ESL students and the SAT

Did you hear the news? SAT scores were at the lowest level in 40 years. That means not since 1972 did students get such lousy scores! The average scored on the reading section was 496 out of a maximum of 800. How can we explain this decline? Some are saying it is due to the profile of this year’s test takers. A significant percentage — 25 percent — are not native English speakers. Could these ESL speakers have brought down the average on the reading section? Yes, indeed.

While English as a Second Language speakers do, of course, spend a lot of time mastering English vocabulary, it is often not the type of vocabulary that appears on the SAT reading section. The words you find in the SAT are often more literary words … rare in spoken English but not so rare in written English. For example, I can’t remember the last time I used the SAT word “lachrymose” in a sentence. It means sad or tearful (from the Latin; lacrim = a tear). Why would I saw “lachrymose” when people will understand me better if I just say “sad”? But I read “lachrymose” in the following sentence in a Wall Street Journal article recently discussing an exhibit by the painter Salvator Rosa:

“Rosa’s human figures never smile; instead they seem grim, wary, defiant, sullen or lachrymose.”

There are other SAT vocabulary words that I’m sure I haven’t seen in written form lately (by lately, I mean in the past few years!). These include:
crepuscular – active at dawn and dusk
exceptionable – very bad

Then there are those SAT words that I use in spoken English regularly. I am even surprised that they are SAT words because, to me, they do not feel like “big words.” However, I can understand that for an ESL speaker, they would be. These words include:

trivial – unimportant
tangible – something that can be touched; concrete
hedonist – a pleasure seeker (one of my favorite words!)
hypochondriac – one who complains a lot about one’s health

Here’s the truth about SAT vocabulary words in general: the vast majority of native English speakers needs to spend quite a lot of time specifically studying these words. They buy books like “500 Key Word for the SAT, And How to Remember Them Forever.” They buy flash cards like “Picture These SAT Words in a Flash.” And nowadays, they buy mobile apps. And of course, many of them pay big money to take SAT preparation courses in which word lists are handed out and homework includes memorization.

So for the English as a Second Language learner, the workload is heavy. They need to learn useful words that they will actually hear (and want to use) every day. Then they need to learn this test vocabulary too. Some of which indeed, they will want to never forget. Some of which they’ll be lucky to remember (and process) on the day of the test.

If you would like to test your own SAT vocabulary knowledge, I recommend this fun test online:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *