The Most Important SSAT Vocabulary Word

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As many parents remember, and as many teenagers are learning, a strong vocabulary is a key component of success on most standardized tests. Test makers often seem determined 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 significant elements of one full section of the test. Additionally, an improved vocabulary can also help a student improve their performance on, or at least better understand, the other sections of the exam.

We’d like to share some suggestions to help improve students’ vocabulary in a mostly painless manner.

Study for the Long Term

It is cliché, but successful students tend to approach their vocabulary work as a marathon and not as a sprint. We often advise our students that it is better to study daily for short intervals — maybe only 10-15 minutes — than it is to hunker down for a 2-hour session the night before class. So we encourage our students to actively reserve time on their daily schedules for studying vocabulary. While studying just before bed can yield some success, too often it leads to (unsurprisingly) falling asleep after finishing a day’s school work. It can understandably be difficult to muster that extra bit of commitment to study for a test 4, 6, or 8 weeks away, but consistently leaving vocab review until everything else is done risks not leaving adequate time or energy to learn it properly. 

Make a Specific Plan

Another key component to success in learning vocabulary is your ability to determine the best time for you to study. You can try planning ahead and set aside 10 minutes for vocab before or after dinner. Alternatively, make it a point to work on your words just before starting your homework or during your first break between assignments. It’s important to take a few minutes to realistically assess when you can devote 10 minutes to your vocab review on a somewhat regular basis. Where are there natural breaks between your regular activities? If your schedule is predictable enough, you may even be able to tie vocab review to a specific time: “From 5:15-5:30 p.m. every day is when I will study my new words.” Set a study-goal each week and assess how well it worked for you every Sunday night.

If you find one study time worked at first, but doesn’t anymore, don’t beat yourself up or be afraid to change it. Just keep at it and keep changing things up to find what works best for you. The same thing goes if you miss a day. You’re a busy student in a busy family in a busy time of year, so it’s bound to happen to you. Go ahead and try again the next day. What’s important when this happens, though, is noting why you missed reviewing your words that day and knowing exactly how you will do it a little differently next time.

Notice Vocabulary in Your Life

Another key to growing your word list is to integrate vocabulary into your daily life. Pay closer attention to unfamiliar words you hear and read, and soon you’ll start to notice them everywhere: TV shows, books, podcasts, songs, conversations, and so on. Use a notebook, memo file on your phone, or Google Doc to start building your word list. Write your new words down and, later, define them with a parent or on your own. Read over them daily as part of your study time.

If you have siblings or other friends also facing this challenge, plan some remote group study sessions. You can quiz each other even if you’re not studying the same words, and you can even add some of your friends’ words to your own list. Studying together can be a nice change of pace, something to look forward to each week, and is a great way to encourage each other in the pursuit of your goals.

If you are studying on your own, use the spaced repetition method that follows to help track your progress:

  1. Physically sort your flashcards by how well you know them. Place better-known words at the back/bottom of the stack and lesser-known words toward the front.
  2. Read the word on the front card and its definition on the back. No need to hyperfocus; your brain will pick it up eventually.
  3. Place the card a few cards back, or even further back as you gain confidence in knowing its meaning.
  4. You’ll see the harder words more often and see words you’re 90% sure of less frequently. Study lesser-known words more frequently so that you are constantly being reminded of them.

So Many Options!

There is no one way to be successful. Another way to improve word retention is to study in different rooms of your house. Tying the same words to changing physical locations can help with retention. Additionally, try to help your memory by learning with all your senses: read words and definitions aloud when you can, use dry erase markers to write your word of the day on your mirror, and listen to the recordings of your words and definitions on an online dictionary. Many online resources, such as Quizlet.com, have audible/speaker options. Download a trusted word-a-day app. Connect your words to something funny or weird, like “things a ninja does on their day off.” An emotional connection can help us to better and more quickly recall certain information. Alternatively, connect your words to familiar people or things. Is your friend Norm ‘resilient’? Is your dog Rex ‘vivacious’? If you like learning word roots, remember to tie those root words to words that exemplify those roots’ meaning. Then find other words that notably don’t reflect the meaning of the root they contain. Finally, if you don’t get car sick, keep a set of cards in the family car or your backpack. You’ll never again be stuck in the car with a dead phone and nothing to do.

When all else fails, remember the number one vocabulary builder: reading. While you will still want to look up the more difficult words you come across, you already know that you can pick up a lot about a word from context. Besides, reading is usually a lot more fun than going through stacks of vocab cards. What’s more, you’ll probably be using the words you learn through reading 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 study methods you decide to employ, whether the ones we’ve mentioned here or a method of your own, 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.” Just as with other skills, 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.

John Jones

Tutor & Director of Quality Assurance

John Jones has been ACT and SAT tutoring at PrepMatters since 2001. He prepares students for the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, SSAT/ISEE/HSPT, PSAT, and ACT.  Mr. Jones began tutoring in high school, serving as Vice-President of Tutoring for a high school service organization. His tutoring experience continued through college and has also included work with the AmeriCorps National Service Program...

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