Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Remember “SAT” words? Those esoteric rhetorical coruscations, those shibboleths of erudition, those arbitrary arbiters of acumen? Well, they’re gone now. Mostly. The SAT simply isn’t designed to test vocabulary anymore, and the ACT never was. Every once in a while, there’s a question that requires students to know an uncommon word, but those are rare. And while there are still some “vocabulary-in-context” questions, those questions are usually very easy and test the meaning of an ordinary word in an ordinary sentence. On a released SAT, some of the words test takers must define “in context” included everyday words such as “directly,” “form,” and “hold.” These aren’t the kinds of words that struck fear in the hearts of the parents of today’s students. The battle over vocabulary questions is over, and the anti-vocabulary people have won.
Most people view this as a good thing. Salutary, even. Vocabulary questions were hated by students, who found them frustrating and difficult to prepare for, and nobody saw the point of having them. Common refrains included “when am I ever going to need to know any of these words?” and “why can't the test use words that everyone knows?” These questions had no defenders beyond the usually cadre of pedantic scolds, curmudgeons, and contrarians who warned of unintended consequences.
It’s been five years since the SAT made this change, and so this might be a good time to look at some of the consequences. As an SAT tutor, I’ve noticed that vocabulary issues persist, but what counts as “tough vocabulary” has slid downwards over the years. And not just among struggling students. What’s really alarming is that even high-achieving students of today have trouble with words and phrases that generations past would have found unremarkable. The pattern was so consistent that I started making a list of these words and phrases. I’ve reproduced that list below, and remember, these are words and phrases that pose real problems for students in the 90th percentile and higher. Our strongest performers report that they’ve never seen these things before. Not every student, and not every word, but enough to merit concern. Here’s the list:
Tough Vocabulary (2021 version)
· Issue (as a verb)
Plus these phrases:
· “Need not” as in “It could happen, but it doesn’t have to happen.”
· “Mere minutes” vs “a matter of minutes”
· “Undertaken” vs “taking on”
· “Prosecuted” vs “persecuted”
Some readers will peruse this list and despair, though others will shrug. After all, language is changing all the time, right? And don’t today’s readers know different words that would have been incomprehensible to previous generations? Fair enough, but changes aren’t always neutral, and the differences in vocabulary are more of a symptom than the root condition. It’s not just vocabulary. Today’s readers have much more trouble understanding historical documents and even modern writing that uses complex sentences structures and nuanced arguments.
When a recent PSAT included an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s iconic speech “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” very few could follow it. When I tutor, I assign that passage as an example of the hardest passage that can appear on the test, but about 150 years ago, this speech was popular entertainment. When I tell my students this, some roll their eyes at the weirdness of previous generations, but others recognize that we might have lost something.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan warned us that “the medium is the message.” Two decades later, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman asked the reader to examine the Lincoln-Douglas debates and consider what they suggest about the society that could understand them and went out of their way to listen to them. Postman’s warnings struck a chord in the age of television, and they should be even more striking now. If you take a look at the typical reading list of the most advanced English classes in a high-achieving school, you might be shocked at how little reading is required and by the lack of complexity of what was actually assigned.
This change is a reflection of the decline of reading. Assignments get shorter and simpler in the hopes that more students will actually do them. Sometimes you need to meet people where they are. It takes a while to work one’s way up to “impenetrable” texts, and reading should be inviting and not exclusionary. Still, we should consider the expectations we have for our high-achieving students and try to engage more students so that they can read challenging texts and actually want to do so. We should be ambitious and give students who have shown an appetite for reading an opportunity to engage with great writers of the past (and clever writers of the present). Along the way, they may have to look up some words here and there, but they’ll also develop the thinking skills to apply the lessons of the past to solve the most challenging problems of today and tomorrow.