Back to ABCs: Clustering Alphabetically, Rather than Semantically, Enhances Vocabulary Learning


Optimizing the study of vocabulary words for high-stakes tests such as the SAT or GRE prep can be problematic, given that many words are semantically, orthographically, or phonologically confusable. Companies marketing test preparation programs make multiple recommendations, such as clustering words on some basis, but little research has been carried out to examine what that basis should be. Across two experiments, we compare the efficacy of different types of clustering—categorical, alphabetical, and confusable--for the learning of semantically related words (Experiment 1) and confusable words (Experiment 2). We demonstrate that, in contrast to most learners’ intuitions, an alphabetical sequence yields superior learning.

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