One comment I hear again and again when I tutor is, "I've never seen any of these words before. How come I have to know them?" Students often feel that having a strong working vocabulary is unimportant because they can just look up any unfamiliar word as they come across it. What they fail to realize is that the SAT tests the level vocabulary they should be writing and speaking with, not just reading. The difference between a sophisticated paper and one that lacks style lies partly in the words chosen to express the ideas.
So how can you help your child build this kind of working vocabulary? Well, you could get flashcards...
Here are some easy ideas:
1. Read books that use sophisticated vocabulary.
I find that older books tend to include many more words than newer children's books. Compare Andrew Lang's fairy tales with Disney versions, for example. Or even one of the original Curious George books with the new stories based on the PBS show. When in doubt turn to the classics. Roald Dahl's books also pack a verbal punch. (If you know of other vocabulary-rich children's books, please leave a comment!)
2. Discuss unfamiliar words.
When you come to a word your child may not know, stop and ask him about it. Explain what it means. If you don't know it, you can find plenty of free dictionary apps for your smartphone to help you out. Try to use the word again later when discussing the book or having a conversation.
3. Encourage descriptive writing.
If your daughter is writing a thank you note, postcard, or story, encourage her to use stronger descriptive words. Can she change "We saw some big mountains" to "We saw some gigantic mountains"?
4. Talk like a grown-up.
Children absorb what they hear. Anyone who's ever accidentally let an expletive fly knows that! Use this to your advantage by using sophisticated words yourself. If your child doesn't understand a word, you can always explain it. If your own vocabulary is weak, go ahead and sign up for a word-of-the-day e-mail program.
I hope these ideas inspire you! Maybe someday your child will put his arm around you and say, "Mom, thanks for all you did to help me succeed on the SAT and get accepted into my top choice college!"
Or maybe not. But we can hope, can't we?