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ANKI: an Easy Way to Learn Vocab For Your SAT / ACT

Of all the problems on the Reading Comprehension section of the SAT / ACT, the lack of a robust vocabulary can be one of the most concerning. With the steep decline in recent years in reading, a vocabulary containing words beyond those commonly used in everyday speech is often lacking.


Why is a lack of a robust vocabulary so problematic?

There are two main reasons why a limited vocabulary is problematic on the SAT / ACT. The first reason is highly specific: 'most nearly means' questions. If you've already done some reading comprehension questions, you almost definitely know what I'm referring to. They usually look something like this:


In line 5, 'proficient' most nearly means:

A. gregarious

B. solicitious

C. 'preening'

D. 'skilled'


If you've seen our article on the 'most nearly means' question, you're aware that not knowing the word 'proficient' isn't the end of the world: you can figure out the meaning, or something close to it, from context. The greater problem is the words in the answer options, which have no context. If you don't know what the words mean, it makes it that much more difficult to either identify the answer, or eliminate words which are definitely incorrect.


These questions are ubiquitious on the Reading Comprehension section: they appear in almost every reading passage at least once, and often more.



The larger problem

There's a larger reason why a robust vocabulary is so crucial to your preparation for the SAT / ACT. The Reading Comprehension section is confusing enough as it is. It's long, the questions are meant to be confusing , and the approach is often unclear. If you're lacking in vocabulary so that you don't even understand the text / questions, it becomes nearly impossible to contend with the trickiness of the questions and the various methods used to approach them.


(For tips on how to approach the Reading Comprehension section, see here.)


It's only when you have a reasonable vocabulary, that you can set your mind to dealing with the questions effectively. This issue isn’t just applicable to Reading Comprehension; they can affect the Writing & Literature / English section as well.


Is reading a good way to increase your vocabulary on the SAT / ACT?

One of the ways I’ve seen suggested to contend with the dearth of an extensive vocabulary, is to read. It's not a good suggestion. It's true that reading is important for the Reading Comprehension section. It can train your mind to dissect complicated concepts and infer implied ideas in both fiction and non fiction. It will also help you adjust to a mode of writing you might not come across otherwise. And yes, you will pick up some vocabulary from it as well, even if you don’t look up words as you read. (Which I don't recommend you do.)


(See here: Recommended reading for those struggling with history passages on the SAT/ ACT.)


However, the topic of this article is vocabulary. And if your goal is to pick up vocabulary, a woefully inefficient way to do so is through starting to read. If you’ve been reading challenging material for years, then yes – your stock of vocabulary will probably have been greatly amplified by doing so. But if your SAT / ACT is in 2, 6, or even 10 months, it's a little late in the game.


A better alternative is flashcards. Many of you have heard this advice before. And yes, flashcards can also be a ineffective. But ANKI is different.


ANKI works with a neuroscientific idea called spaced repetition, so that you can learn as many words, in as short a time as possible. And remember them!


What is spaced repetition?

Spaced repetition leverages a memory phenomenon called the spacing effect. Roughly put, our brains learn more effectively when we space out our learning over time. And not just over time, but over increasing intervals.

Information that is recalled easily appears at wider intervals, while information that a learner struggles with gets shorter intervals.


So for example, if I find it difficult to remember a word, I might have to see it several times a day, for about a week, for me to finally internalize its meaning. The next week, I may see the word once a day, or once every two days. The week after, maybe I'll see it twice a week. Then once every couple of weeks. Then maybe once every few months. And you know what? I'll remember it.


Words which are easier for me to internalize are easier. I don't have to see them frequently.


So we can see two things from this. Firstly, I don’t have to study easier words with the same frequency I study difficult words. That’s an inefficient use of my time.


Secondly, I don’t have to study difficult words with the same frequency during the course of time, in order to remember it. As I slowly grow more comfortable with the word, the frequency with which I have to see it decreases.


There actually is a specific set of time intervals, confirmed through experimentation, which is most efficient for learning new words. And that’s exactly what ANKI utilizes.


What is ANKI? ANKI is an app which provides digital vocabulary flashcards. After it "flips" the flashcard, thereby showing the definition, you get to choose one of three options: 'Easy', 'Good', and 'Difficult.'


Cards you consistently mark 'Easy' will be shown infrequently. 'Difficult' cards will be shown frequently until you start marking them as 'Good', at which point the frequency will descend.


Which ANKI to use?

There are various ANKI apps available. The correct one to use is that which says ANKIapp flashcards. (With the word 'app' attached to the ANKI.) This has a number of benefits. Firstly, it's free; some ANKI apps stop showing flashcards after the first 40 words, hampering your ability to learn.


ANKIapp also offers a greater collection of vocab decks, and is in general a cleaner, sleeker system.


How and Where to use ANKI?

ANKI offers flashcards on the computer as well as on the phone. I recommend my students use it on the phone. This way, it doesn't become something you deliberately have to put aside time for. Rather, do it when you have a few spare minutes, like waiting for a bus or a teacher.


A few minutes is all that's required. ANKI is built in game mode, and once you begin, you may find that you enjoy it. ANKI makes learning new vocab easier and quicker than before, and as students see their vocabularly expanding, what used to be an annoying activity turns into something fulfilling. Of course, the more time you spend on ANKI, the more words you learn, the more your score is likely to increase.



Every student learns a little differently, and I make a point of never telling my students that something must be done in a certain way. However, in my experience students do make out better with ANKI on the phone. Unless you feel fairly certain that the computer would be a better fit for you, try it out.


How exactly to use ANKIapp to boost your vocabulary

There are a few directives for using the ANKIapp most effectively:


1. When looking at an ANKI flashcard, take a few seconds. Don't just press 'Flip' if you can't remember it immediately. Let your brain do the work.

2. Don't take too long. Give yourself 5 seconds for a word you really can't remember, then flip. You should be able to go through dozens of words in even 2 or 3 minutes.

3. Focus on time/process, not results. Don't worry if you weren't able to remember any new words during a session. Keep on putting in the time, and the results will come of themselves.


How to deal with especially difficult words

If you see that there are certain words which you consistenly can't remember, try using the LOCI method. The LOCI method may take a while to get the hang of. But after you do, you'll be surprised at how quickly it can supercharge the learning of new words.


For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.


Happy learning,

Tova