Alex is a Content Developer for the Knewton SAT prep course. He thinks he’s super funny, though he’s only very funny.
The best way to learn vocab words is to come across them in context in books, in conversations with teachers or parents, on television shows over and over again until you understand what they mean and know how to use them. Unfortunately, this process happens naturally over time; cramming context clues the day before the SAT doesn’t quite work. Between now and the test, even if you do nothing but pay attention to the world around you, you’ll probably learn a lot of new words. Odds are, however, you will not learn too many SAT words, which are tested precisely because they are rare.
If the Sentence Completion and Reading Comprehension sections of the SAT only tested common words, the range of scores would be very narrow, because so many test-takers would get all those questions right. Moreover, the SAT tests hard words because those are the ones you’ll hear from your college professors, who use smart-sounding language to justify wearing very expensive blazers with complicated elbow patches.
One solution to the inefficiency of learning words through context is to read the same books or magazines, talk to the same people, and watch the same TV shows you usually do, but carry around a pocket dictionary. Whenever you come across a word you do not know, look it up in the dictionary right away, and then log the word and the definition in a vocab notebook or on a computer. In other words, do what you usually do, but a pay a bit more attention to it. You’ll speed up the natural process of learning by not having to rely on seeing that same information at some later time in a different context.
So, you have a list of words and definitions. Now what?
Stacking is a method that works particularly well for short lists. Let’s say you want to memorize a list of ten vocab words:
1. advocate – support; be in favor of
2. cantankerous – grouchy; grumpy
3. docile – gentle; easily handled or taught
4. elusive – hard to catch or pin down, either physically or mentally
5. insolent – improperly forward or bold; disrespectful
6. magnanimity – generosity
7. mellifluous – sweetly or smoothly flowing; pleasing to the ear
8. phlegmatic – calm; showing little emotion
9. reticent – not talkative; restrained
10. vindicate – prove right; free from blame
Start with the first word, advocate. With your hand, a piece of paper, or some computer trickery, cover words 2-10. Read the word advocate and its definition aloud until you can say them confidently with your eyes closed. Now uncover the second word, cantankerous. Read the words advocate and cantankerous and their definitions aloud until you can say them confidently with your eyes closed. And so forth. Do not use this method for a list of more than ten words at a time, but feel free to create multiple ten-word lists, and employ the stacking method for all of them. Words that seem to give you trouble should go on a special list with a higher priority than the others.
Another great way to engage with the vocab you’re studying is to come up with your own mnemonics, which are phrases or pictures that aide in memory. Check out a few examples:
1. advocate – add your voice
2. cantankerous – the cantankerous can anger us
3. docile – do silently
4. elusive – elusive goose chase
5. insolent – the insolent insult us
6. magnanimity – enemy of money magnets
7. mellifluous – melody flows through us
8. phlegmatic – on cruise control, my flow is automatic
9. reticent – ready? set? no
10. vindicate – vindicate and win the case
A less precise but more comprehensive method of studying vocabulary is to group words by general meaning. Luckily, the resources page of the Knewton SAT course features thirty different word groups, like “Shy and Submissive,” a list of twelve words that includes docile and reticent, and “Unfriendly and Unpleasant,” a list of twenty-eight words that includes cantankerous.
An even less precise but even more comprehensive method of studying vocabulary is to learn word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. This is especially useful if, during the test, you’re stuck on an unfamiliar word that contains the same root or prefix as another word you know. For example, the vocab word malediction contains the prefix mal- and the root dict. The prefix mal- means bad or harmful as in malicious, malignant, and malnutrition. The root dict means speak or say as in dictate, predict, and contradict. Therefore a malediction is a bad or hurtful saying, like a curse or a hex.
Once you get a handle on some of the new words you’ve encountered, try to use them in your schoolwork. For example, in an essay on the American Revolution, you might write:
Among some loyalists in the colonies, the Declaration of Independence was the utmost insolence, a sign that Americans did not appreciate the magnanimity the British government had shown them for so many years.
The teacher might accuse you of being a thesaurus queen, but at least you’ll get props for trying.