As many parents remember, and as many teenagers are regrettably learning, a strong vocabulary is a key component of success on most standardized tests. Similarly, test makers often seem out to punish less robust vocabularies with extreme prejudice. All of the major secondary school tests, the SSAT, the ISEE, and the HSPT, include verbal or vocabulary based exercises as key components of one full section of the test. Indeed, an improved vocab also can help a student improve his performance on, or at least better understand the other sections of the exam.
What is a family to do? Chain junior in the basement with the Oxford English Dictionary? Cancel all of sister’s games and events to drill in the library? Force the kids into a single elimination etymology battle royale? (“Five klatuus on the newcomer.”) Hopefully, your family can avoid the stress and questionable results such efforts would yield. While increasing one’s vocabulary certainly does bring benefits, doing it in a positive, bloodless manner also has its merits.
Study for the Long Term
It is cliché, but successful students tend to approach their vocabulary work as a marathon and not a sprint. We often counsel our students that is it better to spend less time studying daily than it is to hunker down for a 2 hour session the night before class. We encourage our students to proactively put vocabulary on their daily schedules. While studying just before bed can yield some success, too often it leads to (justifiably) falling asleep after finishing tomorrow’s school work. Sometimes it’s too difficult to muster that extra bit of commitment to study for a test 4, 6, or 8 weeks away. Leaving vocab study until everything else is done risks not having time or energy to address it properly.
Make a Specific Plan
Try planning ahead to study for 10 minutes before or after dinner. Alternatively, make it a point to work on your words just before starting your evening studies or during your first break between academic homework. Take a few minutes to realistically assess when you can devote 10 minutes on a somewhat regular basis. Is it on the way to/from school? Waiting for the bus/metro? Just before practice? During commercial breaks of the game? If your schedule is regular enough, you may even be able to tie it to a specific time. (“From 5:15-5:30 every day is vocab time.”)
If you find one time worked at first, but doesn’t anymore, don’t beat yourself up or be afraid to change. Try another time and keep at it. The same thing goes if you miss a day. You’re a busy student in a busy family in a busy part of the country. Try again the next day. What’s important is noting why you missed and doing it a little differently it next time.
Notice Vocabulary in Your Life
Another key to growing our word list is to integrate vocabulary into our lives. Pay closer attention to unfamiliar words you hear and read. You’ll start to notice them everywhere: news shows, books, podcasts, songs, conversations. Buy a cool notebook you can use to start building your own word list. Write these down and define them with mom & dad or on your own later. Read over them daily as part of your study time. Make flash cards or a Quizlet set to test yourself further.
If you have siblings or other friends facing the same challenge, and I’m betting you do, perhaps you want to plan some group study sessions. You can quiz each other even if you’re not studying the same words. It can be a nice change of pace, something to look forward to each week, and a great way to encourage each other on your way to better things.
If you are studying on your own, there are many ways to be productive. Use spaced repetition to help track your progress. Physically sort and review words by how well you know them. Study lesser known words more frequently so that you are constantly tested on them. Place better known words at the back/bottom of the stack and lesser known words toward the front. You’ll see the harder words more often and see words you’re 90% sure of less frequently.
So Many Options!
There is no one way to be successful. Another way to improve retention is to study in different rooms of your house. Tying the same words to changing physical locations can help with retention. Additionally, try using different modes to help your memory. Read the words and definitions aloud when you can. Use dry erase markers to write your personal word of the day on your mirror. Listen to the words and definitions on one the many online dictionaries. Many, such as Quizlet.com, have audible/speaker options. Download a safe word-a-day app. Connect the words to something funny or weird. An emotional connection can help us recall information. Alternatively, connect them to familiar people or things. Is your friend Norm resilient? Is your dog Rex vivacious? If you like learning roots, remember to tie them to specific words that exemplify the meaning and some notable ones that may not. If you don’t get car sick, keep a set of cards in the family car(s) or your backpack. You’ll never be bored again.
When all else fails, remember the number one vocabulary builder: reading. While you will want to look up more difficult words as well, you already know that you pick up many things from context. Besides, reading is usually a lot more fun than going through an equivalent number of vocab cards. What’s more, you’ll probably be using the words you learn long after your tests and high school are a distant memory. They’re sure to help in college, grad school, and in the rest of “real life”.
Whichever method(s) you decide to employ, remember that it is the long term work that will help you to be successful. As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” As with other habits, when we stumble, we simply note how we can do better, and start again. Oh, and that most important vocabulary word? Persistence.
Did you miss the first part of this series? Read:
SSAT Support at Home