Many times, as I am in the process of tutoring for the SAT, parents will ask me if their student is working on vocabulary as part of the prep. This is a fair question, and they are usually quite surprised when I say no. Students who have been voracious readers and have a stellar vocabulary are pretty rare. The vast majority of students I help do not have a great vocabulary.
As far as vocabulary, this is my philosophy: vocabulary is very important, but at this time every minute spent building an even focused study of "frequently seen SAT vocabulary words" would be better spent on the passage based reading practice on real tests. If a student runs out of Blue Book tests there is the online Official Prep from the College Board with more real practice tests. For example, 10 hours of memorizing words may not even result in one more correct answer on the test--if none of the words show up on the actual test. However, the skills needed to gain one more correct answer on the passage based readings are much more easily acquired and much more likely to translate to an improved score. In my opinion, true vocabulary improvement is only acquired from years of reading. And true vocabulary on the SAT means not just knowing the first and second meaning listed for each word in the dictionary, but knowing archaic, rarely used meanings. I know--pretty nasty of the College Board!
Much of my reading prep strategy is convincing the students that the right answer must be restated in the passage. That is the only way the College Board can deflect any criticism that the test is "unfair." With practice students come to see patterns of wrong and right answers. Also, because the passage based questions are in no order of difficulty, if the student spends time on the hard vocabulary questions at the end of the section (as vocabulary questions are in order of difficulty) they may not have time to finish the passage based reading ones and thus not get time to even read the "easy" passage based reading questions (which the college board sometimes puts at the end of the test.) Finally, skipping the hard vocabulary questions will not keep someone from the high 600's.
What if you have a student who is in middle school and wants to begin working on SAT vocabulary? Well, that is a wonderful question! To this I say: get them to READ, READ, and READ, period. I recently had a mom tell me that her daughter is a reader, but apparently is a “word skipper.” That is a great term—and I have to say that I have done that for most of my life. I would read Victoria Holt novels in middle school and I can’t recall ever looking up a word I didn’t know. As a result, I would have to see the word “surreptitious” about 15 times before I understood that it meant secret. Granted, I then “knew” the word. But I’m pretty sure that if I knew it meant that the first time I saw it, I would truly remember it at the second or third exposure. Enter the Kindle. On a Kindle you simply highlight a word you don’t know and the dictionary entry pops up. I am no longer a word skipper, and am amazed at how many words I look up even now, after years of skipping them. Yep, old dog, new trick. This is the way to improve vocabulary. Get your child a Kindle and bribe them to read anything they want. I know it sounds a bit unconventional, but it will make your child college-ready and let them break the 700 ceiling on the SAT Reading section.