What Kinds Of Words Should Students Know?
I wrote on the Brilliant Blog yesterday about adding unusual words to our vocabularies—words like “cerulean,” “chelonian,” and “persiflage.” David Coleman, president of the College Board (the organization that administers the SAT), has a more pragmatic view of vocabulary. At a recent appearance at the Brookings Institution (reported by Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post), he said:
“I think when you think about vocabulary on exams—you know how SAT words are famous as the words you will never use again? You know, you study them in high school and you’re like, Gosh, I’ve never seen this before, and I probably never shall. Why [shouldn't] it be the opposite? Why wouldn’t you have a body of language on the SAT that’s the words you most need to know and be ready to use again and again? Words like ‘transform,’ ‘deliberate,’ ‘hypothesis’—right?” (Read more here.)
Coleman has a point—those are certainly words that college-bound seniors should know and be able to use—but I think he’s wrong that the SAT is full of “words you will never use again.” That may be the case if you memorize lists of words just for the purpose of doing well on a test. But developing a rich, diverse vocabulary over time—which is done by reading, not cramming—is an important skill that we should encourage all our students to cultivate. Being able to express yourself precisely often requires knowing just the right word to capture your meaning.
Speaking directly to Coleman’s point, Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, has long argued students need to be taught academic language in order to learn science and other subjects. Word Generation, a program she developed, presents middle school students with all-purpose academic words embedded in passages interesting topics and provides materials for teachers of science, mathematics, and social studies to extend the academic language focus across the curriculum and throughout the school year. Read more about her program here.
What kinds of words do you think should be on SAT?