Vocabulary in Context

Despite how it may seem, vocabulary questions on the SAT and ACT are not testing your vocabulary as much as they are testing your reading skills. For this reason, I would rarely recommend studying vocab words if you want to get better at vocab questions. Instead, I would recommend that you memorize the steps I’m about to give you and get good at using them.

Vocab in Context (VIC) is on the reading section, right? Well that makes sense once you realize that the test writers use VIC questions to test your reading skills. Since this is all about context (how the word is being used), the vocab technique is designed to get you to notice and comprehend what is going on around the word.

Step One: Cover the word/ phrase up with your finger, and get yourself to generate your own word that works in the sentence and communicates the correct meaning.

Step Two: Go to the answer choices. The right answer should be a synonym for whatever you’ve come up with. Pick that one.

Step Three (if Step One doesn’t work out because the context is too confusing): Read each of the answer choices plugged in the sentence. The answer must actually work in the context. Let your ears help you here—does it sound right or is something off? 

Step Four (if you’re feeling SOL and nothing is working): Figure out if the sentence has a positive, negative, or neutral tone. The answer has to be in the same tone, so eliminate the words that don’t match the tone in that part of the passage. 

Example Problem (SAT Test 1, question #45). Please get your book and follow along:

45. As used in line 19, “demands” most nearly means

  • A) claims.
  • B) offers.
  • C) inquiries.
  • D) desires.

Step One: So I read the sentences around the word and come up with “wishes.” What I’ve come up with makes sense in the context, sounds right, and could replace “demands” in the sentence.

Step Two: 

  • A) offers (offers means gives which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • B) claims (claims means states or asserts which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • C) inquiries (inquiries means looking into something which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • D) desires (desires means wants, which is very close to the meaning of wishes. Desires also sounds right and works in the context, so I’d pick this one).

Step Three (if Step Two didn’t bear fruit):

  • A) …firms may be meeting earthly offers for precious metals… (this sounds off to me because I’ve never heard anyone talk about “meeting an offer for something”)
  • B) …firms may be meeting earthly claims for precious metals… (this doesn’t make sense)
  • C) …firms may be meeting earthly inquiries for precious metals… (meeting an inquiry for something doesn’t sound right and it also doesn’t make sense)
  • D) …firms may be meeting earthly desires for precious metals… (this sounds fine to my ears because I’ve heard the expression “meet a desire for,” so I’ll pick this one)