Despite the title of this post, I’m not actually suggesting that parents hire an SAT tutor for their preschoolers or that they drill their preschool children on SAT practice questions. Rather, I’m suggesting there is one important skill essential to doing well on the SAT that is a lifelong skill and should be started early: vocabulary building. The average SAT test preparation book contains about 2,000 vocabulary words to study. If your child has an especially poor vocabulary in high school, hiring a tutor three months before the SATs will only do so much. Creating a good vocabulary must start as early as possible.
Helping your preschooler develop a good vocabulary doesn’t mean using flash cards or lists of vocabulary words. The best way to learn new words is through exposure to them. Baby talk has its place, of course. When babies and toddlers are first learning to talk, listening to baby talk encourages them to imitate basic sounds that make up our language. However, once your child knows how to talk, it’s time to drop the baby talk and speak as you normally would. Be mindful of which words are likely to be unfamiliar to your child and explain them along the way. For example, you might say:
“We’re going to the grocery store now. The grocery store is where we buy food and other things. We call the things we buy at the grocery store, groceries. Now we’re in the produce section. Produce means fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Don’t worry if your child doesn’t remember a word the first time you use it. After a few repetitions, your child will pick up the vocabulary naturally. Don’t worry about the possibility that your child isn’t ready to learn the word yet. Maybe he or she won’t be able to learn it yet, but if you start these habits early you will continue them when your child is older. It’s also important to remember that sometimes a child is paying attention even when you don’t realize it. If your child is playing nearby while you are having a conversation with your spouse or other adults, you might occasionally take the opportunity to explain a word that has been used.
“Sweetie, when something is controversial that means a lot of people strongly disagree about it.”
Another important source of new words is books. From birth, you should read to your child every day. The more your child reads, the greater the exposure to new words. Reading to your child regularly also encourages interest in, and even love of, reading.
As your child gets older and learns to read independently, make sure your child understands the words being read. Teachers usually encourage students to use context clues to decipher the meaning of new words. Very often that will be enough, but sometimes it isn’t. You need to encourage your child to look up unfamiliar words in a print dictionary, online dictionary, or even by simply typing the word into a search engine such as Google. Some students try to skip over words they don’t understand in context. Explain that this will hinder their ability to understand the reading passage and that it’s important to learn new words. If by the third grade your child seems to have a poor vocabulary, encourage him or her to write down new words and their definitions in a notebook.
By middle school, your child should be exposed to other sources of new words, such as television news, documentaries and news articles. In addition to learning new words, your child will also learn about current events. Knowing what’s going on in the world will not only help your child become a better citizen but also provides the student with good examples to use for the SAT writing essay. If you happen to be watching the news or an educational documentary, insist that your middle school or high school aged child watch with you. Subscribe to a newspaper, or encourage your child to find a good online source of news to follow.
Of course, some sources of information are better for building vocabulary than others. The SAT test preparation book titled McGraw-Hill’s SAT recommends that students listen to National Public Radio or read The New York Times Op-Ed page and Sunday Magazine, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, The Nation, and Scientific American.
Starting early to help your child build a broad vocabulary not only will help your child grow into a more educated adult and better citizen, it can also mean the difference between studying 2,000 flashcards to prepare for the SAT, or just 200. It can mean the difference between an SAT verbal score of 550 (even after tutoring) or over 700.