Posts tagged with: vocabulary

I recently heard from a student who programmed a neat little application to help himself study vocabulary, and then decided to share it with everybody else for free. My kinda guy.

I signed up to try it out, and after receiving a few words a day in my email over the last few mornings, I figured this might be something y’all might like to check out, too. So I’m giving him a little signal boost.

SAT Hot Words has a nice, clean presentation—no frills. It’s just words, parts of speech, and definitions. You get 5 in your email every morning. That’s it.

Note that I don’t think this is all you should do to learn vocabulary, especially if your test is coming up soon. I just think it’s a nice daily reminder to pay attention to the words around you, and to make at least a little progress every day. Enjoy!

Read a bit more, and sign up, at

There are many ways to learn words, which is good, because there are many different learning styles. Some people like vocab books like the fantastic Direct Hits series. Some people just make it a habit to write down and learn every word they encounter that they don’t know. Still others, like myself, try to grow their personal lexicons in the long term by using a thesaurus to avoid the repetition of words in their written work.

But one of the most common methods of vocabulary augmentation is the flashcard. It’s tried and true, just like mom and dad used to use when they walked to school uphill both ways in the snow chased by sabre-toothed tigers.

I see a lot of people struggle with flashcards. They know that flashcards are supposed to be great, but although they recognize the words they’re supposed to know when they see them, they just can’t seem to make their definitions stick. If this sounds like you, read on.

The three-pile flashcard system

For the purposes of this post, I’m assuming you’ve already either created your own cards, or purchased a set.

  1. Go through the entire pile of cards. Any word you know (and I mean know—like you can recite the dictionary definition quickly and accurately) put in a different pile. That’s your KNOW pile. Any words that don’t go into the KNOW pile go into the DON’T KNOW pile. Easy so far, right?
  2. Set a daily goal for yourself based on the size of your DON’T KNOW pile and the amount of time you have to learn it. You should give yourself plenty of wiggle-room in this goal. So if you have 8 weeks until your test, and 250 words you don’t know, set a goal to learn 40 words per week. That way, you’ll finish early (or won’t fall too far behind if you miss a day). And if you add words to your list as you go, you won’t have to stray from your plan to absorb them.
  3. Here’s the part most people don’t do: On Monday through Saturday, try to learn your 40 words for that week. Once you’ve convinced yourself you know a word, put it in a third pile: the PENDING pile.
  4. On Sunday, test yourself on the words in your PENDING pile. If you can recite the definition of a word without hesitation, you can put it in your KNOW pile. If you can’t, you leave it in your PENDING pile or, if you really don’t know it, put it back in your DON’T KNOW pile.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve moved all your cards into the KNOW pile.
  6. Test yourself on every word in your KNOW pile. If you can’t recite a word’s definition in 5 seconds, put its card back in the DON’T KNOW pile, and begin again.


This system is only going to work for you if you’re honest with yourself. If you don’t know a word, admit you don’t know it. Otherwise, when it appears on test day and you don’t know it as well as you should because you let it languish in your KNOW pile when it didn’t belong there, you’re going to be sorry.If, however, you stick to the plan assiduously and concede when you don’t know words, you’ll be in good shape come test day. Good luck!

I found this image all over the web but couldn’t find an original creator. 🙁

People are always asking me for the best way to increase vocabulary. Because I’m most often asked this question about a week before the test, what they usually mean by “best” is “most expeditious.” Let’s be clear: What I’m going to be talking about in this post isn’t the fastest way to grow vocabulary. But it’s a great way to build a robust vocabulary over time, and become a better writer at the same time. I can sum it up in three words: Use a thesaurus.

In more than three words, here’s what I mean. When you’re writing a paper for school (or a letter to your grandma, or an acceptance speech for a major award) make it your mission to repeat as few words as possible. If, for example, you would use the word “angry three times, go back and replace two of them with “chafed” and “irate.” If you have occasion to use “big” more than once, use “voluminous,” or “hulking,” or “colossal.” See if you’re able to create a document that doesn’t repeat any words that aren’t conjunctions, articles, prepositions, or pronouns.

It’s a challenge to do this well. Not every word a thesaurus will provide is exactly interchangeable in every scenario; you’ll need to make sure the word you’re trying to use actually fits. For example, it’s cool to say a house is “big,” or “capacious,” but you probably wouldn’t call a house “burly.” It’s advisable, then, to use the thesaurus and dictionary concomitantly. Use the thesaurus for word ideas, and the dictionary to confirm that your choice actually works in context.

One last note: This practice will not only enhance to your vocabulary, but also elevate your writing. The most important writing you do isn’t really the SAT essay, but let’s have a quick look at how you’re actually being evaluated on the SAT essay. What’s this? An essay that receives a top score of 6 “exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary”? Hmm…

Note: I’m cross-posting this great question I got at because it’s easier to archive it here and I thought this was worth being able to refer back to. I hope you don’t mind.

Original Question: Would it be helpful to know Latin for the SATs?

Answer: This is a fantastic question! A lot of people (especially Latin teachers) will tell you that it’s incredibly helpful to know Latin for the SATs. I know the Latin teacher in my old high school used to make a presentation every year to the incoming freshmen that said exactly that (and back in my day, vocabulary was even more important on the SAT because you had analogies and antonym questions, which were the effing worst).

The idea is that since many English words have Latin roots, you might be able to figure out words you don’t know based on roots. You might, for example, find it helpful to know that “circum-” means “around.” But does that help you figure out “circumspect” on the fly?Well…maybe. I use the root as mnemonic to remember that one who is circumspect (which means prudent and considering all consequences before acting) looks at issues from every angle—from all AROUND. But every time I’ve tried to help a kid figure out the word by saying “well, you know the root ‘circum-‘ means ‘around’…” it hasn’t led them to the right answer. So, many words in English do have Latin roots. But that wont always help you figure out what the English words mean.

On the other hand, I took Spanish in high school (which is more closely related to Latin than English is) and I’ve found that my Spanish vocabulary has bailed me out of trouble more than once. For example, a few years back when I was starting out as an SAT instructor, I came across “picayune,” which I didn’t know. But I did know that in Spanish, “pequeño” means “small.” I know Erica Meltzer over at is a big French buff, so I bet she’d tell you the same about French. I think the bottom line is that knowledge of any other language might end up being helpful for you on the SAT—or it might not. The most important language to be deeply familiar with is English. Read challenging books, and look up every word you don’t know, always. That simple practice will help you more than Latin, Spanish, French, and German combined.

Credit: the very talented Mike R. Baker

I’ve already covered the importance of a good vocabulary, and I hope that you’ve been clicking the red vocabulary links on this site as you meander through. They’re meant to teach you a few good words, and to show you that strong vocabulary doesn’t have to be shoehorned into writing; it can and should flow naturally. I basically taught myself javascript to make those links, which took an obscenely long time, but I did so because I think it’s useful. So, yeah: You should actively try to improve your vocabulary as you prepare for the SAT. Period.

I want to take a (slightly controversial) step back from that, though, and caution you that a single-minded obsession with vocabulary will, in all likelihood, backfire on you. Not only is there much more to the Critical Reading section than just vocabulary, vocabulary isn’t even #1 on the list of necessary skills!

Some folks incorrectly claim that the 19 Sentence Completion questions on the SAT test only vocabulary, but even if that were true those account for less than a third of the 67 questions in the section. Want to include the passage-based questions that ask you to define a word in context as pure vocabulary questions? That’s even more of a stretch, but including them still doesn’t get you to a third of the questions.

But I don’t want to argue about question distribution. The truth is, even the Sentence Completion questions test you on your comprehension skills as much as they test your vocabulary; not only do the difficult questions contain difficult words, they contain much more subtle context clues than do the easy ones. Let’s look at an example of a tough one:

  1. Because of his devotion to economy of expression, the computer programmer’s code was ——- despite its incredible ——-.
    (A) elegant . . complexity
    (B) spare . . utility
    (C) labyrinthine . . usefulness
    (D) prosaic . . beauty
    (E) mawkish . . magnanimity

This is an example of a question that goes to great lengths to make it difficult to predict the contents of the blanks. A good vocabulary might help you eliminate one answer, but without good comprehension skills it’s very difficult to nail this one down. There are two clues in the sentence:

  1. The easier clue is the “despite” between the blanks, indicating that there should be some amount of surprise that both blanks are true about the same code.  If you know both words, you know that mawkishness and magnanimity have very little to do with each other, so you can kill (E). But even if you know all the other choices, that’s as far as you can go using the easy clue. All the rest of the choices kinda work: if something were prosaic it’d be slightly surprising to also call it beautiful; if something were labyrinthine it’d be a little strange to also call it useful; things that are spare do not always have great utility; elegance and complexity are often at odds.
  2. The really difficult clue is the phrase “economy of expression.” Neither “economy” nor “expression” is a difficult word on its own, but think for a minute about what they could mean together. Sure, you read a lot about “the economy” in the paper, but what does “economy” mean here? When a car advertisement touts a vehicle’s “fuel economy,” what does that mean? It means the car goes a long way on one tank of gas. “Economy” means getting a lot out of a little. It means getting the maximum return on a limited resource (which, if I may just break the flow for one minute, is not what you’re doing when you study endless word lists). So “economy of expression” means, in the programming context, accomplishing a lot without using many lines of code.

And that, friends, is why the answer to this question is (B). Note one more devious aspect of this question: the relatively rare definition of “spare.” I doubt that word shows up on any SAT vocabulary lists, but it absolutely can mean “elegantly simple.” Just so we’re clear, I’ve changed some things about the question, but I based this on a real question from a real SAT that contained both “economy of expression” and “spare” used in the same ways they are used above. This kind of question exists.

So, what lessons have we learned?
  1. The SAT will throw words at you that aren’t on most vocab lists. “Mawkishness” was on the May test, and most people who I’ve spoken to had no idea what it meant until they looked it up afterwards. THIS IS NOT A REASON TO STUDY LONGER LISTS! The other words in the question were much more common and would have been familiar to you if you spent a few hours with any well designed list of a few hundred words. You could have answered the question correctly anyway.
  2. The SAT will often use common words in less common ways (like the obscure definition of “spare”). You won’t get those definitions from flash cards or word lists, you’ll get them from being a voracious, insatiable reader and coming across them in the wild.
  3. Difficult Sentence Completion questions are difficult not only because of hard words, but because of complex sentence structure and esoteric usage. You will need to be a very good reader to get them right.
The bottom line

I’ve spoken with too many kids lately who seem hell-bent on memorizing all the words in Barron’s 3500 Word Black Hole From Which No Light Escapes, and it breaks my heart. If you do that, you will memorize literally thousands of words you won’t need for the SAT, and you’ll use valuable time doing so that would be better spent practicing your reading comprehension, writing practice essays, drilling circle questions, or trying to count the number of hairs on your head.

Remember a few paragraphs back, when we were talking about economy? Those were good times, right? Trying to memorize 3500 words is not good economy. To put it another way—and to finally incorporate the awesome illustration at the top of this post—if you pursue vocabulary obsessively, like Ahab did Moby Dick, your scores might remain in Davey Jones’ locker.

You, intrepid student, need to find a balance between the reasonable and the obscene. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing is. Godspeed.

Finally, here’s a thread where Xiggi, the much-ballyhooed College Confidential SAT guru, basically argues the same thing (and gets a lot of pushback, naturally).

Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that you found this post because your penurious self is Googling for ways to learn SAT vocabulary without spending any money. Today is your lucky day, though, friend-o. Although the multitudinous search results for things like “SAT vocab words” can be daunting to say the least, and a lot of what you’ll find is total dreck, there is some good, free stuff out there for those willing to sift through the morass.

I’ve been checking out some interactive online vocab tools for the past few days. Here are some resources I might come back to myself.

  • Word lists for your calculator. “Yo dawg I heard you like the SAT so I put some words on your calculator so you can think about the SAT while you’re thinking about the SAT.” Seriously though, different people learn vocabulary in different ways, so a prudent instructor should be willing to try some unconventional approaches if a student isn’t responding well to the standard flash card approach. Maybe…put the words on a calculator instead?
  • Visual Thesaurus. This list features “the 100 most common” SAT words, but clicking around inside the actual “visual thesaurus” will introduce you to tons more. Look for a word with a lot of branches coming off it as a starting point, and explore. I started at “benevolent” and just kept on going until my trial ran out. Not sure I’d pay for this, but it’s fun to poke around.
  • Vocab Concentration. A little hokey, perhaps. This site also has word searches, matching games, and flash cards for what it claims are “the 100 most common” SAT words. Is it the same list as the Visual Thesaurus folks? I don’t know, I didn’t check.

When it comes to the reading comprehension section, there are very few quick fixes. The one exception — if you consider learning words a “quick fix” like I do — is a quick vocabulary augmentation. Start looking up every single word you come across that you don’t know. Do so assiduously, with sedulous care. Become a Predator of words. Wear a mask, if you have to. Your friends will dig it. Seriously.

I’ve made special links all over this blog to help you get started (hover over red words for definitions), but to see results, you’re going to have to devote yourself to the cause.

You should keep in mind that not every hard word is a likely SAT word, and not every SAT word is necessarily a hard one. Some words show up again and again, and some almost never appear. So it’s a good first step to springboard yourself into your quest with a box of flashcards or word list that’s been designed using previous SATs for inspiration, like Direct Hits. What is often said about investments (someday you’ll know this firsthand) is true here as well: past performance does not guarantee future results. Still, it’s good to know which words the test makers have gone to repeatedly in the past.

So start with flash cards or a book of words, and then keep on moving from there. Words are everywhere. Learn the definition of every word you encounter in magazines, text books, advertisements, etc., not to mention practice tests in the Blue Book. Tirelessly hunt down the meaning of every word you hear from your teachers and your garrulous (but well-spoken) friends. Believe me, you’ll be happy on test day when a word you learned a few weeks prior appears as the correct answer of a very difficult Sentence Completion question.

A personal story to drive this home: I took the GRE (it’s like the SAT for grad school) a while back. It’s actually very similar to the SAT so I was supremely confident, but you take it on a computer so I figured I’d take a practice test before I sat for it just to get the timing down, etc.

Two words came up on the practice test that I didn’t know: pusillanimous and quotidian. I was in a rush, so I didn’t look them up right away. I did get around to looking up pusillanimous later (it’s easy to remember that it means cowardly because it starts with “pusi”), but I never got around to quotidian; I got lazy. A few weeks later, BOTH words appeared on my real GRE as correct answers, and I missed the quotidian question. I can’t tell you how hard I kicked my own ass for not following my own advice.

Bottom line: do as I say (and as I will most definitely continue to do now that I’ve been burned), not as I regretfully did.