In Defense of "SAT Words"


If your reaction upon reading the above word is to scratch your head, that’s okay! “Brobdingnagian” is not commonly used and certainly isn’t “career relevant.” It is, however, a word that delighted one of my sixth grade students when he heard it. When I explained what it meant – gigantic – and where it came from – Jonathan Swift – said student immediately recorded it on his smart phone and declared that he planned to use it in school the following day. (And hopefully, once he’s older and a more confident reader, the joy of discovery he found in “Brobdingnagian” will inspire him to read Gulliver’s Travels.)

This post is not a full analysis of the upcoming changes to the SAT. I’m reserving my final judgment until I see the framework the College Board is scheduled to roll out in mid-April. But I want to address something I’m seeing in articles touting the aforementioned revisions that I personally find troubling. Over and over again, I’m seeing variations on the following theme: “Hooray! Students will no longer be expected to study tedious flashcards covering words they will never use in real life and will probably forget once the test is over!” In my view, that attitude is profoundly misguided.

Granted, flashcards don’t foster long-term retention of new vocabulary. That requires multiple exposures in helpful contexts. Students often ask me how I happen to know so many “SAT words,” and the answer is really quite simple: I read. I read all the time — and what’s more, I read in a variety of genres. I read my mother’s Merck Manual, worked out that “hep” means liver and “cardio” means heart, and consequently discovered that other big, technical terms could be deciphered if broken down into their prefixes, suffixes and roots. I read fiction and learned multiple ways to describe a summer day. I pursued historical knowledge and, as a result, learned the meaning of “forge” and “churn.” At no point did I ever pick up a flashcard. I didn’t need to. My environment was saturated with words.

Unfortunately, while I do my best to build my students vocabulary through context rather than dry lists of words, when they prepare for the SAT, they are often forced by time constraints to rely on brute short-term memorization. But that’s not the fault of the SAT. If your seventeenth year was spent anxiously cramming, the people who educated you for the first sixteen years did it wrong — and changing the test is not going to change what is fundamentally broken in public education. It’s not going to get rid of the teachers who use reading as a punishment. It’s not going to get rid of curricula that deemphasize factual and cultural knowledge in favor of “critical thinking” and content-poor “skills.”

Honestly, it makes me sad to think that so many were not taught to appreciate the complexities of our language because five dollar “SAT words” are actually not as pointless as their detractors claim. English has multiple words to express, say, the concept of anger because those words are necessary to describe the many facets of that emotion — and the same goes for any other deceptively simple idea you can name. Remove the more “obscure” terms and what you have is Newspeak — a language devoid of humanity and nuance.  Further, as illustrated by the anecdote above, bizarre, grandiloquent words can excite children if they’re presented in the right way — as passports to a vast universe of knowledge.

And at any rate, what message are you sending to our kids when you imply that certain words are “irrelevant’? That education is a mercenary enterprise? That if it won’t make you “career and college ready,” it’s pointless? Folks, basic competency is important, but it’s only the start of education, not the end. The end should be to raise creative, curious, and (hopefully) morally-centered adults — and that won’t happen so long as we have Eustace Clarence Scrubb waiting in the wings to tell my sixth grader that a word that fires his imagination has no practical purpose and he should read a report from the EPA instead. 


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