Veggies in the Fridge; Vocab on the Fridge

Earning a top score on the Verbal Reasoning section of the ISEE

With bestsellers like Atomic Habits by James Clear and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey selling millions of copies, it’s apparent that we humans have an appetite for improving our habits. Yet, despite our best intentions, bridging the gap between knowing what we should do and actually doing it remains a universal challenge. 

For me, storing chopped veggies in cute containers and placing them in the fridge drastically increases the chance of me reaching for them when I need a snack. And I’m a grown-up! If adults can benefit from these simple nudges, imagine the impact they will have on our children’s habits.

When it comes to academics, vocabulary is a topic that comes up again and again.

We all know a strong vocabulary enhances reading and writing skills. Undoubtedly, expanding one’s vocabulary is a worthwhile endeavor, whether or not there is a test on the horizon.  When preparing for the Verbal Reasoning section of the ISEE, developing a vocabulary practice is essential to achieving a competitive score. 

Building vocab is like building a healthy diet: it’s easier when you intentionally create an environment that fosters the desired outcome. As an ISEE tutor and test prep coach, I love helping students and families prepare for success in this challenging part of the exam.

Verbal Reasoning vs Vocabulary

The first section of the ISEE is a 20-minute section called verbal reasoning. Students won’t typically earn a top score on this section without acquiring some vocabulary, but this isn’t the intention of the section. It’s not a vocabulary section, it’s a verbal reasoning section. While a strong vocabulary certainly helps, the verbal reasoning section is more than simply testing grade-level (and above grade-level) vocabulary.

It’s called verbal reasoning because it’s not about testing how many vocab words a student knows. It’s designed to test how much unfamiliar vocabulary a student can figure out. Can the student navigate around words he or she doesn’t know?

Of course, students with an above-average vocabulary for their age could naturally do well. But for most, it’s about finding ways to handle new words on the spot.

 In preparation for the ISEE Verbal Reasoning section, there are a few different approaches.

  1. Study and learn hundreds of advanced words.
  2. Work on developing verbal reasoning strategies.
  3. A hybrid model of both.

From my experience tutoring over 1000 students for the ISEE, the ones who work on both vocabulary acquisition and building verbal reasoning skills are the most successful. In this post, I’ll focus on vocabulary acquisition.

Where can I get the ISEE vocabulary list?

You might be wondering: What if my child just focuses on studying the words that typically appear on the ISEE? Is there a downloadable ISEE vocabulary list PDF?

The short answer is, no. To understand why, let’s step back and consider what sets the ISEE apart from other standardized tests. Unlike the ACT or SAT, the ISEE (and the SSAT) is classified as a secure test. This distinction means that the testing organization (the ERB in the case of the ISEE) doesn’t make past or retired tests available to the public. Frequency Lists, which compile words that appear across multiple past tests, are commonly used for ACT and SAT prep, however, this isn’t feasible for the ISEE due to the testing company’s practices.

As a result, the potential word list for the ISEE is a huge variety of words at and above the appropriate grade level. There are some reputable study materials that I trust more than others because they’ve been focused on ISEE test prep materials for a decade or more. Two of my favorites are the online resources provided by Test Innovators and the Success on the Upper Level book by Test Prep Works. Books are also available for the middle and lower level ISEE.

What’s the best way to study vocabulary for the ISEE?

The good news is there are countless ways to study vocabulary; the key is finding what works best for each student. I recommend families incorporate vocabulary into their daily environment at home. In my test prep dreams, there would be stylish vocabulary wallpaper adorning the walls of students’ bedrooms! While that might not be for everyone, I suggest the simple act of placing a vocab list on the fridge and in the student’s room, perhaps on a bulletin board or whiteboard.

By having a concise list of 10-15 words in prominent locations around the house, families are more likely to engage with the words together. You also want to keep the list short and manageable, and switch it out weekly to keep things fresh. 

You can even turn it into a fun family game by challenging each other to use the words in everyday conversations. You’ll be surprised at how fun it is to creatively incorporate words like “proclivity” and “placate” into your daily dialogue!

A penguin, a flamingo, and a cat walk into a lunch room…

One of the simplest and most effective ways to engage your student is by looking through a list of words together and having a conversation. It doesn’t have to take long. Just 5 minutes can be enough for a fun and imaginative word practice session. Here’s how it works: one person asks a question using a vocab word, and the other person responds to the question by answering it and/or asking a new question using another word from the list.

To add an extra layer of fun, try framing the conversation with a random topic. It could be a recent movie you watched, pizza, or even your favorite animals. You’ll wind up saying things like, “Who do you think is more diligent: a penguin or a flamingo?” 

When is the best time to start building vocabulary?

Right now. No, seriously, start today. Regardless of how many months there are before your student takes the ISEE, expanding vocabulary takes time. There’s no such thing as starting too soon. Plus, if you make it fun and incorporate it subtly, it won’t feel like a chore.

Ideally, I’d recommend families start weaving vocabulary activities into their daily routines at least 6 months ahead of the student’s ISEE. Since most students take the ISEE around November for the standard admissions cycle, why not liven up your spring with some vocabulary fun? I believe the Spring is the best time to start prepping for the ISEE.

It’s worth emphasizing that there are 2 lanes on the path to success in the verbal reasoning section of the ISEE:

  1. Enhance vocabulary.
  2. Strengthen verbal reasoning skills.

Relying only on vocabulary memorization won’t guarantee top scores. Conversely, even advanced verbal reasoning skills likely won’t be enough on their own to achieve the most competitive scores.

So, start now by strategically infusing vocabulary into your home environment, and stay tuned for my next post discussing optimal verbal reasoning strategies to maximize your student’s score on the ISEE.

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