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Dear Mitch,

My grandson is taking the SAT this October 4th. It will be his first time. My question is not a math one, because he seems to have all the confidence in the world for that part, but about the reading and writing sections. Mainly, vocabulary. He gets these lists of words off his computer, and quite frankly they are overwhelming. He's very studious, and he keeps making flashcards for every new word he doesn't know, but he has accumulated a stack that is too thick for anybody to learn by the test. Is there one definitive list he should be looking at, or are all these lists of words just as likely to have the test words as any other list? And do you have any suggestions for how he might pare down his stack of cards a little, because at this rate, I'm thinking he'll remember fewer new words than if he had a smaller group and just gave up on some.

Thank you in advance for your time,

Mrs. C

St. Paul, MN


Dear Mrs. C,

I do have a few suggestions for your grandson.

First, if he is just making cards and going through them day after day without using a particular method or system to help him memorize them, then I can tell you this: not only do I agree with you that he'd be better off getting rid of most of the cards, but the most current research seems to agree with this opinion as well: flipping through cards is NOT an effective method of learning a supersized serving of new words – UNLESS he is using one of the proven methods as he goes along. However, before I even get to the method that I recommend (and which seems to be the most effective approach for the majority of students in your grandson's circumstance), I'll tell you that at least he's half a step above the 'method' some students use, which is to purchase already made cards for the test. If there is any part of the flashcard process that is likely to help most students recall the words, it is the actual making of the cards themselves. That part, which is often unappreciated, is the most valuable part of the meager system you describe.

O.K., what should he be doing with the words? He should be making up mnemonics for each and every word. That's just a fancy name for any kind of memory trick, and a lot of people think, Oh, that'll take too long... BUT in the long run it is the fastest way. You make up a mnemonic for each new word once, and by the next time that word comes around in the stack, chances are you'll either get it right or you will be close. And the next time, your chances of getting it are over 80%; if not, you need to come up with a new mnemonic or another method for that word, or you should think about just chucking the card and moving on.

About mnemonics, I have written much about them for the recalling of mathematical concepts and procedures as well as for the memorization of vocabulary words for the SAT exam. The actual method is so easy to find explained in books and on the Internet that I am going to leave it out of this response, but if you cannot find it in the completely free Question & Answer archive, fear not, as I plan to go over it again sometime in the next few days.

Which words to study? Forget about the really long, rarely seen words, as those are out of fashion on this and other standardized tests. In fact, as I've written before, a good rule of thumb is if you have to pare down your list (and who doesn't?) then take out the longest words you can find and leave in the shorter ones.

Also, an important thing that many people don't realize until after the test is this: while everybody knows to beware of all those words that you don't know (but feel that you should), you should be even more alert to the words that you do know – or think you know. A favorite technique of people who design these tests is to use words that students use but either do not really know as well as they think they do or words that students know one definition for, when the word actually has multiple meanings – and often quite different meanings in every way -- yet with the exact same spelling!

Here are some examples:

man (not a noun, doesn't breathe...)

appropriate (not having to do with proper behavior)

can (noun)

home (not when it's the thing in which people can live)

prune (not a fruit or vegetable)

start (not when it's a beginning)

wash (nothing to do with cleaning)

latter (cannot be climbed)

peel (not when it's something you can do to a cucumber)

boarder (not an edge)

liquid (not a fluid)

solvent (not a liquid with the power to dissolve something)

incredible (not necessarily a compliment or insult)

wont (note: this one doesn't have an apostrophe)

sliver (not a color or metal)


Hope this helps,