Vocabularian Claudia Gwardyak is an SAT tutor working in the Hartford, Connecticut area. She joins Vocabulary.com to discuss SAT prep challenges and how using the Vocabulary.com Challenge helps her students.

Vocabulary.com: Thanks so much for sharing your experience with Vocabulary.com. I'm wondering if we can begin by asking you to tell us about your tutoring practice.

Claudia G.: Certainly. As a former English teacher, I work with high school juniors who want to improve their verbal scores on the SAT. In the first six weeks I work on test strategy, using any one of the standard SAT study guides to make sure my students have a basic understanding of the different sections of the test as well as when and how to guess. My students really respond to this kind of information and improve their test taking skills right away.

VC: Where does vocabulary learning come into play?

CG: My students are all different, but share a common challenge: they simply don't know enough words. This means they don't always understand the reading selections on the SAT. They don't always understand the questions that are asked about the reading sections. Even in the grammar sections, they might know the grammar, but get confused by the words. And they certainly have a hard time with the vocabulary questions themselves. It's a pervasive problem.

VC: What do you do to address this vocabulary deficit?

CG: I begin by encouraging my students to read a lot. We always read something together — such as Oliver Twist, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court — that involves elaborate sentence structures and words that are in less frequent use in the English language...as well as a gripping storyline!

But reading one book won't fix a student's vocabulary deficit. As in learning a foreign language, at some point you have to tackle direct learning of vocabulary in order to speak, write, and read effectively. Before Vocabulary.com, I would have my students make flash cards from vocabulary lists provided by any standard SAT study guide. Our goal would be learning 20 words a week.

VC: Was direct memorization of flashcards effective?

CG: For my students, it was not a particularly good way to learn vocabulary. Pure memorization is hard work, and my students found it extremely boring.

Plus, most students aren't able to pick out a word and/or use it correctly just from having memorized its definition. In my experience, students seem to learn a new word if they guess at its meaning in a story that they're interested in. Then the next time they see that word — or the time after — they remember it.

VC: How did you begin to use Vocabulary.com?

CG: When I heard about Vocabulary.com I was thrilled. I started to use it myself — it's a lot of fun for me because I know most of the words, but it's also challenging.

But for my students, it was fabulous. All of them, especially the boys, enjoy using it because of the encouraging, game-like components. The fact that it gives them awards for numbers of answers overall and an overall point total makes it fun. They are willing to make time for it. If I tell them to read ten books over the course of two months, I can guarantee they won't find the time, but they do always have time for Vocabulary.com. I can have them learning 30 words a week or at least playing 30 or 60 minutes between our sessions.

VC: Will you continue to use Vocabulary.com?

CG: Yes. I think the program has integrity. I like the way it remembers to return the student to words they did not get right before and keeps bringing them back. Also it's easy to use.

VC: We're glad you are finding it useful, and wish you and your students the best of luck with it. And now, before we let you go, we'd love to ask you to share with us a favorite English teacher trick?

CG: With pleasure. I have two: If you can't remember how to spell "lieutenant," just remember the sentence: "Lie, you ten ant!" And the sentence "Neither leisured foreigners seized the weird heights to forfeit the counterfeit heifer" includes the major exceptions to the i-before-e spelling rule.

To thank Claudia for her time, Vocabulary.com has created interactive Vocabulary Lists to go with some of her favorite reading assignments: Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist.