Diaphanous, ephemeral, hackneyed, ignominious – once known (and dreaded) as “SAT words,” these arcane adjectives are now just, well, words.
Or so they will be when the College Board releases the revised SAT in 2016. The new SAT, according to the College Board website, will ask students to interpret “relevant words,” such as “empirical” or “synthesis,” based on context. Students will no longer be required to define “obscure words, only to forget them the minute they put their test pencils down,” creating, overall, an exam “more focused and useful than ever before.”
This redesign is based on fundamental misconceptions. Apparently, an extensive vocabulary is not a solid store of knowledge developed through an intimate understanding of the English language. Instead, it is a temporary condition only useful for racking up points on a standardized examination.
It would seem, also, that the only words worth knowing are those that regularly appear in day-to-day life. If I’m never going to see the word “munificent” ever again (and it’s true, I haven’t encountered it once since taking the PSAT in 2008), why should I be expected to know what it means, when doing so would only require hundreds of wasted hours poring over flashcards?
If, as the College Board suggests, students really do forget the meanings of these “obscure words” the instant they close their exam booklets, then they’ve been going about their preparation all wrong. Rote memorization is by no means the only way to build one’s vocabulary.
Just like a phone number is easier to remember because it’s broken in three chunks, words also tend to stick a lot better when perceived not just as a random string of letters, but as individual blocks of meaning. Even someone who has never seen the word “indefatigable” should still be able to sense a connection to the word “defeat.”
If students were taught such basic logical strategies, the SAT language portion wouldn’t be that difficult – nor would it seem so pointless. After all, language is all about making connections.
The new exam’s Relevant Words in Context section will presumably test the same skill, but the fix is like placing a Band-Aid on your finger when the real wound is closer to your chest. The failing exists not in the current SAT Language section itself, but in our perception of it as a waste of time. The exam does not ask students to perform impossible feats; it simply holds them to standards that are often higher than the school system has prepared them to meet.
As it stands, students facing the SAT may feel like they’re being asked to make a pocket watch with a hammer. Perhaps the educational system should aim to provide them with the proper tools, rather than simply replacing the intricate system of gears and dials with a rusty nail and a block of wood.
Alexa Langen is a sophomore majoring in English and history.