Digital Education

SAT Vocabulary in the Digital Age

Digital SAT Brings a New Approach to Words 

One of the changes students saw when they took the Digital SAT® this Spring was a slight increase of emphasis on vocabulary in a new question format that asks them to find the best word to fill in the blank in a short text. Here’s an example:

Birds sing to communicate over potentially great distances. For this reason, many researchers believe that birds in densely vegetated habitats generally sing at lower frequencies than birds living in comparatively sparse habitats, since dense vegetation tends to ______ the distance that high-frequency sounds can travel.

Which choice completes the text with the most logical and precise word or phrase?
A. exceed
B. diminish
C. encompass
D. conceal

This question may remind parents and school counselors of sentence completion questions that appeared on the SAT back in the day. It may also make some people wonder what happened to the demise of SAT words. Have the reports of their death, like Mark Twain’s, been exaggerated?

Not really.

In fact, College Board has been able to use digital tools and data to identify vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter in intro-level college courses. But these questions aren’t really about testing whether students know the definition of a particular word, but how well a test taker understands the meaning of a text. And that’s the real point of assessing reading comprehension skills on the SAT.

When the SAT was redesigned in 2016, one of the most discussed changes was the elimination of questions testing knowledge of vocabulary words that students don’t often come across in college-level texts (e.g., pulchritude, scabrous). The argument was that the inclusion of words that were rarely used in college-level writing encouraged studying practices and knowledge acquisition that were of little relevance to college success.

Cramming 1,000 words into your brain using flashcards or Quizlet might bump your SAT score 20 or 30 points, but how long would those words stay there? And how well would you understand them, ripped out of their textual context? Anyone who has tried to learn a second language knows that the way we learn words best is by using them and encountering them often, whether it be in reading, writing, or speaking.

The truth is that the redesigned SAT did not get rid of vocabulary. What would that even mean? All words are vocabulary, after all. What it did was refocus how it tested vocabulary knowledge to emphasize the words that students are in fact more likely to encounter in college-level reading and to assess students’ facility with those words in rich contexts rather than in isolation.

Reading ... and understanding ... is the point

Decades of research have established that vocabulary knowledge is strongly predictive of future success for students. A strong vocabulary builds reading comprehension, which is the foundation for all sorts of learning. Students with strong reading comprehension have better outcomes in postsecondary education.

The question remains, however, what kind of vocabulary knowledge is useful for success in college.

Skateboarders and sailors master an extraordinary number of specialized words, but most of those words will provide little benefit to a student in an intro psychology class. For decades, English teachers and tutors have been giving students lists of words to learn, but choosing words to include on such lists can be subjective.

When building the digital SAT, College Board took advantage of the digital resources to make vocabulary a better measure of reading skills. In order to determine what vocabulary students would need to succeed in college, College Board analyzed more than 250 commonly assigned texts used in introductory college courses in order to identify the frequency of more than 77,000 words, which were then narrowed down using a Zipf score. 

The Zipf score, named after late Harvard linguistics professor George Zipf, assigns each word a numerical value based on how frequently that word shows up in a collection of texts (in this case, books assigned in introductory college courses). Words with a higher Zipf score are considered high value, high utility words and are included for use on the SAT; words with a lower Zipf score are less common and are usually left out. 

Zipf scoreSample wordsAction
>4develop, usual, predictThese extremely common words are valuable to include: they are clearly of very high utility in reading college-level texts and tend to occur frequently in general English
3-4presume, establish, equitableThe common words are valuable to include: they are important to understanding college-lvel texts but may not occur frequently enough in general English to be acquired incidentally and thus may need special instruction
2.5-3improbability, conceding, pretenseThese moderately common words are included only sparingly: their utility lies primarily in providing information about students with very high vocabulary levels

Also left out are words that are highly specialized to particular disciplines, such as vesicate, repatriate, or encomium. Ultimately, College Board built a vocab list of more than 10,000 frequently used words for use on the SAT.

10,000 words is a lot of words. Are students expected to know them all? Probably not, at least not in isolation. The thing to know about the way the digital SAT tests vocabulary is that students are always presented with rich contexts that provide information indicating what a tested word means or what idea a missing word needs to communicate.

That’s where students should start with these questions: read the text carefully, determine what it is saying, and find the information that tells you what the tested word means or the missing word should mean. Next, find the word among the answer choices that best matches the meaning you just determined and eliminate the choices that do not match that meaning.

If you do that, there’s probably little need to study hundreds or thousands of flashcards. Unless, of course, you really just want to build your own personal dictionary of SAT words.