How to Tackle Vocabulary in Context Questions on the SAT & ACT
In my last article, How to Improve Your Vocabulary for the SAT & ACT, I wrote about improving your vocabulary. In this article, I want to dive more deeply into how vocabulary is tested on the SAT Reading test and explore techniques to solving the types of questions you can expect to appear.
On the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT, there is a subscore for questions that fall into the category known as “Words in Context.” These questions test your ability to detect both the meanings and the functions of common words and phrases in various circumstances. There’s a fairly even distribution of Words in Context questions throughout the test (about two per Reading and Writing passage), and approximately 20% of your total Reading and Writing score will come from these types of questions. There is specifically one type of question that tends to frustrate students endlessly: Vocabulary in Context.
I often hear my students argue that you could make a case for each of the answer choices on vocabulary in context questions. Sometimes, students present sound reasoning for why they thought an answer choice could have been correct; other times, students present the “it sounded right” argument.
So how do you actually decide between the four answer choices? You put on your analytical thinking cap! Since these questions require you to be sensitive to a word’s connotations and pay attention to the way a word is used in the moment, it is important to understand the way language is connected. To see what I mean, let’s explore a couple of examples.
1. The first and more commonly seen type of vocabulary in context question deals with using context clues to determine the meaning of a word or phrase in a particular instance (vocabulary in context).
“See!” he said, after a moment, “isn’t that
25 mist or something, over there to the right
—away in a line with that great piece of rock?”
And he indicated with his hand.
As used in line 26, “great” most nearly means
The word in question is “great,” a frequently occurring word with multiple meanings. All four answer choices are definitions of the word “great.” To determine the answer here, reread the context (generally the sentence in question and the sentences above and below it) and try to fill in the word in question with your own word. You should also examine these sentences for any clues that may point you in the right direction. In this instance, the speaker is referring to a “great piece of rock” and indicating a direction with his hand. The description of the rock is being used in a physical context, so we want an answer that has something to do with size. If I were to replace “great” with my own word, I’d choose something along the lines of “huge.” Now let’s look at the answer choices.
Choice A doesn’t work because the word “wonderful” is subjective. What may be wonderful to you may not be so for me.
Choice B is incorrect because “powerful” doesn’t exactly describe a rock and has nothing to do with size.
Choice C does deal with the physical aspect, but it’s not a precise fit to describe a rock.
Choice D is the correct answer. If someone were pointing out a “great piece of rock,” you would likely look in the direction of the biggest rock around.
Occasionally, you will come across an answer choice that is not synonymous with the word in question. You should delete such a choice immediately because it is not answering the question (even if it “sounds good” when plugged into the passage). For example, if the word “sphere” (a circular object) is in question and one of the answer choices is “box” (often rectangular), you can safely bet it will not be a correct response.
2. The second type of vocabulary in context question deals more with how the author’s use of words affects the passage’s meaning or tone (purpose of vocabulary in context)
This event was caused by the merger of two black holes, one with a mass estimated at 36 times the mass of the Sun and the other with an estimated mass 29 times the Sun’s. The result was a single black hole of about 62 solar masses. On December 26, 2015, gravitational waves from a second event were observed, once again from the merger of two black holes, though this time the black holes were smaller. Both events occurred approximately 1.3 billion years ago.
How do the words “estimated,” “about,” and “approximately” help establish the tone of the paragraph?
A) They create a skeptical tone that makes clear the team does not believe that the data are accurate.
B) They create a hopeful tone that makes clear the team anticipates that more gravitational waves will soon be found.
C) They create a tentative tone that suggests that the team cannot determine certain values with precision.
D) They create a defiant tone that makes clear the team is aware that its results contradict widely held views.
On these types of questions, again revisit the context and look for a connection. The paragraph includes the phrases “mass estimated at 36 times,” “with an estimated mass 29 times,” “black hole of about 62 solar masses,” and “approximately 1.3 billion years ago.” Do you notice a trend? Each of these words has to deal with a prediction about measurements of mass or time; none of the claims are made with 100% certainty. Now let’s look at the answer choices.
A) “Skeptical” means doubtful, which could potentially work when making a prediction, but there is no clear evidence pointing to the data as inaccurate, so this choice is contradictory.
B) Within the context of the paragraph, there isn’t much in the way of hope being expressed, so this answer choice goes further than what is directly stated in the paragraph.
C) “Tentative” means uncertain, which matches the trend of the words in question. Also, “cannot determine certain values with precision” fits well with the numbers (36, 29, 62, 1.3 billion) next to each of the words in question. Choice C is the correct response.
D) “Defiant” means disregardful, which is much too strong given the context. Nowhere in the paragraph is there any justification for such a charged answer choice.
You may have noticed that each of the answer choices contains an adjective (skeptical, hopeful, tentative, defiant) followed by reasoning. It’s important to read the entirety of the answer choice to make sure both halves work.
These two examples demonstrate the types of vocabulary in context questions you can expect to see on the SAT Reading test. Practicing these questions can be difficult in the absence of a test, so here’s my recommendation: add “Professor Word” to your online bookmark bar and it will identify SAT/ACT vocabulary words on any website that you visit. When you come across a “tier-two” word (a high-frequency word that has multiple meanings), see if you can replace it with a word of your own then check whether your prediction is correct by plugging the original word into a thesaurus. If you get into the habit of practicing this technique, your ability to tackle vocabulary in context questions will become second nature.
As with anything that deals with the reading test, mastering vocabulary in context questions is a marathon not a sprint. If you follow the methods outlined in this article, you can expect your success rate on these questions to increase. Eventually, you may even reach a point where you can predict the answers to all vocabulary in context questions before even looking at the choices! Let that be your guiding goal.
Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."