Vocabulary.com has created an 8-week study program for students called the Roadmap to the SAT. This document discusses the rationale and methodology we used when creating the Roadmap, and answers many common questions about why vocabulary still matters when preparing for the revised SAT.
When the College Board first announced their makeover of the SAT, the media responded with headlines such as "The New SAT: Less Vocabulary, More Linear Equations" (NPR) and "Revised SAT Won't Include Obscure Vocabulary Words" (The New York Times). While it's true that the new SAT will no longer directly assess students on their knowledge of "obscure" vocabulary via sentence completion questions, don't be fooled into thinking that students will encounter less vocabulary on the test. Words still matter, and a student's vocabulary knowledge will still remain a powerful predictor of his or her overall score on the new SAT Reading Test.
So why does vocabulary still matter on the SAT?
...because of text complexity.
The text complexity of the reading passages on the new SAT will range from a 9th-10th grade level to a postsecondary level. If that's too abstract a classification to digest, here is an introductory paragraph of a postsecondary level sample passage released by the College Board (adapted from a speech delivered by Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas on July 25, 1974):
Today, I am an inquisitor. An hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.
If the words inquisitor, hyperbole, solemnness, idle, spectator, diminution, and subversion would stand in the way of your students' comprehension of this paragraph, then you can see why vocabulary still matters to a student's performance on the new SAT. Regardless of the readability formula you use to measure the text complexity of a reading passage, vocabulary difficulty (defined by either frequency or length) is factored in to that equation. In fact, literacy research suggests "The proportion of difficult words in a text is the single most powerful predictor of text difficulty, and a reader's general vocabulary knowledge is the single best predictor of how well that reader can understand text (Anderson & Freebody, 1981)."1
So why does vocabulary still matter on the SAT?
...because the new vocabulary questions can be tricky.
Just because the SAT got rid of its sentence completion questions doesn't mean that students won't get directly assessed on word knowledge. The new SAT will feature Words in Context questions that will require students to define words from the reading passages based on their usage within the passage. Although the words will most likely be common "high-utility" words students recognize, they should be prepared to see some not so common definitions as the answer choices. These Words in Context questions may prove tricky to your students since instead of relying on their immediate associations with a word, they will need to analyze the context clues in the passage to see how the author is using the word.
So why does vocabulary still matter on the SAT?
...because words are everywhere — not just in the reading passages.
In addition to just considering the multiple-meaning words being directly assessed for the Words in Context subscore on the SAT, educators should also consider those words that could be standing in the way of student comprehension in regard to other question types on the SAT Reading exam. For example, students may not understand some of the academic vocabulary contained in the SAT's directions, question stems, and answer options. In particular, SAT reading comprehension questions meant to assess a student's understanding of an author's point of view, tone or purpose can end up inadvertently assessing vocabulary knowledge since the answer options are often chock full of challenging words.
How can Vocabulary.com help your students prepare for the vocabulary they will face on the new SAT?
Keeping in mind that wherever students look on the new SAT Reading Test, they may run into unfamiliar words, we have devised a Roadmap to the New SAT. Following the Roadmap will ensure students learn a balanced diet of multiple-meaning words, language of the test words, and words commonly used to capture an author's tone. To get into the nitty gritty of each word type featured on the Roadmap, read on....
Goodbye, Sentence Completions.
Hello, Words in Context.
Hello, Multiple Meaning Words.
What are multiple-meaning words?
Multiple-meaning words are words that take on different meanings in different contexts. Whereas a word like lucrative has only one meaning (producing a profit), a multiple-meaning word like figure is used in a variety of ways, often across the disciplines. You might learn about a historical figure in history, calculate a figure in math, or analyze a figure of speech in literature.
Why are multiple-meaning words such a big deal on the new SAT Reading Test?
Multiple-meaning words are especially important on the new SAT since they are the only words on which students will be explicitly tested. The SAT has shed the sentence completion questions on more obscure words and has added "Words in Context" questions. The Words in Context questions require students to use context clues from a reading passage to help them to figure out the meaning of each multiple-meaning word as it is used in that passage.
How did Vocabulary.com identify the top multiple-meaning words your students should learn?
Using a formula that takes into account the number of meanings and distinct synonyms for each word in our database, we identified 200 multiple-meaning words that students would most likely encounter in the variety of reading passages that will appear on the new SAT (across founding documents, fiction and science passages -- alike). The highest ranked words are the richest in meaning and offer students the most opportunities for practice and review. When learning these high-priority words, students will encounter up to 30 different SAT-like review questions per word.
How does the new SAT test students' knowledge of multiple-meaning words?
The reading passages on the new SAT Reading Test will have accompanying Words in Context questions that will ask students to complete this question stem: "As used in line x, 'word' most nearly means..." Warn your students that they will need to revisit the reading to answer these questions; relying on their previous knowledge of the words in question could lead them astray!
Let's take a look at a Word in Context question from a sample SAT Reading Test, analyze the type of thinking it requires, and compare that with Vocabulary.com's methods of teaching the same word.
While all of the answer options could be synonyms for tracked, followed is the word that most nearly means tracked in this passage, where Nichols is tracking or following the turtle's journey with the aid of a satellite tag. As you can see, identifying the correct answer requires both word knowledge of track's multiple verb meanings and the reading skill of accurately picking up on the context clues that lead a reader to choose the meaning "followed" (i.e., "this epic journey," "with a satellite tag").
How will Vocabulary.com help students prepare for Words in Context questions on multiple-meaning words?
As students learn the multiple meanings of track on Vocabulary.com, they will encounter sentence-based questions that require the same type of context clue analysis as the previous Words in Context sample. For example, the following is a Vocabulary.com polysemous sentence synonym question for the verb track:
Just like in the previous SAT sample question, this Vocabulary.com question presents a sentence containing a form of the multiple-meaning word track and then ask students to identify which of four synonyms best captures the meaning of tracking in the sentence. Since scientists are "tracking babies' gazes" in the Scientific American sentence, the only synonym that could make sense in that context is following (the correct answer).
Language of the Test: Learn to Speak "SAT"
What are Language of the Test words?
Language of the Test words are academic vocabulary terms that frequently show up in SAT "testing talk." They are not the words that may show up in the reading passages; they are the words that show up everywhere else. In fact, we just used a Language of the Test word in the previous sentence. Find it?*
(*If you guessed reading passage, you're right.)
Why is knowing the Language of the Test important on the new SAT Reading Test?
A student can't perform well on the new SAT if he or she doesn't fully understand the academic language being used in the test directions, in the questions, and in the answer options. Learning the Language of the Test will prevent your students from missing questions because they misinterpreted the question or skipped an unfamiliar word in the answer options.
Take a look at the following SAT Reading Test sample and imagine interpreting the question without understanding the meaning of the word graphic.
If a student does not understand that the word graphic refers to the two circular images accompanying the reading passage (indicating the direction of the hatchlings' swimming path), then it would be difficult to easily determine the right answer to this question. Examining the graphic to determine that the turtles were swimming in a southwest direction is key to figuring out the reverse direction required to answer the question correctly (B Northeast).
How did Vocabulary.com identify the top Language of the Test words your students should learn?
We selected 150 words based on our analysis of the words likely to appear in question stems, answer options, and test directions of not only the SAT Reading Test but in other standardized reading comprehension tests as well. We considered how often each word tends to show up and how relevant each word is to the major emphases of the new SAT. For example, a word like evidence was a shoo-in since it shows up often in the test questions and Command of Evidence is one of the key content changes the College Board has highlighted on the new SAT.
How will Vocabulary.com help students learn the Language of the Test?
For each word on our Language of the Test lists, we explain how we expect the word to be used on the SAT. A Language of the Test word list is not just a learnable list of words students may encounter on the SAT Reading Test; it's words and test tips all in one.
An Example: claim
We selected the word claim for our top-priority Language of the Test list (List #1) due to the new SAT's emphasis on claim as it relates to argumentative writing. Here is the explanatory note we include for claim, to help students understand how the word is used specifically on the new SAT Reading Test:
" Claim has many meanings but if you spot it on the SAT, it will most likely refer to an argument's main point -- what the writer is trying to persuade you to believe. There could be more than one claim in an argument, but the reading passages on the SAT will most likely have one central (or main) claim that is supported by different types of evidence."
Words to Capture Tone: Getting Inside the Author's Head
What types of words capture tone?
The new SAT Reading Test contains many questions that ask students to try to figure out an author's attitude about the subject of a reading passage (e.g., What tone does the author establish? What point of view?). And since the Reading Test is a multiple choice exam, each question offers four answer options that are full of words that can be used to establish tone and point of view. These are the types of words that comprise our Words to Capture Tone lists.
Why are Words to Capture Tone such a big deal on the new SAT Reading Test?
Even if your students have a good grasp of a reading passage, they still might miss questions on the passage if they can't understand the words that the SAT test writers have used to describe the author's tone or point of view in the answer options.
As an example, read the following SAT Reading Test sample question and identify all of the challenging vocabulary words that appear in the answer options.
As you can see, this question not only requires students to get inside the author's head to try to determine his or her purpose, it also requires knowledge of the vocabulary terms used to describe the possible intentions and attitudes of the author. Was the author out to emphasize or to foreshadow or to suggest or to offer? Were the character's sensations acute? Did the characters have declining fortunes? Was time portrayed as fleeting? If you are unsure of these various words' meanings, it would be difficult to choose the correct answer to capture the tone suggested by the author's descriptions -- even if you did understood the descriptions when you read them! (the answer is B, by the way)
How did Vocabulary.com identify the top tone words your students should learn?
We scoured the College Board Reading Test sample questions for words that were used to capture authors' attitudes and perspectives. Then, we turned to our community of education experts (that's you) to add words from the multitude of great "tone lists" that ELA teachers have created on Vocabulary.com. The result? A comprehensive list of 200 words that your students can master so they won't be fazed when they face some of those same words in SAT answer options.
How will Vocabulary.com help students master Words that Capture Tone?
Among all of the words students will encounter on the SAT Roadmap, tone words are by far the most challenging. Therefore, the question variety and repetition that's baked into the Vocabulary.com learning system will be key to your students' mastery of the 200 Words to Capture Tone. Through the course of list practice and mastery, students will encounter words like acerbic and laudatory in authentic sentences in our three sentence-based question types. And, if they miss questions the first time they encounter them, they will see those questions again — plus new ones. Because tone words show up often in literature and in journalism, we have an endless supply of great sentence-based questions for this set of words. Students will not be memorizing definitions; they will be learning words in various contexts -- like they may encounter on the SAT.
1 Nagy, William E. (1988). "Vocabulary Instruction and Reading Comprehension." Center for the Study of Reading. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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