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On the SAT, testing of vocabulary is purely contextual, and there is hardly any direct testing of your knowledge of words. And this is fantastic news for test takers, because, now, you do not have to memorize complex words and meanings; rather, you must be more logical and analytical in your understanding of the language. I always tell my students that there is no such list of ‘SAT Vocabulary’ or ‘SAT Words’ – you don’t necessarily have to memorize words for SAT.

Vocabulary is tested on the SAT by means of questions that we typically call ‘words in context’ questions. Such questions require you to understand the meaning of either a word or a phrase that is used in a specific context.

In the reading section, you are required to pick a word from the options that accurately demonstrates the meaning of a word or phrase being used in a specific instance. Sometimes, questions on the reading section may also ask you to determine the purpose or intent of an author in choosing to use a certain word or phrase. In the writing section, however, you are asked to simply choose a word from the options that best fits the context. You might not be required to determine the meaning of the word.

In this article, we will discuss the strategies to solving ‘words in context’ questions, with the help of some examples, in the SAT Reading and Writing sections.

1. Do not use prior knowledge of the word; rather, understand the contextual meaning

Remember that such questions always require you to understand the meaning of a given word in the context in which it is used. They do NOT test you on the generic meaning of the word.

Let’s first understand the meaning of the word ‘context.’ Oxford dictionary defines the word ‘context’ as “the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.”

In short, the context of a word is the surrounding words and ideas around that word.

So, to understand the meaning of a word in its context better, it greatly helps to read and understand the story of the sentence and its content.

Have a look at these three sentences and understand the context in which the word ‘critical’ is used.
1.  My mother has always been very critical of my cooking skills.
2.  The CEO understands that boosting customer experience is critical to the company’s success.
3.  Despite the best efforts of the team of doctors, John continues to be critical.

Do you realize how the same word is used differently in different contexts?

In sentence 1, ‘critical’ is used to demonstrate adverse, unfavourable, or disapproving comments or judgements about someone. On the other hand, in sentence 2, the same word ‘critical’ is used to show a factor that is crucial, important, and decisive in the success of a company. In sentence 3, however, ‘critical’ is used to mean extremely ill or at a risk of fatality.

This is exactly what the context of a word does – it dramatically changes the meaning of the word.

So, to answer such questions, you must not merely select the right answer by picking the meaning of the word that you already know. Rather, you must read the sentence in which the word has been used thoroughly to pick clues. It would also help to read one sentence above and below to help understand the context better.

Let’s try to solve the following questions using context clues.

Example 1 – Reading Section

Dark energy, believed to be causing the acceleration of the expansion of the universe, provides a constant outward force that does not dilute as the universe expands. Pitted against this relentless push is the gravitational pull from the rest of the matter and energy in the universe. Early on, the universe was much denser than it is today, and the attractive force of gravity was winning the battle, on scales both large and small. Clouds of gas condensed to form stars and galaxies, and galaxies drew together to form clusters.

As used in the context, “attractive” most nearly means

A. advantageous
B. compelling
C. absorbing
D. pulling

Let’s understand the context in which ‘attractive’ has been used. The passage explains that two forces are pitted against each other: dark energy, which is a relentless ‘push,’ and the attractive force of gravity, which is the gravitational ‘pull’. Thus, the best word for attractive in context is a pull.

Hence, the answer is option D.

2. Look out for contextual clues in the sentence

Often, you will notice clues in the context that will help you pick the correct meaning of the word. Keep a lookout for a similar word, an opposite, or a punctuation mark that will help you understand the meaning of the word in context.

Also, remember to read one sentence above and one below the word so that you get a fairer understanding of the overall context.

Have a look at the following sentence and try to spot the clues:

Example 2 – Reading Section

After her first day on the job, the school’s new primary teacher realized that she would be much busier than she had been led to believe. Not only was she assisting the other teachers with her work, but the principal had inundated her with other tasks such as creating lesson plans, managing the attendance of the students, and maintaining a daily record of homework of the students. She was exhausted when she left for home from school.

As used in the context, “inundated” most nearly means

A. provided
B. assaulted
C. underwhelmed
D. overloaded

Now, even if you do not know the meaning of the word, you know that she was ‘inundated’ with multiple tasks such as assisting other teachers, creating lesson plans, managing the attendance of the students, and maintaining a daily record of homework of the students. The context also tells us that the teacher was exhausted when she left school.

These are way too many tasks for a new teacher, don’t you think? And imagine being exhausted due to work on your first day. It seems as if the teacher was flooded and overburdened with work.

Now, it might be easy to pick the best answer from the options. Doesn’t option D fit the bill perfectly?

In understanding the meaning of the word ‘inundated,’ the context was key: examples of the tasks that were given to her and the word ‘exhausted’ greatly helped.

3. Try coming up with a word of your own

The next step is to use the contextual clues discussed in strategy 2 to come up with a word of your own that can replace the word in question. This will help you eliminate the other options fairly easily.

Remember in Example 2, we narrowed down to words of our own – flooded or overburdened. This helped us pick the correct answer more quickly and effectively.

Let me give you another example of such questions from the Writing and Language section.

Example 3 – Writing and Language Section

Imagine a world in which it’s casual for a doctor to prepare for a difficult surgery by “operating” on a full-sized, electronically responsive model of a patient. It may seem fantastical, but one engineer is working to make this scenario possible. Dr. Toshio Fukuda is a pioneer in the field of medical robotics. In designing his medical robotic equipment, Dr. Fukuda draws upon a variety of disciplines and skill sets. His work serves as an example of how collaboration across a variety of fields can drive innovation.

B. common
C. shared
D. general

In such questions on the writing section, you are required to pick a word that most appropriately fits in the context.

Now, what is the idea that is discussed? It is of a surgeon preparing for a complex and difficult surgery by working on an electronically responsive model of a patient. This seems very futuristic today. However, we are being asked to imagine a scenario in which this situation is usual .

Isn’t ‘usual’ the first word that comes to mind? Now have a look at the answer options and pick the word that is closest in meaning to ‘usual’.

The best answer is option B.

4. Eliminate answer options

Finally, you must look at the answer options and eliminate as many choices as possible. Then, pick the one that is closest to the word that you have come up with.

When eliminating, you might also want to eliminate answer options that have the absolute same meaning as two options cannot be correct.

5. Plug the answer option back in the sentence to check on its logical soundness

This is the last step that you must follow to solve words in context questions. Remember to close the loop for such questions by placing the selected answer option back in the sentence and rereading the sentence. You must ensure that the intended meaning of the sentence does not change. Also, the sentence must be sound logically.

Now that you are aware of all the strategies, would you solve the following question by applying them?

Example 4 – Reading Section

The Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen gas, but most plants and animals cannot use nitrogen gas directly from the air as they do carbon dioxide and oxygen. Instead, plants – and all organisms from the grazing animals to the predators to the decomposers that ultimately secure their nourishment from the organic materials synthesized by plants – must wait for nitrogen to be “fixed,” that is, pulled from the air and bonded to hydrogen or oxygen to form inorganic compounds, mainly ammonium and nitrate, that they can use.

In the context, “secure” most nearly means

A. protect
B. defend
C. acquire
D. shelter

In the context, we discuss organisms such as grazing animals, predators, and decomposers that get their nourishment from organic materials synthesized by plants. Isn’t it the most obvious word that comes to mind?

Now, look through the answer options and pick the closest word by eliminating the other answer options.

The best answer is option C. acquire.

Example 5 – Writing and Language Section

In an increasingly streamlined, technological, and competitive world of professional employment, a career in writing poetry may seem like an impractical choice. While the challenge of developing a professional writing career cannot be denied, perspiring poets can look to their____successful twentieth and twenty-first century counterparts for models of sustainable career paths. These examples demonstrate that one of the best ways to “be” a poet are to be many other things as well: when writing computer code, an individual is cultivating the same precision and attention to detail that is required to write poetry.

B. respiring
C. inspiring
D. aspiring

The author of the passage begins by discussing how a career in writing poetry might not be the most practical one in today’s technology-driven world. He then gives advice to those that are wanting to become poets: look into the careers of successful twentieth and twenty-first century poets to carve a sustainable career path.

The underlined word should have ideally referred to new poets, or those people that are wanting to pursue a career in poetry.

The only answer option that would fit appropriately is D. aspiring.

Let me also discuss a slightly different question type, in which the question asks for the purpose of a given word, phrase, or idea. The strategies to solve such questions remain the same – read the context, pick clues from it, anticipate an answer, and eliminate answer options.

Example 6 – Reading Section

This passage is excerpted from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, given in 1961.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Kennedy’s reference to “our forebears” serves mainly to

A. call into question the relevance of struggles faced by people under colonial rule.
B. inspire a rebellion similar to that proposed by the American revolutionaries.
C. connect contemporary struggles for freedom with the American colonists’ fight for independence.
D. highlight the importance of the next generation of Americans in the fight for freedom.

The passage is an address by President Kennedy given in 1961, where he speaks about the world today, and how similar our world and issues are to our forebears’: the use of the words “the same revolutionary beliefs our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe” emphasize the similarity and connection.

The reference to ‘our forebears’, hence, serves to bring an association between our problems and struggles and those of our ancestors.

Once you have anticipated this answer, look through the answer options and pick the closest one. Have you picked the right one already?

Yes, the correct answer is option C.

How to get better at solving SAT words in context questions?

Practice will help you solve words in context questions with more accuracy and quickly. Do use Jamboree’s comprehensive SAT material to browse through and work on SAT words in context practice questions and approach your faculty for any doubts.

All the best!

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