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The Best Way to Study ACT Vocabulary


Mastering ACT vocabulary words is an essential part of studying for the Reading section of the ACT. But settling on the best ACT vocabulary study method can be tricky. Do you study thousands of vocab words, or do you tackle the toughest ones? And what’s the best way to study: an app, flashcards, or something else? 

We’re here to teach you the most effective ways to learn ACT vocabulary! We’ll cover:  

  • The importance of vocabulary words and how they affect your overall ACT score
  • A bad, better, and best method for studying ACT vocabulary
  • How to interpret and answer a “Vocab in Context” ACT question
  • Eight solid resources for studying ACT vocab 

Now, let’s get started!




How Important Are ACT Vocabulary Words? 

Vocabulary questions are one type of question you’ll encounter in the Reading section and the English section of the ACT. Here are the types of ACT vocabulary questions you can expect to see in each section. 


ACT Reading Vocabulary 

These questions on the ACT Reading section that require knowledge of vocabulary terms are called “Vocab in Context” (VIC) questions. 

Vocab in Context questions on the Reading section of the ACT test your ability to think analytically and use context clues in order to do two main things:

  • Determine how an author’s use of a word affects the meaning of a larger portion of text, and 
  • Determine the meaning of a word or phrase in a specific situation.

When answering VIC questions, test takers will most often be asked to identify the correct meaning of a vocabulary word or phrase based on its usage in a passage of text provided on the exam, or you’ll have to choose one vocabulary word to sum up the meaning of a passage of text. 

On all Vocab in Context questions, you should pick the word that is most correct given the a) context of the passage and b) the other answer options. This can sometimes be tricky for students, especially since words have multiple meanings. 

Take the word “net” for example. In its most common usage, a “net” is an open-weaved or mesh fabric. If you’ve just read a passage about money, that wouldn’t make much sense! But “net” can also mean “to receive by way of profit.” In that case, “net” might be the most correct answer choice. 


ACT English Vocabulary 

The ACT English section also tests vocabulary in context. That means you’ll have to understand what words mean based on how they’re being used in a sentence. 

These questions are different from those on the ACT Reading section because you’re rarely, if ever, asked about one specific word. Instead, you’ll be asked to evaluate whether phrases are grammatically correct and/or make sense based on how they’re being used in a paragraph.

Put another way: the ACT English exam doesn’t specifically test vocabulary by asking you to define a single word. Instead, it tests your vocabulary knowledge by 

Here’s what we mean: take this excerpt from the official ACT practice questions website: 


Here’s the question that you’re asked about this passage: 

body-act-vocabulary-sample-answerWhile the question isn’t specifically asking you about the definition of the words “subservient” or “disposal,” you need to know what they mean in order to determine whether that phrase makes sense in the context of the sentence. 

“Subservient” means “useful in an inferior capacity” and “disposal” means “the power or authority to make use of as one chooses.” Once you consider those meanings, the sentence doesn’t make much sense. The correct answer is C, but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t have a strong knowledge of vocab! 

While background knowledge and inference can be helpful for getting the gist of the meaning of a word, on the ACT the best approach is to make sure you recognize and understand key vocabulary words so you don’t have to rely on context clues or guessing

That’s why studying ACT vocabulary is so important! 




3 Methods for Studying ACT Vocabulary

There are a variety of methods for preparing to ace ACT test vocabulary, but some are definitely better than others. Here, we’ll give you the details on a bad, better, and best study method for ACT vocab.


Bad: Reading an ACT Test Vocab List

A common method for studying ACT vocab is to read over a list of vocabulary words with their definitions. While reviewing a vocab list will familiarize you with the words that may appear on the ACT, this method doesn’t help you truly learn the vocab words and their definitions. 

Here’s why reading lists of vocab words isn’t a great study method: lists give equal priority to vocab words that are easy and hard for you. It makes sense that you would need to spend more time learning and reviewing those vocab words that you really struggle with, and less time reviewing words that you’ve already perfected, right? 

But reading over a list of words doesn’t push you to learn the words that are the hardest for you. In fact, it makes it easier for you to gloss over the terms that stump you without committing them to memory. That’s why reading through ACT vocabulary lists isn’t the best method for learning ACT vocab.


Better: Writing Down Vocabulary Terms 

Another way to study ACT vocabulary is writing down each term and its definitions on notebook paper. To do this, you’ll download a list of vocabulary terms, then write each one down with its corresponding meanings. You can even look up additional definitions and add them to your sheet. This can be helpful because writing information down by hand has been proven to help with memory retention

Unfortunately, this isn’t the best way to study ACT vocab, either. One, it takes a lot of time to do! While that might not be a problem if you’re studying in advance, crammers will find this is too time consuming to be useful. 

Additionally, not all people memorize information the same way! So if writing things down makes you more distracted and less likely to study, then this won’t be a great ACT vocab study method for you. 


Best: The Waterfall Method

By far the most effective method for studying for ACT vocab questions is what’s known as the Waterfall Method. In this study method, words that are hard for you “cascade” down into further piles as you review flashcards so that you spend the most study time focusing on the hardest vocab words. 

Here’s how to use the Waterfall Method, step-by-step:

Create a set of 30 to 50 ACT vocab flashcards.


Begin reviewing the flashcards, one by one. When you review a card that you immediately know, place that card in a “Know It” pile. When you hesitate or struggle to produce the meaning of a vocabulary word, place the flashcard in a “Struggled” pile. This will leave you with two stacks of cards.


Pick up the “Struggled” pile of cards and repeat the review process. As you review these cards, place the ones you immediately get right into a new Know It pile (you might think of it as “Know It 2”), and the ones you have a hard time with in a Struggled pile. At the end of this round, you’ll have three piles: “Know It”, “Know It 2”, and “Struggled.”

You'll end up with three stacks of cards. 


Keep repeating the process of reviewing words from your Struggled pile and creating additional Know It piles until you’re left with only one to five cards in your Struggled pile.


At this point you know most of your list of ACT vocabulary words, but you still need to learn those one to five cards in the remaining Struggled pile that are really difficult for you. To master the words in your final Struggled pile, go back up the “waterfall” reviewing flashcards in reverse. 

First, add your Struggled pile to your last Know It pile; this becomes your “Working” pile.


Review all the flashcards in your Working pile, and if you forget any of the words in this pile, start over reviewing the Working pile again. 

When you master the cards in the Working pile, combine it with the next Know It pile. Repeat the review process, starting over if you miss a word. Each time you master all of the words in your Working pile, combine it with the next Know It pile until you’re down to one single stack of cards. 


Finish your studying by reviewing every card in your single Working stack. If you get them all, you’re as close as you’re likely to get to memorizing every single word in your ACT vocab list!


And that’s how you implement the Waterfall study method, step-by-step. This method has been shown to work because you’ll be working overtime to learn those vocab words that are the most difficult for you, since this method requires you to review your hardest words at least 10 more times than those words that you get right off the bat. 


8 Top ACT Vocabulary Words Study Resources

Now that you know that all ACT vocab study methods are not equally effective, let’s get you acquainted with eight quality vocabulary study resources that you can use to ace these questions on the test.


#1: ExamBusters ACT Verbal

ExamBusters ACT Verbal is an app for iPhone and iPad that provides study guides for ACT essential and advanced vocabulary. Using a flashcard format, this app allows you to test your knowledge of vocabulary words using a jumble puzzle, review, and quiz study method. 

This app is a great vocabulary study resource for those who want to try out a simpler version of the waterfall method. You’ll be able to study flashcards in sequence, then eliminate them from the stack one-by-one once you’ve learned them. 

For additional study resources, there are in-app purchases that include up to 500 vocabulary words that may be useful to know on both the Reading and English portions of the ACT. 


#2: Quizlet

Quizlet provides 100 flashcards of 100 common SAT/ACT vocabulary words. In Quizlet’s typical style, the flashcards provide the vocabulary term on one side, and an abridged definition on the other. 

The flashcards are combined with other study methods, including a writing section that allows you to type out a definition for each vocabulary term in your own words, then check your answer to see if it’s correct. Quizlet also offers a “Learn” section, which requires you to answer each vocabulary term correctly twice before you can finish the section. There are also timed vocabulary games that help you practice identifying the correct definitions for vocabulary words on the fly. 

Quizlet’s vocabulary study resources are great for those who want to try multiple study methods for learning ACT vocab, including flashcard methods that are somewhat similar to the waterfall method. 


#3: The ACT Reading Practice

The ACT provides practice tests on its website, including five sample Reading passages that you can use to study vocab. Vocab in Context questions are embedded in these ACT Reading passages to help you practice with real ACT vocabulary terms. 

Answering the practice reading questions on the ACT website is an excellent study method for those who want to practice interpreting the correct meaning of ACT vocab in the broader context of an entire passage on the ACT Reading section. This can help you get a sense of how much time you might spend on Vocab in Context questions when you take the Reading section of the ACT and get a feel for how Vocab in Context questions might appear in the broader context of the Reading section of the ACT. 


#4: Teachers Pay Teachers 

Teachers Pay Teachers is an online resource that provides a bundle of 165 ACT Vocab In Context words. This resource is good for those who want an extended plan for studying ACT vocabulary words over the course of several months leading up to their ACT date. 

The Teachers Pay Teachers bundle includes a 10-question practice pre-test, 165 vocabulary words (or 33 weeks’ worth), 17 corresponding vocabulary quizzes in different formats (e.g. crosswords, contextual passages, true/false, sentence completion, multiple choice), and vocabulary story assignments and assessments. 

The Teachers Pay Teachers vocab resource is available for digital download for $23. 




#5: Vocabulary Builder By Magoosh

Magoosh’s vocabulary-building app for iPhone and iPad provides over 1200 vocabulary words that commonly appear on college entrance exams. This app includes definitions and examples for each vocabulary word and is divided out into multiple levels of increasing difficulty to help you master harder vocabulary words as you progress. 

If you’re looking for an ACT test vocabulary study resource that mimics the waterfall method, Vocabulary Builder by Magoosh is a good choice because it repeats words you don’t know using spaced repetition as you unlock more advanced levels of vocabulary. More good news: this app is free when you create an account with Magoosh. 


#6: Ready4ACT

Ready4ACT is a comprehensive ACT prep mobile and web app that includes 374 ACT vocabulary flashcards. The 1500+ practice questions provided on this app include Vocab in Context questions that will help you get a feeling for what these types of questions will look like on the ACT. 

If you’re interested in consolidating your ACT prep materials, Ready4ACT is a resource that will allow you to do that while also focusing specifically on studying ACT vocab. This app also personalizes your learning process based on your strengths and weaknesses, so you’ll be able to target your struggle areas where ACT vocabulary terms are concerned as well. 

As an added bonus, Ready4ACT allows you to create customized tests in order to practice specific content, so you can be sure that Vocab in Context questions are included on the practice tests you take using the app. 

Ready4ACT comes with a free trial and is $20 for one year mobile access, or $70 for one year mobile and web access. 


#7: is an online resource that provides different methods for learning ACT test vocabulary. This resource includes practice quizzes that tailor future quizzes to your needs based on your past knowledge of vocabulary terms, a spelling bee to practice the correct spelling of vocab terms, and a vocabulary “jam” that connects you with other users in a competition to answer the most vocabulary questions correctly. 

When you create an account with, your profile keeps up with assignments and activities you’ve completed, vocabulary lists you’re working on, and your progress on words you’re learning, your “trouble words,” and words you’ve mastered. is an excellent resource for anyone who is motivated by tracking their progress and competing with others. 


#8: Barron’s Hot Words for the ACT

Barron’s Hot Words for the ACT defines more than 250 ACT vocab terms that are known to pop up on the verbal portions of the ACT. This resource includes tips for memorizing vocabulary, review exercises, and anecdotes from real test takers.

The lessons provided in this eBook also include illustrative sentences with vocabulary terms in context, which makes this a solid resource for prepping for Vocab in Context questions on the Reading section of the ACT.

You can purchase Barron’s Hot Words for the ACT on Amazon for $10




What’s Next? 

Looking for a list of ACT terms to get you started? Check out our master list of 150 ACT vocabulary words you should know.

Are you thinking about taking the SAT? You’ll need to know SAT vocabulary, too. This article can help you get your studying off on the right foot.

Learning ACT vocab is just one step on your journey to a great ACT score. You also need an ACT study plan, too. Here’s how you make one.


These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.


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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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