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Boosting Your Vocabulary for Standardized Tests

During the years of your formal education, you face numerous standardized tests — at least in the U.S. school system. The following suggestions can help you get your skills up to speed for the reading and language sections of these tests.

A recommendation you can use anytime, but especially when you're preparing for a test, is to keep a journal of words you think you know and new words you encounter. Boost your vocabulary by looking up each word in the dictionary and then writing its definition in the journal. The simple act of writing down the words and definitions helps fix them in your mind. (You can also write the words and definitions on index cards if you prefer a flashcard approach.)

Practice is the best way to boost your critical reading comprehension skills — so read every minute you can. Carry a magazine, paperback book, or electronic reading device with you and make good use of the time you spend waiting in line at the bus stop, sitting in the dentist's office, or tapping your toes waiting for a late appointment. You can use all of these "lost minutes" to read. Fifteen minutes here, ten minutes there — by the end of the day, you may find that you have spent an hour sharpening your reading and vocabulary skills!

Arranging words in your mind

Any time you set out to study words, get in the habit of mentally arranging them into the following three categories:

  • Words you know: You use and can define these words.
  • Words you're familiar with: You generally use these words correctly without knowing exactly what they mean.
  • Words you don't know: You may have seen these words once or twice, or you may be encountering them for the first time.

Pay attention to the last two categories of words as you prepare for a test. When you come across a word you're familiar with but not totally confident about or a word you haven't seen before, look it up and add it to a word journal or make a word card for it. After you become more comfortable with the word, you can move it into the "known words" category.

To make the most of your dictionary time, look up words in a dictionary that includes etymology — a detailed word history. The etymology points to the word origin, root, and any prefixes, which is knowledge you can tuck away to use when you come across another unfamiliar word built on the same word element. Some dictionaries also provide synonyms, antonyms, or both. Be sure to check those out — you often need to know synonyms on a test.

Skimming your way to comprehension

Skimming is a method of reading that lets you glance at a passage to get its main idea or find a key point quickly. When you're up against time limits (like during a test), getting information quickly is a definite advantage. Skimming boosts comprehension because it helps you focus on the important parts of the text. When you go back and read the text in detail, you can zero in on the parts you need. You won't waste time on irrelevant information.

When you skim a reading passage, first look at the title, subheadings, and any graphic elements, such as charts or graphs. Run your eyes across the page, trying to read as fast as you can. Look for the facts you need, which are often in the first and last sentences of a paragraph. Read these facts slowly. Take a moment to restate the meaning in your own words — and in your own head.

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