Helping Your Child Succeed on the ISEE: Vocabulary and Reading

  • August 19, 2019

The ISEE is a few months away, so it is a good time for a little skill-building. Parents often want to know what their children can do to prepare for the ISEE on their own in the months leading up to the test. We’ll tackle the math in another post, but for now, our focus is the verbal reasoning and reading skills your child will need on test day.  (If you have any questions about the format or test content, check out our blog post “Everything You Need to Know About the ISEE.”) 

One of the best ways that you can help your child prepare for the ISEE independently and get what we call a “soft start” to ISEE prep is to introduce vocabulary flashcards into their daily regimen. The ISEE verbal reasoning section (i.e., vocabulary) is the section where we see students improve vastly with the greatest ease. How, you ask? Flashcards. Although flashcards are notorious for being a repetitive method of studying, they prove time and again—backed by years of research—to be the most effective tool in remembering factual information. They promote active recall, a way in which the brain searches for information out of context. In other words, the brain pulls out information from scratch, rather than having a cue or spark by a passage or textbook, so the words aren’t placed in context. Engaging active recall has been proven to create stronger neuron connections and therefore enhances memory and long-term retention.  

Encourage your child to write vocabulary words on one side of a flashcard, and their definitions on the other side. Studies show that students are significantly more likely to recall information that they see in their own handwriting. Handwritten flashcards also provide long-term retention for words over purchasing a pre-made set. Students with dysgraphia and dyslexia are still encouraged to type their words and definitions and then glue them to the flashcards because of the process of output and definition. In order to optimize memory performance, students should separate flashcards into piles based on words that are solid (nailed it!), need some review, and need significant review. This “confidence-based repetition” is also a key method in effectively retaining information. This way, students can compartmentalize what they feel confident in, and what they still need to work on. 

Davidson Tutoring has a vocabulary app with words to memorize for our ISEE students, but we also encourage our students to go through their own vocabulary lists at school, use Quizlet or to build their vocabulary repertoire. There are many versions of the ISEE and the test changes every year. Your best bet for verbal reasoning success is to pull from a lot of sources, books, and documentaries to build a comprehensive lexicon (and this expansive vocab will also come in handy for the essay!)

You’ll hear it said that reading for a test is different than reading for pleasure. The reading comp section of any standardized test will push even dedicated readers in their abilities to find information and come to the right conclusion. More than any other section, except for perhaps the essay, the reading comprehension section requires the most skill. Students have to speed-read, retain what they’ve read and identify which problems are looking for specific information. Even more fun: the answer choices will have two right answers and the question will ask which answer is the BEST. We tell students that the ISEE reading section is like an open-book test and students must build their skills to find the right answer for each question in the time they have. That said, prior knowledge goes a long way in how easily a student can grasp the tone, organization, and logic of a passage. Understanding the way an author chooses to explain a topic, either in a positive or negative light, can come to light much quicker if a student already knows the topic and is not hearing about it for the first time on the ISEE. Try to expose your students to as much information as possible to cover a fairly wide range of topics: Science, History, Public Policy, Politics, Art, Technology, and Literature.  Here is a non-exhaustive, but we think exciting, list of things you can do with your student: 

  1. visit museums
  2. watch documentaries
  3. read newspaper articles (when the topic is appropriate)
  4. visit historical sites when traveling to a new city
  5. travel in general when possible
  6. play trivia games
  7. generally, try to expose your child to as many different topics as possible
  8. Read, read, read! 

The single most important thing you can do is to encourage reading. The more students read, the more they will be equipped to analyze passages quickly and elicit the necessary information from them. They should also see authors use words in different ways and see how one can say the same thing in different ways. Students should be reading for leisure on a regular basis. We will put in this caveat that there is a level of sophistication in literature and not all reading is created equal. A child who spends 20 hours reading Dave Pilkey is probably not going to be exposed to as many new words and required to access a level of empathy that a child who reads 20 hours of Lois Lowr or Lord of the Rings. Read with them! Get a hard-copy, honest to goodness paper book and make a conscious choice to be together to read. Read to your child or take turns reading out loud. Showing your interest and involvement will inspire them to want to read more on their own. It certainly normalizes reading and makes the habit a part of their routine. They should see you with your eyes on a book and not always locked on a screen during the week.

Not a reader? We cannot recommend audiobooks highly enough. Our favorites are always the author reading his or her own work (Sandra Cisneros is a stand-out in this department), but Jim Dale is an incredible reader. Find a good book or a good reader and take advantage of the LA traffic in a positive way. When a student is well-read, it shows clearly on their reading comprehension score. 

While these methods may seem traditional or outdated, the fact is, going old school works! Over the last 20 years, we have seen the efficacy of these methods and believe it is the best way to prepare our students for the ISEE.

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