Much ado has been made in the last week or so about the coming changes to the SAT, the entrance exam many colleges and universities in the U.S. use to gauge the potential success of prospective applicants. Besides making the essay component optional in 2016, the College Board, who designs, administers, and scores the exams, has announced its plan to re-vamp the often dreaded vocabulary section, in order to update and modernize its word selections. Reportedly, no longer will examinees’ knowledge and comprehension of archaic words (which have little bearing on current fields of college study, or real-world application) be tested. Instead, the College Board asserts, academic and content-specific words (in line with Common Core Curriculum Standards, and critical to college and real-world success) will start showing up on the exams with the new and improved SAT, beginning in 2016.
The announcement of sweeping changes to the stalwart college entrance exam has brought about yet another round of questioning the efficacy of the exams in fulfilling their stated mission of predicting just exactly who is most likely (and, by elimination, who isn’t likely) to succeed in college in the first place. Which begs the question: what’s the point in testing students’ vocabulary anyway? How, exactly, does someone’s vocabulary equate with college and/or real-life success?
As anyone who has followed Arthur Chu‘s meteoric (albeit controversial) rise to fame and fortune on Jeopardy in recent weeks can tell you, there’s a lot to be gleaned from erudition. It is clear, for example, that most (if not all) of Mr. Chu’s knowledge comes primarily from reading (widely and on a broad range of topics) as demonstrated by the fact that although he correctly identified so many of the “questions” implied by the answer clues, he mispronounced quite a few of them–an indicatation that while he’s encountered these words frequently on the printed page, he doesn’t use them regularly in conversation.
It’s no secret that students with the highest level of reading comprehension skills are the ones who will do the best in college, since college is based primarily on reading. Students who read develop larger and better vocabularies as a natural consequence of their reading, due to their exposure to words in print. Therefore, the more widely a student reads, the broader his/her vocabulary is likely to be. So, if you want a “short cut” to assessing a student’s reading comprehension skill level, the easiest way to determine that is to measure the breadth of his/her vocabulary.
However, as anyone who teaches real, live students can attest, sometimes students lack the vocabulary skills necessary to decode what they’re reading, which is why the new Common Core State Standards also stress direct, independent vocabulary instruction. In other words: the two (vocabulary and reading comprehension) are intimately linked–students who read a lot develop better vocabularies, and students who work at developing their vocabularies become better readers. Thus, reading comprenension and vocabulary skills go hand-in-hand. No surprise.
That explains why vocabulary has long been used to augur college success, but how does this equate to long-term accomplishment in terms of real-world success? This is where Arthur Chu’s example also comes in handy–it’s not enough merely to read and/or study the words as they occur in print. Putting “theory into practice” is where the rubber really meets the road: students must also apply what they’ve read by working academic and content-specific vocabulary words into their own written texts and/or daily interactions and conversations. The more practiced they are at using their vocabularies to communicate clearly in all situations (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), the more confident they will become. The more confident they become, the better they will perform on any test of their language fluency, whether that test is the SAT, an appearance on Jeopardy, a job interview, or a salable business plan.
In life, as in college, success requires half skill and half confidence–as students work on their skills, their confidence will grow.