Posted by Julia Wasson

Jul 10, 2014 1:46:00 PM

In the spring of 2016, two big changes will affect SAT vocabulary questions as we now know them. First, the SAT test will no longer include those pesky, obscure words that aren’t used by most mortals in a lifetime. Instead, the new SAT test will place focus on “high utility” words that students should encounter in school and everyday life.

Second, instead of testing words in the context of a single sentence, the SAT will begin to test vocabulary words in the richer context of reading passages. Your child will find them in the new 65-minute critical reading section and 35-minute written language test.

One caution is important, though. The SAT isn’t going make the test easy for students who only know the most common meaning of a word. Even high utility words may have obscure meanings. This is why understanding context is so important.

What this means for students is that when the SAT test changes, it will no longer be necessary to spend time memorizing arcane SAT vocabulary words that they can’t pronounce, let alone spell. We’re 100% positive this news won’t make your child lachrymose (an SAT vocab word for “tearful or sad”). However, that change has not yet taken place, and students who will be taking the PSAT or SAT test this fall will need to know the meanings of college-level vocabulary words. Of course, it's always a good idea to improve vocabulary, whether or not it's "on the test."

Instead of drilling your child with vocabulary flashcards, help her learn the meanings of both difficult and high utility SAT vocabulary words in these fun ways:

1. Encourage your child to read challenging material.

One of the easiest ways for anyone to build a college vocabulary is to read challenging material every day. The key is to choose reading material that is both complex and comprehensible. Go to the library together and ask your child to look for books that contain one or two unfamiliar words per page. Two words per page is considered just right for learning new words in context. More than that and your student will likely get discouraged.

The point isn’t to frustrate your child but to teach him how to use context to unlock meaning. It can help to have a dictionary at hand (printed or online), but encourage him to predict the word’s meaning before looking it up.

2. Have dinner-table conversations that stimulate thinking.

It’s fun and engaging to discuss random, interesting topics at the dinner table. Such discussions nurture your student’s critical thinking skills, and she ends up studying without even realizing it. Praise your child when she uses a word you didn’t know or teaches you an alternate meaning of a common word. When neither of you knows the meaning of a word, look it up together.

You might start a nightly discussion about newspaper opinion sections or editorials. Opinion pages and letters to the editor are great resources for putting vocabulary into context, because reading them requires making inferences about each writer’s meaning and purpose. By reading these persuasive pieces, your child can easily pick up on sarcasm, cynicism, and subjective tones, all of which can change how a reader interprets the piece. Let the dinner table conversations begin!

3. Make a game of learning SAT vocabulary together.

After a long day of classes, afterschool activities and homework, it’s hard to blame your child for not wanting to practice SAT vocabulary words. Turning study into a game helps make the challenge of learning new SAT vocab words more enjoyable and memorable.

Create a vocabulary list on a family chalkboard or the refrigerator. Encourage each family member to post a new word or a common word with an uncommon meaning, then learn these words and their definitions together. Pick a word of the day and challenge each other to use the word in conversations at least twice that day.

Another way to turn learning SAT vocabulary into a game is to play Scrabble®, work crossword puzzles, or play other word-oriented games together. You can also use online tools to teach college vocabulary through fun challenges that allow your child to earn rewards along the way. And be sure to ask your child to teach you alternate meanings of high utility words and new, more challenging words that she thinks you might not know.

The new approach to SAT vocabulary testing will still require work to improve your child’s skills through SAT vocabulary prep. The good news is that such prep will pay off long after the SAT is forgotten. Developing a strong foundation for high utility vocabulary will benefit your child in college and throughout life. So help your child focus on getting meaning through context and, of course, make learning new words fun for your student and the whole family.

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