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How to master vocabulary for the SSAT and ISEE

When sitting down to take the SSAT and the ISEE, there can be a lot to think about. Perhaps there are intimidating math problems that look unfamiliar staring you in the face; maybe the reading passages seem more complex than those you have seen in English class; perhaps reading the essay questions causes a mental block.

No matter what, though, preparing for these tests should start in only one place: vocabulary.

While it is certainly possible for some students that this section is the easiest, there can be no prep plan until a student understands where they fit into the vocabulary landscape. And, more to the point, this is the section that will take the most brute force learning (i.e. memorization), and therefore has the longest timeline for most students.

Starting down the path to vocabulary excellence can be long and daunting, but there are shortcuts along the way! Before even deciding which test you are taking or getting into the nitty gritty of the Verbal sections, students can get off to a fast start by starting to chip away at these sections now.

Here are three activities that you can begin right now to build your knowledge and increase your arsenal of words:

  1. Start a vocabulary journal

No matter what test you are taking, the goal of the vocabulary section is to measure the words that a student can identify and utilize. What better way to prepare for this than tracking the words they are unable to identify and utilize?

A vocabulary journal is a place where students can record, define, and study words that they encounter outside their vocabulary. These words may come from books they are reading, conversations they have, television shows, movies, magazines, or really anywhere!

The idea is that if a student begins to notice the words they are unfamiliar with and slowly conquer them, then they will be much more prepared to enter into test prep. They will have not only chipped away at the part of the material they don’t know, but they will have also raised their confidence and gotten used to working with uncomfortable and unfamiliar words.

This is something that your student can start today and something that they can continue for years to come!

  1. Learn prefixes, suffixes, and root words

Did you know that the root word spec means “to look”? If you do, it makes it much easier to understand words like spectacular, spectacle, spectator, inspect, and even perspective!

Suffixes, prefixes, and root words are a great way for students to build knowledge quickly and to be able to feel more comfortable with words in general. The benefits are twofold.

First, students will be able to understand the nature of words they might not have studied and will be working towards cracking multiple words at once. Instead of memorizing the definitions of a hundred words, students might be able to study ten prefixes, ten suffixes, and twenty roots to get the same effect.

Second, the beauty of this strategy is that it can make students more comfortable when they don’t recognize all the words in a question on the test. When they are able to eliminate answer choices and make educated guesses without having seen a word before, students will be empowered to feel like they can get any question the test throws at them.

At the end of the day, this strategy is about building vocabulary one block at a time. For students crunched on time, those with a large gap in knowledge, or ones trying to squeeze out the final few points from the section, it provides a different way to look at words that can efficiently lead to a broader understanding.

  1. Read, read, read...with a twist

And of course, no vocabulary building activity list would be complete without reading!

It may be a message that has been told to students a million times before, but that’s because it works. Reading is the easiest and most effective way to build a vocabulary and is something all students should be doing. With that being said, this recommendation goes beyond just telling your student to pick up a book!

With modern-day technologies, it is possible to find the material that advances your students reading levels and vocabulary one step at a time. Through methods such as The Lexile Reading Framework (, you can find your student’s placement on the reading scale and have them begin reading short pieces that lie just on the edge of their abilities. By slowly building the difficulty in the reading, a student can grow their reading levels while simultaneously facing a new and more challenging set of vocabulary each time!

The best part of a process like this is that it can be achieved through just a short time commitment each day, and the content can be tailored to different interests.

While reading is certainly helpful in almost any situation, targeting students’ reading levels to push their boundaries can have positive ramifications throughout their acquisition of language. Ultimately, this will not only build their vocabulary, but their confidence as well!