How to Study Vocabulary and Ace Standardized Tests

Guest Post by: Miriam Holt

 If your student is preparing for a standardized test like the SAT or GRE and needs to expand his or her vocabulary, your primary goal should be to develop in your student an automatic, reflexive response to seeing an unfamiliar word: first, your student should guess its meaning (from roots and prefixes, context, or both), and second, he or she should look it up immediately to see if the guess was correct.  Looking it up in a dictionary immediately is acceptable, but it’s better to break the word into roots, prefixes, and suffixes, so that the student considers the meaning of each piece and then tries to fit them together before checking in a dictionary.  Either way, it’s important that the student pause everything else and do both of these tasks immediately, before continuing with other studies, for two reasons. 

 First, when they’re reading a text, most students have a tendency to skim over words they don’t know, either a. not paying attention to the unknown words or b. subconsciously guessing the words’ meanings and moving on without finding out whether they guessed correctly.  This tendency deprives them of valuable opportunities to expand their vocabulary and also may lead them to memorize incorrect meanings for the words.  The longer an untested guess sits in a student’s mind, the deeper it sinks in.  The brain will tend to treat that guess as though it is the correct meaning whether it is or not, so if it’s wrong, you’ll want to uproot it immediately.  Students will have much more difficulty learning correct meanings if they have to unlearn the wrong ones first!  Teaching them to stop reading and try to figure out a word’s meaning will help them become more consciously aware of the moments when they’re reading words they don’t know, and they can train themselves to hold mental “empty spots” for a word’s meaning, instead of filling that spot half-consciously with their first guess and then forgetting (or not bothering) to check.

 Second, the habit of checking immediately to see if a guess was right will, over time, give students a sense of how reliable their guesses are.  By the time their test day arrives, they’ll either know that they can guess with reasonable confidence or they’ll know to avoid being too sure of themselves.  Of course, we want all students to be able to guess correctly and be confident about their skills, and the habit of checking immediately can help there, too: if students check immediately to see if their guesses were correct, they will still have fresh in their memories whatever mental processes they used to guess, and they can learn to avoid using some techniques and try using others based on what seems to work most reliably.  The powerful positive or negative feedback of seeing an answer immediately after making the guess makes the vocabulary-learning process go more smoothly and efficiently.

 Once your student has identified a word as unfamiliar, guessed its meaning, and checked that guess in a dictionary, the student should add the word and its meaning to his or her personal list before resuming reading.  If the student is spending an hour or so per day reading challenging texts, that list will grow quickly, so make sure your student reviews the list every few days.  Students can read the list over and over, make flash cards, play a matching game (like “memory”, but pairing the word with its definition instead of pairing two identical images) write stories which use the words, create mnemonics, quiz themselves, use the words in conversation–whatever works best and bores them the least.  Be creative and experiment to help them find some methods that work for them, but make sure they use them regularly.

 If your student isn’t already spending an hour or so per day reading challenging texts, you’ll have to help him or her get into the habit.  Scholarly articles in just about any subject are readily available for free online, and they serve as good sources of new vocabulary words, but one excellent source of challenging texts is the set of practice tests students will be taking anyway as they prepare for test day.  On an SAT, the sentence completion sections and reading passages (and even the essay prompts and other grammar/writing questions) are full of words that many students don’t know well.  On the old GRE (before August 2011), the antonym and analogy sections are an even richer source, and on the revised GRE, the answer choices for Text Completion Questions are a good place to start.  Pore over these tests with your student and ask your student to look for unfamiliar words as if searching for jewels. 

 As you do, be careful about your own attitude, because your student may be feeling vulnerable here.  Many students feel embarrassed to admit they don’t know a word, but you can counter that embarrassment by showing real enthusiasm.  Get excited and give them positive feedback every time they find a word they don’t know.  If you don’t already feel excited, try to think of it as exciting–How wonderful, that your student is learning!–so that you can be genuine.  Convince them with your manner that the longer their vocabulary list gets, the better.  If it doesn’t embarrass them, you might reward them somehow when they reach 50 or 100 or 200 words, even if the reward is as silly as tearing up a sheet of paper and throwing the bits over your student’s head like confetti.   The important thing is to banish any negative feelings they might have connected to not knowing words, so they’re never tempted to hide (from you or from themselves) the awareness that they don’t understand what they’re reading.  You may find that they don’t need your encouragement anymore, once the negative thoughts are out of the way, because their natural curiosity can take over and can lead them to recapture the pleasure of learning things on their own.

Miriam Holt is an academic advisor and SAT tutor with Parliament Tutors.  Miriam is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from Stanford University with a BA in Philosophy and Religion. She worked as a private tutor in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut before joining the Parliament team.  Checkout her recent series on Common SAT Errors.

Related Posts:

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • The rosetta stone teaching theory is pretty simple and logical — it mimicks the way children learn language. Children associate the sound of words with images and mood. It’s the organic and natural way of learning to speak, and incidentally, of learning proper grammar. And of course it’s a total immersion method — they hear only that language. They see a horse and they connect it directly with the word for horse without having to translate it from another language first.

  • Great advice! Immediate positive or negative feedback is definitely important in learning vocabulary words. Quite often, I find that students do not take the time to look up all the words presented in the answer options of practice questions, and end up passing over an opportunity to expand their vocabulary. As as result, I have started posting some of the words and definitions from the SAT practice question of the day on The students are able to bookmark the site and quickly review the vocabulary words from the practice question.

  • Before we dive into that question, let’s face some facts. Learning should not be painful and also does not have to be boring, although it’s usually both. However, it’s unnecessary going to be joyful, interesting, either. From time to time we often have to work our ass off to figure out something or get a job done.

Leave a comment

Reddit button Delicious button Digg button Stumbleupon button