used in sentences is www.youglish.com-- it really works!

3. Draw it.

Didn’t think you were a visual learner? Well, it turns out that we all are, at least in the sense that when we visualize connections between things, we remember them better. You don’t have to be an artist or even actually draw on paper to use this technique. Drawing a story in your mind, also called “memory palaces” or “the method of loci,” draws on the fact that encoding is deepest when you assign meaning to new information. Check out this explanation on how to become a memorization genius from one of the world’s most gifted memorizers, Yanjaa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unzDAno4_jk

The more logical connections you can make to the new information, the stronger the memory.

This video teaches you how to memorize words and their meanings using the memory palaces technique. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geT67SSk1C8

The first example in the video is memorizing the word “extoll”, which means 'to praise'. Draw a silly story in your brain, wherein you break the word into 2 parts: ex + toll, and imagine that you pay at a toll booth with eggs (sounds like "ex") instead of money. The toll booth operator is so happy that he says, thank you so much and praises you for paying the "eggs toll". Now that you have a story (or picture) associated with the word, you will never forget it! There are no drawing skills required here, but it does take a little practice to get good at this technique. Try it with all the words you don't think you could readily provide a definition for in this article!

4. Use it (or lose it).

Now that you know the word “extoll” means “to praise”, try using it in conversation. If you have a buddy who is studying for the SAT, ACT, ISEE or SSAT at the same time as you are, you can get together with a list of 10 words per week and try to have a conversation using all the words. If you’re a 9th or 10th grader, it’s never too early to start this process. Prepping for the SAT or ACT in 11th grade will be much easier if you already have a great vocabulary. Try to also use your newly-acquired words in essays and research papers. Use the words as much as possible.

Better yet, teach the words to someone else. Work with a study buddy, a tutor, a sibling, or your parents and teach each other 10 words per week. Teach each other the silly memory palace story you came up with for each word to encode it even further.

5. Practice it.

Khan Academy is an amazing free online video test prep service. They offer vocabulary help starting with 2nd grade ELA and go all the way up to the SAT. Use Khan Academy for building vocabulary here: 


Here’s a 5th grade practice session with 4 questions.

Test Innovators charges for practice ISEE and SSAT tests. But they also offer free online vocabulary training. Go to https://quizlet.com/testinnovators/folders to select vocabulary for different tests and different levels. Try one of our favorite vocabulary pages on prefixes and roots: https://quizlet.com/353899935/prefixes-and-roots-flash-cards/.

Flash Cards are old school, but they work. Select 50 vocabulary words you need to master. Not opaque, obtuse, rarefied verbiage, but solid, working words you can select from any of the websites cited previously. On one side, write the word and, on the other side, write the definition. You can use store-bought index cards or cut up a sheet of paper into homemade cards. But we do recommend that you write the definition yourself. We also recommend you use it in a sentence below the definition. Test yourself weekly or have a friend or family member help. If you know the definition, put that card in the “known” pile. If you don’t get a word, put it in the “not yet known” pile. It can be fun to see your “known” pile grow!

Please work Persistently. Consistently. Insistently. [root = sistere, Latin for “to stand.”]

What would be a gratifying reward for learning all 50 words? 

use flash cards to memorize new vocabulary words

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