What Kinds Of Words Should Students Know?

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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?

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5 Responses to “What Kinds Of Words Should Students Know?”

  1. Stan says:

    Asking about “words that you’ll never use again” is a useful measure of the person’s overall literacy and awareness, which are among the things that the SAT should be measuring. On the other hand, programs such as “Word Generation” defeat the purpose of questions like that. We want to identify the students whose reading experience and knowledge of the world have provided them with a wide vocabulary, not those who have spent hours in front of a computer screen regurgitating context-free definitions provided to them by a mindless machine.

  2. I recently came across American Heritage Dictionary’s book – “100 Words Every High School Graduate Should Know.”


    It’s an interesting list and would make a fun exercise in senior English class to debate each word’s merits. “Gerrymander” and “obsequious” get my vote but “moiety” and “ziggurat”?

    Of course, if the book is a publishing success, they’ll print Part 2.

  3. Fran says:

    Ok, Stan, I have to ask. Did you click on the link and go to the website for Word Generation? Did you “do a close reading” of the paragraph that described Word Generation as “all purpose academic words embedded in passages?

    Please reread, click on the link and check out the resources. You owe Dr. Snow a huge apology!

  4. Perry Clark says:

    “Transform”, “hypothesis”, and “deliberate” should be mundane examples of vocabulary that is expected of of a graduating high school student. That words such as these may be considered as useful in discriminating amongst individuals based on intellect or achievement is a sign of the widespread acceptance of mediocrity as an indicator of achievement.

  5. Jay says:

    Word should come from NYT, WSJ, WaPo articles and op-eds, top 25 HS classics, top 25 fiction books of the year ( according to NYT) , and top 25 non fiction books of the year (according to NYT).

    If the SAT words are not here, then how relevant are they? Let the kids know so we can get them to read instead of memorize words.

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