"Play Scrabble to build vocabulary." This advice seems to pop up anywhere and everywhere. It's been championed for GRE takers, English language learners, and CEO's. Even Thai kids are playing Scrabble in school to practice English. It's insanity!
It seems logical. Word games must build your vocabulary since you've got to know a lot of words to win. Au contraire, mon frêre! Researchers at the University of Calgary conducted a study on competitive Scrabble players. Their findings indicate that Scrabble is good for building word recognition, but does absolutely nothing toward adding words to your usable vocabulary. In other words, Scrabble (or Words With Friends) players may recognize that a word is a word, but they aren't more likely to know what the word means. For example, "qi" is a useful word to know if you're a serious Scrabble player. But Scrabble doesn't require you to know what the word means. And some of the more useful Scrabble words are some of the most obscure in the English language. Not so great for building your SAT vocabulary, right?
So, it's nice to know a word is a word when you see it. But for the SAT, you can rest assured that all of the tough words on the test are real words. Word recognition isn't going to help you one bit. Want proof? Take this tidbit from the above article on Scrabble-playing Thai kids:
Mr. Techus said the vocabulary he picked up playing Scrabble would not likely
result in a higher grade on his university entrance examination. "It is different.
I don't think this can be used to prepare for the entrance exam, but it is a fun
and relaxing form of brain exercise for me," he said.
See? Even the kids know it's not really helpful.
I hope I'm not coming across as anti-Scrabble. I love playing it (and Words With Friends). I do pick up a new word here and there. I play with some real word nerds and I frequently see words I don't know in the course of a game. So what do I do? Look them up! If you take the time to pull out your dictionary, Scrabble can improve your vocabulary. Just be sure to take on challenging opponents. Play your parents, your teachers, your brother's college friends and so on. But never play without a dictionary handy!
*As an aside, I do recommend crossword puzzles for building vocabulary. The clues usually give you the definition of words. I'll never forget that "sere" means "dry," because it comes up so often on crosswords!