The general public still holds the SAT synonymous with highly advanced–some might say abstruse, arcane, or esoteric–even though the last major test revision dispensed with question types devoted to that topic. I often joke that the test makers veered away from strict vocabulary testing for two important reasons. First, graphical literacy matters more than an advanced lexicon in the 21st century. Second, College Board and ACT both realized that they don’t need to throw fancy words at students who struggle just as much with everyday terminology!
To be fair, grammar and reading questions designed to challenge vocabulary knowledge don’t test basic words any more than they test highly advanced or technical terms. Instead, test makers focus on a sweet spot called Tier Two Vocabulary.
The concept of sorting vocabulary words into tiers is linked to the influential book Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan. The authors identify three tiers from the most basic everyday words at one end and low-frequency or domain terms linked to specific fields of study. Sandwiched between the two are those valuable high-frequency words characteristic of mature language users used across several content areas or academic areas.
Tier Two words are both widely used and broadly useful, but developing a Tier Two vocabulary rarely happens without a lot of reading. Learning roots of words, while valuable in its own right, will only open up a portion of the larger pool of potentially tested terms. Students committed to focusing study on lists should begin with The Academic Word List (AWL), which contains 570 word families selected because they appear with great frequency in a broad range of academic texts. The first sublists skew towards the simple end of the spectrum, but by the time students get to the end, they’ll be able to check their comfort with words like accommodation and coherence. Still, reading at least fifteen minutes a day beyond assigned schoolwork is a much more efficient and enjoyable way to expand one’s personal lexicon.
Plenty of research studies establish incentives to learn new words, from assertions that “vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success in school.” (Elley, W. B. 1988) to claims that “students who have a wide vocabulary knowledge get higher grades than students who have deficient vocabularies.” (Ryder and Graves 1984) If a fast track to academic and workplace success isn’t motivation enough, add the potential for tough points on the SAT and ACT. Learn those Tier Two words!