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Expert Tips for Improving Your Vocabulary

The vocabulary words that show up on all three levels of the ISEE and the HSPT are challenging, so it’s important for students to start building their vocabulary early. That’s why we’ve put together our top 7 tips for studying vocabulary that come directly from our test prep experts:

Get the family involved: We worked with a student preparing for the ISEE a few years ago that was able to raise his verbal score from a 20th percentile to an 80th percentile over a period of about 6 months. This type of improvement is rare, especially on the verbal section of the ISEE. So what was his secret? His entire family was involved with the process! Not only would his parents sit with him every night and quiz him on vocabulary words, but they would consistently use vocabulary words throughout the day to help their son understand the meaning of the words in a real-world context. So get your family involved! You could even turn it into a competition to get your kids motivated to learn – and to win of course.

Study root words: While you may not know what the word “benefactor” means, you may recognize the root word “bene” and know that it has a positive connotation. This can help you eliminate any answer choices containing words with negative connotations. If you have time, study as many root words as possible before test day.

Use pictures or videos: If you enjoy studying vocabulary using flashcards, try adding a picture for each definition. You can add a funny picture (or even a meme!) that helps you understand the definition of the word. Since some students are visual learners, it’s helpful to be able to visualize difficult words.

Keep a word list: As you’re going through your everyday life, keep track of any words that you hear or read that are unfamiliar to you. Write down each word, the context in which you heard it, and a short definition. Study this list of words every day leading up to your test.

Read more and become an active reader: Reading is the easiest way to build vocabulary. While studying flashcards is helpful, being an active reader can build your vocabulary quickly and effectively because you’ll be able to learn words in context. Read newspaper articles, books, blog posts, or whatever interests you, but make sure the reading material isn’t too easy. As you’re reading, write down any words that you are unfamiliar with and add them to your word list.

Use new vocabulary words in everyday conversation: Just like when you are learning a new language, in order to effectively learn new vocabulary words, you need to practice using them! If you use a word in a conversation a few times, it will stick in your memory forever. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but force yourself to use the words you are learning in conversations with friends, family, and teachers.

Focus on quality over quantity: Most vocabulary lists for the ISEE and HSPT contain hundreds of vocabulary words. While it would be great to memorize all of these words, this is a difficult task for most students given the amount of time they have to prepare. Focus on really memorizing and understanding the meaning of 100-200 words instead of kind of knowing the meaning of 600 words. How do you know if you’ve mastered the definition of a word? You should be able to put it into a sentence that clearly shows its context. Here is an example of a good sentence and a bad sentence for the word “irate”, which means extremely angry:

Good Sentence: “When his mom took his video games away, the child became irate and started throwing things across the room, yelling and screaming, and punching his wall.”

Bad Sentence: “Yesterday, I was really irate.”

The first sentence clearly shows that the word irate means angry, since the child threw a temper tantrum and was yelling, screaming, and punching walls. In the second sentence, there is nothing that tells us what irate means; it could mean happy, sad, hungry, lonely, or any other adjective.


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