The revelation on the front page of today’s New York Times is that our old friend (or maybe frenemy?) the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is getting a much-needed makeover. The essay (a relative newcomer to the exam) will be optional, penalties for guessing wrong answers will be dropped, scoring will return to a maximum of 800 on each section (Math and Verbal), and—most interesting to me (and I hope, readers)—“the cutting of obscure vocabulary words.”
Qu’est-ce que c’est obscure vocabulary words? According to the College Board, words like “membranous*” and “depreciatory” are out, but college-speak words, including “synthesis” and—a psychology favorite—“empirical” are very much in. On the face of it, this sounds like a reasonable plan. After all, why test students on words that rarely occur in what they read, let alone say? There is something to be said for focusing on university-level vernacular.
Still, as a lover of odd words, I worry a bit. If you are a teacher in K-12 or at the college level, I am certain you have noticed a bit of a drift in terms of what words students know and don’t know. When I began teaching, I was rarely asked to define words in class or that appeared on exams; that’s no longer the case. I usually get asked one or more times during an in-class test to explain what some word means. Now, admittedly, that may point to a poorly phrased question (i.e., my fault) or sometimes students just want the context explained more clearly. Yet other times (my) students want to know the meaning of a word cold, there and then. To me, this means that people’s vocabularies are changing—I don’t know if they are shrinking—and perhaps there is nothing wrong with living a life where “membranous” is neither uttered nor seen. But what about “despot” or “despite”? “Begat” or “bigot”?
My concern is on two related fronts: reading and writing. It is clear students are not reading as much as they used to—or at least they are reading other things than they used to read. So, familiarity with rare, unusual, or exotic words may be(come) a problem. And isn’t reading the usual source of an expanding vocabulary, which means what goes unread goes unsaid—and then, later, unwritten?
I am old enough to have experienced what were prosaically called Word Wealth books, essentially vocabulary readers, back in elementary and middle school. We had a word list each week and were tested on spelling and meaning. As the years passed, the words became more challenging, that is, more rare, more arcane, and more multisyllabic. And yet at least some of those words have stayed with me. Admittedly, some aspects of Word Wealth could be unintentionally funny, even absurd. In one lesson (probably 8th or 9th grade), we were invited to use vocabulary words to write about a pratfall (is that an SAT word?) in a candy store and to do so creatively by using as many WW words as possible. Here is one memorably awful sentence from the book, a description of a candy accident (italics indicates—you guessed it—the vocabulary words):
The multicolored confections spewed onto the floor.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t get to use the word spewed enough in my teaching, scholarly, or daily life—and more's the pity. Confections, too, is a bit tarted up for daily consumption—it begs to be used ironically. Multicolored is just pedestrian.
Of course, use of obscure words or terms should be done carefully, occasionally, and not all in a row, as above. But if the SAT changes, how or where will students learn about weird words? I guess when they read, but I do wonder if the stronger temptation is just to skip past words we don’t know or to rely on context for meaning (which is a fine and intelligent thing to do). The ubiquity of smart devices means that students can search at will for the meaning of odd words—I just don’t know if they bother to or how often they do look up new words.
In my own teaching, I make certain to use, define, and explain rare words, whether they are from psychology (e.g., cathected) or some other field (e.g., cenotaph). If you are a psychology teacher, I hope you do, as well. Still, the larger issue remains: Through what concrete means can we encourage students to become familiar with unusual words? Few people read the OED or Webster’s for fun. Teachers like me welcome suggestions to keep vocabularies growing.
*Despite the potential for drama, membranous just means "consisting of or resembling membrane." Who knew?