Why Vocabulary Still Matters for SAT Reading

By James Rodkey

(ACT, SAT, ESOL, Latin, BMAT, GRE, TSA tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

I’ve written previously about how the new SAT explicitly tests vocabulary: the pre-2016 sentence completion questions are gone and have been replaced with context-based vocabulary questions that are generally much simpler. This only tells half of the story of vocabulary on the SAT, however. It is still entirely possible to get questions wrong on the Reading Test solely due to not knowing the meaning of a word in the passage or the answer choices. Consequently, developing an expansive vocabulary is still vital for achieving the highest scores on the Reading Test, even if the mode of testing that knowledge has changed.

In addition to the Vocabulary in Context questions that directly ask about the usage of certain words in a text, other questions often use words in their answer choices that can cause problems for test-takers who don’t know their meanings.

Purpose questions for example (those that ask about why an author includes a certain detail, usually ending in “in order to”) list answer choices that begin with a verb, sometimes an uncommon word. Not knowing the meaning of the verb will make it difficult to evaluate that answer choice. Here are some answer choices to Purpose questions that have appeared on past SAT exams:

  • deride a viewpoint that has been gaining popularity.
  • bolster a conclusion about the spread of farming in Europe.
  • expedite the rate of genetic changes.
  • extol the ready availability of goods in the United States.
  • dramatize a strong view of a certain intellectual tendency.
  • juxtapose Carrie’s perceptions of the city and her impressions at the theater.

Even if you understand the text and have an answer to the question in mind, not knowing a vocabulary word in the correct answer choice may prevent you from choosing it.

Attitude/Tone questions also often have uncommon vocabulary words in their answer choices. Answering these types of questions is nearly impossible without understanding these crucial words, which are usually adjectives or adverbs. Some answer choices to these questions on past SAT exams have included the words aggrieved, pessimistic, baffled, resentment, scornful, apprehensive, and melodramatic.

Glancing through the answer choices from various other past SAT exams, I spotted several other potentially challenging vocabulary words: conspicuous, rectify, affluence, languish, conducive, precocious, eloquent, insatiable, renounce, vitality, obscure, reconcile, and exacerbated. These are just the words that appeared in the answer choices of SAT Reading questions, the ones that aren’t even Vocabulary in Context questions. The texts of the passages, which the College Board takes from authentic sources of academic and historical literature, surely contain myriad potentially tricky words as well.

So, although it’s true that the SAT no longer tests absurdly uncommon words like pusillanimous, supercilious, and pulchritudinous, it would be a mistake to think that vocabulary no longer matters.

The obvious question, then: how can you improve your vocabulary for SAT Reading? The obvious answer: read. Voracious readers have expansive vocabularies because they encounter more words than non-readers. There’s no vocabulary list you can find to save you; you simply need to become a reader. Read challenging texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If a particular type of SAT Reading passage confounds you more than others (narrative fiction, social science, history, natural science), find more examples of that kind of text. If you’re taking the SAT, you intend to go to college. If you go to college, you’re going to need to read and write a lot. Becoming a reader now will ease the burden of both of those things.

Reading


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