21 November 2011

Vocabulary and variables

I’ve been doing some thinking about the relationship between the Critical Reading and Math sections of the SAT, particularly in relation to the the idea of associative interference — the notion that unrelated  concepts have a tendency to get tied up with one another and interfere with understanding. Catherine Johnson at Kitchen Table Math has written about it in relation to the Math section, but I would venture to say that for most people, it’s actually much more of a problem on Critical Reading section. Here’s why:

One of the things that the SAT tests is the ability to draw conclusions based solely on the information in front of you and to ignore any preconceived notions or biases you may bring with you into the test. In terms of the math section, this means that you need to be able to understand the concept of a variable — that is, that the letter “a” or “x” or “y”(or whatever else happens to be used) stands for whatever it happens to mean within the context of a particular problem, regardless of how you’re used to seeing it elsewhere.

I think that in general, this is not a terribly foreign concept for most people who have achieved a reasonably high level of mathematical understanding. If you don’t  really get what a variable is but are still attempting to take any sort of advanced math class, you’re  going to get thrown the second you see a familiar letter in an unfamiliar context, and that’s probably going to cause you some trouble in math class at some point. In other words, “school” math does often overlap with SAT math in this regard, and if there’s a serious weakness in your understanding of the concept, there’s a halfway decent chance it’ll get picked up on eventually.

When a similar issue emerges on the verbal side of things, however, there chances of it being caught are comparatively slim. I think it’s safe to say that most high school students have never been explicitly asked to think about words in quite the way the SAT tests them — namely, that a word can be made to mean almost anything that an author wants it to mean, even the exact opposite of what it usually means. Or, to draw a math analogy, that words = variables. In other words, sometimes it doesn’t matter how a word is usually used, only how it’s being used in that particular context at that particular moment. (In order to answer higher-level questions dealing with things like irony and mockery and skepticism, it is of course necessary to understand whyan author would use a word to mean its opposite, but in order to get there, you first have to understand what’s literally being said. And in my experience, plenty of kids who take AP English struggle even with that.)

In this sense, the SAT is exactly the opposite of a traditional vocabulary test. It’s also the exact opposite of the kind of English assignment that asks you to connect what you’re reading to your own experiences — which, as far as I can tell, seems to comprise a substantial portion of the English assignments at a lot of schools. Knowing the dictionary definition of a word, pondering what it reminds you of, or remembering how your Aunt Sally used it last weekend will get you exactly nowhere. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t even matter if you know the definition of the word being tested — all that matters is that you know the definitions of the words in the answer choices.

So what this means, practically speaking, is that when you see a question that that says, “In line 17, suffered most nearly means,” you need to rephrase the question as, “In line 17, x most nearly means.” The fact that the word “suffered,” as opposed to some other word, happens to be used in the original text is almost entirely incidental. Yes, knowing that “suffered” is negative might help you make some headway in eliminating answer choices, but if the passage indicates otherwise, that knowledge might actually drag you in the wrong direction.

Thinking about vocabulary words as variables also eliminates the option that you’ll try to answer the question without looking back at the passage — you might think you know what “suffering” means, but you probably wouldn’t dare to guess what “x” meant without checking out the context. Even if you think you remember, you’ll be a whole lot more likely to play it safe.

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