The usefulness of learning vocabulary to improve one’s critical reading score is a source of much debate among SAT tutors and preparation companies. Whereas one company may publish a book with 1,000 or more SAT words in it, another company might tell you not to waste your time learning any vocabulary, and instead focus on the strategic aspects of the critical reading portion. I completely disagree with the latter viewpoint. Learning vocabulary is a great way to raise your reading score.
The argument against learning vocabulary goes like this: there are thousands of words that you could possibly see on the SAT; no one is going to learn thousands of words in addition to doing the pile of work that is junior year and, hopefully, trying to have some sort of life. And no one knows which words are going to appear on the SAT. Therefore, learning vocabulary is not a good use of time.
This argument is flat out wrong. First of all, while no one does know exactly which words are going to appear on any given SAT, some words have historically appeared much more often than others, and continue to do so. Words like “capricious” and whimsical” (both of which mean roughly “unpredictable”) appear on the test all the time; words like “confabulate” and “copacetic,” while not inherently any worse words, virtually never appear. And these are only a couple of examples. While the SAT does draw from a vast array of words, it has also has a bank of more common words that are much more likely to appear on any given test. If a tutor tells you there are no such words, the fact is that he or she simply has not put forth the effort to find them.
After years of researching tests, I have complied 310 flashcards of words that appear very frequently on the SAT. On the October, 2010 PSAT, for example, 46 of my 310 words appeared on the test. On the January, 2011 SAT, 38 of the words appeared. While 310 words is a lot of words to learn, it is not unmanageable. And the rewards for learning all of the words can be enormous. The students I have had who achieved the greatest score improvements in critical reading – one who went from 490 to 640, another who went from 520 to 660, and another who went from 430 to 550, for example – all spent considerable time learning a number of vocabulary words. I have never seen a comparable score increase achieved by someone who only focused on strategies. While learning to find basic word roots and picking apart the meanings of unfamiliar words are important skills, nothing can replace a strong vocabulary.
So, the short answer to the original question is an emphatic “yes!” You absolutely should learn vocabulary to prepare for your SAT. The earlier you start, the more you will learn, and the better you will do on test day.