How To: Learn 100,000 Words by 8th Grade

Learn SAT Vocabulary

100,000 vocabulary words seems like an impossible number to master by 8th grade! I found this article to figure out the science behind how kids actually learn that many words (and just in time for the SAT test!).

I read enormous quantities of books as a child, but when I took my PSAT test in high school, I did not know enough vocabulary words to get a decent score. I think some kids are able to learn 100,000 words just through reading and inference. For others, it takes methodical study. One of my Harvard roommates memorized the dictionary. I used SAT flashcards. The repetition worked for me (and it turns out self-testing is the key to learning) and my SAT score was so markedly improved, shocking my high school guidance counselor.

There are many approaches to learning vocabulary words. I have included games, visual vocabulary cards, and cartoons.

500 Key Words for the SAT

Vocabulary Cartoons II

In this American Educator article*, Brown University professor Marilyn Jager Adams says that eighth graders need to know about 100,000 words to be proficient readers of advanced texts.

How is that possible? Direct vocabulary instruction is essential, she says, but if students are taught (and actually learn) 20 words each week from Grade 1 to 12, they will have only 8,640 words by high-school graduation – not even close to what’s needed.

The only other strategy would seem to be students inferring the meaning of new words as they read.

Adams does the math:
–  The average middle-class fifth grader reads about 1,000,000 words a year.
–  Because most words are used multiple times, a million words include about 17,200 different words.
–  An average student would know about a quarter of those words.
–  This means he or she would need to learn about 12,900 new words per year.
–  The likelihood of the student understanding and retaining a new word from context is about 0.05.
–  This means a child’s vocabulary would increase by only 645 words a year.
–  That’s just 5,160 words by high-school graduation.

So how do all those other words get learned? “To grow, our students must read lots,” says Adams. “More specifically, they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts – texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought.” And they need to tackle those texts with the language, knowledge, modes of thought, and reading skills necessary to understand. Those who don’t have those need lots of support from teachers, families, and other adults to scaffold reading of challenging texts.

For SAT tests, then, what is best strategy?

Root Words: learn the roots and you can find a list of roots in any review book. So if you run across a word you will be able to still have an inkling of what it is.

Vocabulary Cards: not just to memorize them but also to incorporate them into you’re writing and maybe even occassionally use them in everyday language.

Picture These SAT Words in a Flash

Barrons SAT Flash Cards

 Click on image to view any item at Amazon, or purchase at Barnes and Noble here.

Useful Links for Building Vocabulary

Here’s a list of 1062 Vocabulary Words.

Greek and Latin Roots: A Short Chart of Roots

Fun SAT Vocabulary Games

Word Root Quick Reference

Word Root Games for Grades 3-12.


*“Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Tasks” by Marilyn Jager Adams in American Educator, Winter 2010-2011 (Vol. 34, #4, p. 3-11, 53)

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. vanita

    i’m so glad my teens are avid readers. though they distract me quite a bit when i’m cooking and they come across a word they’re not familiar with, it really helps with vocabulary. i’m sitting here trying to remember if i even took the SAT. i would have had to, right? lol. older teen is already looking at colleges and i’m thinking these cards would give her a grand boost. thanks girl.
    vanita recently posted…Feeds on the BrainMy Profile

  2. Vanessa

    Wow, these really could have helped me during the English Regents! My school gives us two SAT words every day but I never pay attention to them. It’s in the form of the picture of Abduct. This is really cool 🙂 Maybe I need to get a pack…
    Vanessa recently posted…Angelfire by Allison Courtney MoultonMy Profile

    • Hi Vanessa,
      I think everyone learns differently and if the pictures work for you, it’s worth the investment in the cards! Thanks for reading my blog! I will check yours out too! So helpful to have a mom who is a SEO guru, I bet?!

  3. Artchoo!

    This is a great resource and reminder to sneak more words at my kids starting when they’re young. Gotta go memorize the dictionary now…
    Artchoo! recently posted…Scandinavian Kids’ FurnitureMy Profile

  4. Ann

    What works for me is looking up words as I read but it can take the joy out of reading a little.

    Someone should write one books with good inferences and all those word!
    Ann recently posted…We Saved a BirdMy Profile

  5. Wonderfully timely post as we are study for the PSAT in our house – thank you!!
    Jacquie recently posted…Join the Online Book Club for KidsMy Profile

  6. Wow, 100,000 words. I have a confession to make despite bein in AP Literature/English classes 3 of my 4 years in high school, I feared the SAT’s because I knew that this was my weakest link. Hopefully my children will have the benefit of having English speaking parents.

    I took the ACT’s as I knew I was going to stay in state for college. It worked to my advantage as ACT’s are not so heavily weighted on English and I did well.

    Have added the cards to my wishlist on amazon. But perhaps it is never too early to start!

    • Hi ExpatDoctorMom,
      I had to memorize a box of SAT vocabulary words to do well on the SATs in high school but I was able to learn them over one summer. Learning 100,000 words by 8th grade isn’t necessary to do well on the SATs but here’s the How To for anyone who is interested. Roots, as it turns out, are very helpful!

  7. Thanks for sharing the 500 words flashcards. These are surely worth buying.
    Sophia Smith recently posted…How To Pass TOGAF 9.1 Certification ExamMy Profile

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