At first glance, both the SAT and the ACT seem to have eradicated all of their vocabulary questions. Gone are the SAT questions where you had to choose the most fitting word for the blank in the sentence, and long gone are the old “analogy” questions of my SAT days. (ANALOGIES : SAT :: DODO BIRD : WORLD.) Do students need to bother with vocabulary at all, anymore?
Just because the obvious vocabulary questions are gone doesn’t mean that a strong college-bound vocabulary isn’t still helpful. There are still many challenging vocabulary words throughout the tests; the difference is that now the tests are more likely testing your ability to know how a word is being used in context.
For example, more and more passages on the Reading section of the tests are coming from older texts from the 1800’s or 1700’s. These older texts often involve a lot of vocabulary that modern students find unfamiliar. Being able to decode antiquated terminology becomes important to understanding the overall meaning of these older texts, so readily recognizing at least some of the lexicon might save a student from complete bewilderment.
Also, increasing numbers of questions on the grammar sections ask us to choose a word that fits a sentence, paragraph, or passage the best based on the purpose of the sentence and the surrounding structure of the passage. The words tested are nowhere near as esoteric as traditional “SAT words,” yet test takers sometimes still struggle. What happens when you don’t know what the words in the answer choices mean? Vocabulary strikes again!
We do still have “context” vocabulary questions in test reading section that ask us to choose the correct meaning of a word used in a sentence in the passage. The word is often a familiar, deceptively easy vocabulary word. No problem, right? The catch is that usually most of the answer choices do, strictly speaking, fall into the purview of that word’s definition. So, the way to get the question right is to figure out the particular, nuanced way that the word is being used in the context of that sentence and the surrounding sentences. Understanding the meaning of the surrounding language becomes crucial, and that often involves knowing vocabulary words in the surrounding sentences. We can’t escape vocabulary! It’s just everywhere.
So, how do we deal with the way the tests are approaching vocabulary, now? What are some ways apart from all-important context to succeed at the way vocabulary is being tested?
TONE: Knowing whether a word is positive or negative can get you pretty far.
ROOTS: Recognizing a Latin or Greek root helps unlock the meanings of countless English words, especially many of the tougher ones. Sometimes you will be able to use Latin or Greek roots by just noticing that an unfamiliar vocabulary word looks like a piece of a word you already know:
Benefactor. Beneficial? Benefit. Oh, I think the word benefactor must involve someone getting something good.
Circumscribe. Circumference of a circle! Scribbling lines on a paper. Perhaps circumscribe is to draw a line around something.
Graphical literacy may be more important in our 21st century assessments, but a college-level vocabulary never really goes out of style. Work on yours for greater success on test day and every other day!