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How to Learn SAT Vocabulary

How to Learn SAT Vocabulary

SAT takers generally find the critical reading sections challenging because both the sentence completion and passage-based reading sections are so vocabulary dependent. You may not have a huge academic vocabulary, but some concentrated study and knowing the following strategies can make a significant difference in your scores on the critical reading and multiple-choice writing sections.


Vocabulary recognition is critically important for both the Passage-based Reading and Sentence Completion Questions found in the Critical Reading section. The publisher of the SAT claims that these subtests measure “verbal reasoning abilities.” Hogwash! Much of the Sentence Completions and even the Passage-based Reading subsections only measure vocabulary. Not only do these subsections simply measure vocabulary; they also frequently test this vocabulary out of context. In other words, much of the SAT vocabulary is either already known or not known.

Some SAT preparation workbooks and classes (or perhaps a friendly English teacher you might know) will suggest that you memorize huge SAT vocabulary lists of hundreds of words. This approach runs contrary to both good reading research and just plain common sense. The publisher has a word bank of over 30,000 words. Even if you retained the meanings of every single word on a twenty-word weekly vocabulary test, you would only have learned 600 or so words by the end of one school year. Chances are that you would forget many of these anyway. Time invested in memorizing huge vocabulary lists would be better spent reading a good book.

In fact, for long term SAT vocabulary acquisition, reading is the best way to grow a huge vocabulary. As you read books at your reading level (word recognition of 95%), you will learn many of those unknown 5% words though effective use of context clues. Keep track of these words on a daily basis on 3 x 5 cards or on your computer, and you will be well on your way to developing the kind of SAT vocabulary that will score you the points you need.

But, for those of you non-readers who are taking the SAT in a few short weeks, there is still hope to improve your score on both the Critical Reading and Writing sections. Fortunately, the multiple-choice design of the SAT requires vocabulary only word recognition, rather than vocabulary word knowledge. For example, you may not be able to define, or even give an example of an “octogenarian.” However, you might be able to recognize that the “oct” part of the word means “eight” because you have prior knowledge that an “octopus” has eight tentacles.

Two effective short cuts toward better recognizing SAT vocabulary include these two strategies:

1. learning the most common Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots and

2. learning how to figure out the clues to meaning of unknown words through context clues. Both of these strategies will help your short-term goal of dealing with the SAT vocabulary. The web provides wonderful resources for frequently-used word parts to print into SAT vocabulary study flashcards and context clue exercises designed for SAT-takers.