The elimination of Sentence Completions as the last standalone vocabulary question on the SAT have people convinced that knowing a wide range of words in English isn’t important anymore. After all, we can just look up unfamiliar words on our cell phones, right? Don’t set your flashcards on fire just yet; vocabulary still matters. If anything, certain types of words will matter more than ever. The SAT and ACT both continue to challenge vocabulary comprehension in a variety of ways, including but definitely not limited to passage-based reading questions.
What should change is how students develop the kind of advanced, ready vocabulary that promotes success on tests, in school, and in life. Those canned lists of 5000 SAT words won’t cut it anymore, if they ever did. Yes, memorizing certain tightly-focused lists can deliver crucial points on test day and learning the Latin and Greek roots of words promotes a longer-term facility with the English language. But efforts to artificially enhance one’s vocabulary can never compare to organic acquisition of new words in context.
The easiest and most enjoyable way to dramatically improve your vocabulary in a way that actually matters can be boiled down to three simple steps:
Surprisingly, this may be the toughest step for some, but the entire process of vocabulary development and acquisition depends on a steady diet of text. And not just any text will do. You’re not likely to pick up much in the way of useful terminology by reading the back of a cereal box. Improve your vocabulary by reading articles, essays, and complete works of both fiction and non-fiction written at college level or above. This step works best if you read every day and actually enjoy what you read! Consuming more and more varied reading material may be the only effective way to prepare for questions on the grammar sections of the exams that test usage, basically which words English speakers employ in certain phrases or applications.
2. Use Context to Decode Unfamiliar Words
If you are reading the right works, you will definitely encounter words you do not know the meanings to. When this happens, resist the urge to either reach for your preferred dictionary app or just skip the word altogether. Instead, use contextual clues to guess what the word means. Use surrounding text, the author’s tone, the roots of the word in question, or even the way it sounds. Just don’t give up until you have a prediction. Learning to recognize the meanings of words in context serves as excellent preparation for most vocabulary-related questions on the tests.
3. Look Up the Word
Context is king. If you are able to grasp the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases by decoding contextual clues, you will understand everything you read more deeply and more quickly. But you shouldn’t trust your contextual comprehension until you’ve tested it. Thus, this critical step of looking up a word once you’ve predicted its meaning develops both your vocabulary and contextual understanding.
Follow these three easy steps to a superior English vocabulary and you’ll reap the benefits every day of your life.