GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies

GRE sentence equivalences: two strategies


One of the things that often gets overlooked in discussions about standardized testing is that scoring well is often a matter of having strategies, plural, rather than a single strategy.

Different items may call for different approaches, even when they are the same type of question, and nowhere is this fact illustrated more clearly than on GRE sentence equivalences.

In some cases, you may be able to identify the answer almost instantaneously using a “shortcut” approach, whereas in other cases you may need to work through the sentence very carefully, circling key words, playing positive/negative, and dodging trick answers left and right.

The key is to know which strategy to use when. (more…)

Why a vocab app isn’t enough if you want to ace GRE verbal

A couple of times in the past few months, I’ve had chance conversations with people who were either preparing for the GRE or had recently taken it. 

Inevitably, the subject turned to preparation for the verbal section, and both times, the GRE-taker in question lit up when they mentioned using an app to study vocabulary. As one of them enthused, “it’s like a game! You get to compete against other users and everything.” 

I admit that my familiarity with GRE vocab apps is limited, but when I had the first of these conversations, my immediate inclination was to double-check that the student knew that the GRE had changed a few years back — that the vocabulary section was no longer based on straight-up synonym and antonym questions but was rather focused on testing words in the context of sentences and short passages.  (more…)

The war on language

The war on language

I’ve been following Diane Ravitch’s blog for a while now. I think she does a truly invaluable job of bringing to light the machinations of the privatization/charter movement and the assault on public education. (I confess that I’m also in awe of the sheer amount of blogging she does — somehow she manages to get up at least three or four posts a day, whereas I count myself lucky if I can get up that every couple of weeks.)

I don’t agree with her about everything, but I was very much struck by this post, entitled “The Reformers’ War on Language and Democracy.”

Diane writes:

Maybe it is just me, but I find myself outraged by the “reformers'” incessant manipulation of language. (more…)

Just what makes vocabulary “arcane?”

Here’s one to add to the “critical thinking” lack-of-definition phenomenon.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’ve been following the news of the SAT overhaul pretty closely; suffice it to say that I’ve read quite a few articles about it lately. In doing so, however, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon: virtually every article I’ve encountered has included the line that the new SAT will eliminate “arcane” words. The authors of these articles almost invariably use the word “arcane.” I’ve seen one or two authors put it in quotes, implying an ironic or skeptical understanding of the term, but the use it with the literary equivalent of a straight face.

The SAT, of course, is distinctly partial to the word arcane, along with synonyms abstruse, archaic, esoteric and recondite. (Admittedly, recondite is a tad, uh, recondite, but I’d say the other two are pretty common.)

So the logical question: is the word “arcane” arcane?

The fact that journalists have no problem using the word arcane in mainstream publications would seem to imply that it is not actually arcane.

It is of course, hard to talk about a concept without referring to it directly, but think of it this way:

If you look at, say, The New York Times, you do not see sentences like this: Beginning in 2016, the SAT will no longer test really big and weird words that normal people don’t use.

Journalists do not write like that because that is not how educated adults write, and it is not what educated adults expect to read in publications intended for them. Educated adults expect to see words like arcane — common words that indicate a reasonable level of verbal acuity and sophistication.

An interesting question, though, is whether journalists have bothered to investigate which words are commonly tested on the SAT.That, however, would require them to have an interest in facts, and when it comes to discussions of the SAT in the mainstream media, facts are for all intents and purposes irrelevant. (If anyone bothered to look at a recent SAT, they would undoubtedly notice that passages are already drawn from history and the sciences. Or perhaps they’d just ignore that fact and focus on the sole fiction passage.)

Presumably, the journalists do not actually know that the word arcane is tested on the SAT, and that people consider it, well, arcane. If asked whether sixteen year-olds should know it, they would almost certainly answer in the affirmative.

The alternative would require quite a feat of doublethink — arguing that a word is irrelevant by using the word itself, apparently without noticing (or remarking on) the irony.

I recently reread 1984 for a book club I occasionally attend, and it’s hard not to see echoes of Newspeak in the idea that students’ vocabularies should be reduced to a narrow set of STEM career-friendly words. (Note: evidence presented in an “empirical” manner isn’t necessarily reliable; data can be distorted in all sorts of ways.) I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theory mentality, but it’s hard to not to see a parallel here. The fewer words you know, the smaller the number of texts you can access, and the smaller the range of ideas you can be exposed to in a meaningful way. (Studies have shown that readers must know at least 90% of the words in a text in order to understand it; anything less, and they can’t accurately infer the meanings of unfamiliar words or phrases).

Words are not merely collections of letters — they stand for concepts, some of which are quite challenging. My students already have a staggeringly difficult time with words like nuance — they are so accustomed to having things in presented in black-and-white terms that the very concept of discussing gray areas is foreign to them. Studying the kind of vocabulary tested on the SAT is not just about learning big words; it’s about gaining exposure to new ideas.

But back to the question at hand: what, exactly, makes a word arcane?

The fact that an average sixteen year-old does not use it on a daily basis?

The fact that a low-level STEM career isn’t likely to require it?

The fact that it includes more than three syllables?

Would anyone care to offer a suggestion?

Sentence completions out, founding documents in

From Federalist Paper I (chosen at random)

To the People of the State of New York:

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the union, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

What was that about eliminating “arcane” vocabulary from the SAT again?

And let’s not even get started on the syntax.

The harder synonym is usually right

A very, very long time ago — so long ago that many of the people who stumble across this post were probably in, gasp, middle school — I wrote a post about the infamous marshmallow experiment. For those of you unfamiliar with the experiment, it involved giving a group of preschool students a marshmallow and then telling them they could either eat it right then or, if they wanted to wait, could have a second marshmallow. A follow-up study revealed that the children who had elected to wait had higher SAT scores than those who ate the marshmallow immediately, thus suggesting a correlation between the ability to delay gratification and long-term academic achievement.

That correlation is something I observe pretty regularly. A student who jumps to choose the first answer she thinks sounds plausible without really considering what it’s saying is is obviously going to have difficult doing well. (By the way, I’m not just trying to be politically correct by using the female pronoun here — interestingly, I’ve actually seen this problem occur more frequently among girls than boys.) But the one place on the entire SAT that I consistently see this problem most clearly is in sentence completions.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t fully conscious of that weakness presented itself until I started writing dozens (and dozens and dozens) of sentence completions for my Sentence Completion Workbook (yes, that’s a shameless plug). The more time I spent analyzing how answer choices were constructed, though, the more I realized how those questions are set up to exploit students’ tendency to jump to conclusions before fully thinking things through.

Let’s try an experiment. Look at the following question:

There has been little ——- written about de la Mare; indeed, that which has been written is at the two extremes,
either appallingly ——- or bitterly antagonistic.

(A)  hostile . . ambiguous
(B)  recent . . illogical
(C)  fervent . . complimentary
(D)  objective . . sycophantic
(E)  temperate . . censorious

This isn’t the easiest question, but it’s pretty doable if someone has a solid vocabulary and, much more importantly, can stay calm long enough to figure out what the sentence is actually saying.

The second blank is a little more straightforward than the first, so it makes sense to start with it. It’s the opposite of “bitterly antagonistic,” which has to be something good. Even if you don’t know what “antagonistic” means, you can make an educated guess because good things aren’t normally described as “bitterly.”

Now, when a lot of solid, 500-600 students look at the right-hand blank, something like this happens:

(A) no, ambiguous means “unclear”

(B) no, “illogical” just doesn’t make sense

(C) “complimentary” is good, so it fits! It’s the answer. Ok, done.

When students do bother to look at (D) and (E), they can often get rid of (E) because they know that “censor” is bad. Then they look at (D), and I hear something like, “Well, I don’t know what “sycophantic” means, but “syco” sounds like something bad (like a psycho), so it must be (C).

Which of course it isn’t; otherwise, I never would have chosen this question to discuss.

(C) vs. (D) is actually a classic case of easy synonym vs. hard synonym. It is, shall we say, an ETS favorite, primarily because it plays on the oh-so-common tendency to grab at the first thing that looks like it could work.

In reality, “sycophantic” means “excessively complimentary” — as in, so over the top that it’s borderline creepy. In reality, the second side of either (C) or (D) could work; the answer hinges on the first blank, which is opposed to “two extremes.” The word must therefore mean something like “not extreme,” and between “fervent” and “objective,” only the latter fits (“fervent” means “passionate”).

There is, however, an interesting phenomenon that can be observed when one looks only at the right-hand answers.

(A) . . ambiguous
(B) . . illogical
(C) . . complimentary
(D) . . sycophantic
(E) . . censorious

The words in (A), (B), and (E) have nothing to do with one another. They’re somewhat random, even if they are all negative. (C) and (D), however, have similar meanings — (D) is simply much stronger than (C). In addition, it’s much more obscure, and that’s the part that counts. Given the choice between word that clearly fits and a word that could mean anything, most people will choose the word that clearly fits.

Furthermore, it’s not a coincidence that “complimentary” is presented before “sycophantic.” Plenty of test-takers stop as soon as they hit that word; it doesn’t occur to them that there could be another possibility later on.

But here’s the rule: Different answers to two-blank sentence completions typically contain “easy” and “hard” synonyms that could work equally well for one of the blanks. When this occurs, the more difficult synonym is usually correct. This is particularly true as you get closer to the end of the section (unless, of course, a second meaning is involved) — the answer to number two might be something very straightforward, but the answer to number seven…? Probably not.

So the bottom line:

One, don’t choose an answer until you’ve looked through ALL of your options.

Two, don’t choose an answer just because you know what it means, especially if the word for the other blank doesn’t quite fit.

And three, if you’re close to the end of a section and happen to spot an easy/hard synonym pair in different answer choices, it’s usually a safe bet to start out by assuming that the answer that contains the harder word is right. You can always reevaluate if necessary.