Keys-by-TEARN mobile platform
Diary of a passionate, tech Dad
from TEARN i.e. teach to learn

May 31, 2010

A New Goal - 5,000 SAT, GRE Words

Our team has compiled 10,000 words, and reduced/enhanced the list to 5,000 SAT-level words for our forthcoming, four-book SAT-prep series. Here is a chronicle of our plans and progress.

Current Art

The current art is expensive and ineffective.
  • Paper costs restrict products to small decks of 300 cards.
  • The economics of an 1,000-word deck would cost more than what consumers are willing to pay.
  • Shifting through 300 of the strangest words helps little with self-confidence, or teaching the scope of words required to do well on the SAT or other exams. Are these lists designed as a scare tactic to sell tutoring services?
  • Flash cards offer minimal kinesthetic learning and fail to engage for the time required to master the vocabulary.
  • Online flash cards often copy the same low goal, which makes no sense.
Paper flash cards will follow the rest of publishing industry. No publisher should kill trees and suck scarce energy to transport, cut, print, package paper products - while minimally helping learners. For best ecological outcome, publishers should cease the wasteful practice, now. Sorry to be so harsh, but that's the environmental reality ;-) But we digress.

5,000 is the Right Goal

Although the goal to learn 5,000 words seems daunting, the reality is that learners absorb like a sponge, if the right motivators aid and accelerate the process.

Remember that kids can remember over 1,000 Pokeman characters - each with multi-syllabic names.

Can we redirect that gaming energy to learning?

Should 300 or 500 words remain as the implicit goal for a learner?

Web Chaos

Conversely, the web offers 300,000-word dictionaries, 4-million-page wiki's, and 50,000 SAT words - free. Many free lists are plumped with conjugated and modified forms - packaging lists as ten times bigger than a useful list. Although modified forms frequently appear on tests, balancing the frequency of individual listings eliminates clutter.

Too much content overwhelms and kills the motivation to set a reasonable goal and learn.

Is there a solution that balances learning needs and uncontrolled content?

The SAT Challenge

At MIT, we eliminated grades. We also tried at Stanford. Unfortunately, test scores still control the fate of learners. How do we help learners remember?
  • We compiled 1,000 unique words from 12 years of SAT tests. That becomes our Hot List. One high-frequency list does not constitute a complete answer, since the majority of words change each year.
  • The pattern of words chosen tends toward longer words with 8 or more letters; conjugated forms or words with suffixes and prefixes; and subtle meanings that test the comprehension of the learner.
  • Teachers want learners to seek clues that direct them to the right answer. Thus, combination words test their cognitive abilities.
5,000 words qualify in length and complexity to match the possible universe of words that can be selected.

Does the 300-word flash deck from the paper-legacy seem useless and pointless?

The Keys Solution

Throwing 5,000 words at a learner is like asking them to shuffle 100 decks of playing cards. It creates a mess.

Here is our proposed solution.
  • 10,000 words were reduced to 5,000 by eliminating duplicates; reducing duplicated forms, compound words that bulk but don't show on tests, and the surprising number of words designed to push social points of views.
  • The afore mentioned hot-list covers 1,100 words. This helps learners see high-frequency words and the level of words selected for SAT tests. Unlike flash cards, our purpose is not to discourage with 300 tough words, but to encourage with realistic examples.
  • Our starter-kit of over 900 words aims to build confidence and basic skills among elementary and middle school learners. The words average only 5 letters each, but many have been on past tests and provide the base for conjugated and modified forms.
  • Two lists of 1,500 each cover SAT-likely words that average 9 letters per word. Level 1 is simpler than level 2 with shorter words. These target high school crammers.
  • The words are organized into chapters by alphabet, presenting 50 to 100 words per chapter - less in the starter kit and hot list. The alternative to group words by subject does not scale. Creating thousands of mnemonics shifts the problem from remembering words to mnemonics, which makes no sense. Knowing the first letter of the answer provides a new, intuitive clue.
  • The words are further grouped by use as an adjective, noun, or verb.
  • Words frequently have multiple meanings. Our purpose is not to produce a dictionary, which is already easily accessible on any cell phone via search. We will display one use per entry.
  • Remember that the photo-search features of the Keys platform naturally shows the richness of each word - as provided by almost intelligent search robots such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo.
When tested, the user quickly learns to differentiate descriptive, object, and active forms - and selects from among 15 (for starter-kit) to 30 choices (for SAT-level) while seeking the answer. Thus, we challenge more than past processes - of selecting from among 10 choices - or four possibilities on a multiple choice question.

Making the Right Choice

A package with 300 terms is cheaper, sells the dream of an easy answer, and gets the parents to buy. But, I asked myself, "would I want 300 words that make me lose confidence, feel stupid, and loose sleep trying to memorize - only to gain 1 to 2 words on the SAT?"

The alternative is to review far more base words, see a few examples of over 100 conjugated or modified forms, and truly understand the language pattern. Most words are familiar - thus building confidence.

Rather than targeting a few words, shouldn't the goal be 50 or more correct answers?

Adults fear a number like 5,000. There is nothing to fear when setting learning goals.


The past art has been pure marketing, controlled by the cost of paper. There is no limit to what a learner can absorb. With a little help, every learner can master 5,000 words and build the rich foundation for full compression of the rich English language.

Is this a learning challenge just for kids and teens?

Or adults as well?


Learn more about the Grammar, SAT Basic, SAT Hot, GRE Prep, and GRE Advanced collections of apps.

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