How to Answer Vocabulary In Context Questions on ACT Reading

how-to-answer-vocabulary-in-context-questions-on-act-reading

In this article we will talk about how to answer vocabulary in context questions on ACT Reading as well as the strategies that you can use to ace these types of questions.

What are Vocabulary in Context Questions?

To learn how to answer vocabulary in context question on ACT Reading, you have to know what vocabulary in context questions are.

Vocabulary in Context questions on the ACT Reading directly test your understanding of a word in a sentence or within the context of a paragraph. While having a strong knowledge of vocabulary is helpful for other types of questions, it is absolutely essential for vocabulary-in-context questions.

I have personally categorized thousands of ACT and SAT Reading questions and concluded that ACT Reading tests vocabulary-in-context questions in two ways:

  1. What is a meaning of the word based on how it’s used in the sentence?
  2. Summarize the meaning of a few lines or a paragraph using only one word.

Let’s talk about each one of these types in more detail.

Type 1: Meaning of a Word in Context

How to Answer Vocabulary In Context Questions on ACT Reading

These questions are the most straightforward of all ACT Reading questions. All they do is ask, “Here’s the word. What’s the definition?”

Sounds simple, right? Well, just because a question is straightforward, doesn’t mean that it can’t be tricky. These questions are almost always asked in the following way (question taken from a published ACT exam):

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

Notice that in the question the ACT uses the phrase “most nearly.” Why do they do that? For two reasons:

  1. the phrase is designed to trick you into picking the answer that kind of works (after all, the questions is asking you to pick the NEAR meaning of the word compensation).
  2. most of the given answer choices have similar meanings that would be appropriate in different contexts and it is your job to pick not just AN answer that works, but the BEST answer out of the available answer choices.)

Most of the time, these types of vocabulary-in-context questions are about words that have multiple meanings. The ACT wants to trick you into thinking you know the answer and will often include an answer choice that is correct for SOME definition of the word – just not how it is used in the passage. Let’s illustrate this point with an actual ACT example:

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

Off the top of my head, popular can mean any of the answer choices. In order to answer this question, you will have to go back to the passage and see how the word popular is used in a sentence. Here is the referenced line from the passage:

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

Type 1: Meaning of a Word in Context (cont’d)

If the right answer doesn’t jump out at you, try to rephrase the sentence in your own words. Here, the passage is talking about an area of the ocean that is separated from the Atlantic by strong currents and includes the area known as the Bermuda Triangle.

After you’ve rephrased the sentence based on context, substitute answer choices into the sentence. For this question, “commonly known” makes sense (most people have heard about the Bermuda Triangle).

Let’s look at another example:

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

Looking at the answer choices, we can tell that compensation can mean any of the answer choices (except maybe G – differentiation). Going back to the passage, I read the line that contains the word in question.

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

The excerpt talks about how a person who lacks in a certain ability finds unique ways to achieve the same level of development as someone who is “normal.” Therefore, compensation can mean make up or substitution.

Looking at the answer choices, the only option that makes sense in context is choice J – “adaptation.”

Moral of this explanation is this: Do NOT answer this type of question based on things that “could be right”.  Don’t trust your memory – under time pressure, your memory can play tricks on you. Make sure to go back to the passage and understand the meaning of the word in the context of its surrounding sentences.

Sometimes, instead of asking for the meaning of a specific word, the ACT will ask you about multiple words. For example,

Your approach to answering this type of question is exactly the same as we described above: always go back to the passage, rephrase, and pick the answer choice that logically fits within the context.

Type 2: Definition of a Word in Passage

How to Answer Vocabulary In Context Questions on ACT Reading.

These questions summarize the definition in the passage and match it to the correct answer choice. In contrast to the type 1 vocabulary-in-context questions described in a previous section, these questions take the form of, “here’s the definition, what’s the word?”

ACT, of course, does not ask this question in such a straightforward way, so here are a few examples of this type of question from real ACT Reading tests.

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

These types of questions (“which word is defined by the passage”) can actually be easier than the first “find the definition of a specific word in context” type of questions. This is because the definitions are in a paragraph form so you may be able to get more information that can help you answer a question. Let’s illustrate this point with an example from a real ACT test:

Let’s look at the referenced text:

The question is asking specifically about “orchestra” and how it would “swing.” You can either read this paragraph or scan it for the key words. I can see the phrase “orchestra starts to swing for a bit” in line 68, so I start with reading the sentence that contains that phrase. From this sentence, I get that the “orchestra started to swing” “without even knowing” that they were doing it. Using that phrase as a clue, we can interpret it to mean that the author is describing the orchestra doing something without realizing it, i.e.– “unconsciously.” Looking at the available answer choices, we should pick the correct answer H.

Strategies to Master Vocabulary in Context Questions

Now that we have discussed the types of vocabulary-in-context questions, let’s talk about what strategies you can use to master these questions. How to Answer Vocabulary In Context Questions on ACT Reading

Strategy 1: Rephrase the Given Information

When answering questions that ask about a word in context:

  • understand what the sentence that contains the word in question is about
  • define the word in your own words (without looking at the answer choices). Your definition does not have to be accurate, but it must convey the meaning
  • look for your word or your word’s synonym in the given answer choices

Let’s look at a real ACT example:

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

Here’s the related text:

My thought process: Let me read the phrase that contains the word ravages in line 15 and understand its meaning. “One may be horrified by (blank) of a developmental disorder. This has a negative connotation. What would be horrific about a disorder? The destruction that it creates.

Plugging my word into the original phrase, “while one may be horrified by the destruction of developmental disorder.” That works. I look at the answer choices and see choice D that matches my prediction. So, I choose the correct answer D.

When answering questions that ask to describe a paragraph in a word:

  • understand what the paragraph in question is about
  • summarize it in your own words (without looking at the answer choices). Your definition does not have to be accurate, but it must convey the meaning
  • look for your word or your word’s synonym in the given answer choices

Let’s look at a real ACT example:

Here’s the related text:

My thought process: Let me read the paragraph and understand it. Luria thought that we need a “new view of the brain, a sense of it not as programmed and static, but rather as dynamic and active.” From this phrase, I understand that Luria thinks that the brain should be thought of as active and dynamic, while previously the brain was thought of the opposite of that. What is opposite to active and dynamic? Static or unchanging. Looking at the answer choices, I see that the word “unchanging” is one of the answer choices. So, I pick the correct answer B.

Strategy 2: Eliminate Obviously Wrong Answers

Sometimes, after you have come up with a word that works, the answer choices include the synonym of your word, not the exact word you thought of. If you know the meaning of the answer choices, great! What do you do if you don’t know the meaning of the words in the answer choices? Eliminate the answer choices that definitely do not work. If you know that three of the four answer choices are definitely wrong, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the meaning of the fourth answer choice – it must be the correct answer choice by process of elimination.  Let’s illustrate this strategy using the example from above:

act-reading-vocabulary-in-context-questions-main-point-perspective-example

My thought process: Let me replace the word ravages with one that still keeps the meaning of the sentence. “Thus while one may be horrified by the damages of developmental disorder or disease…”

Which of the answer choices mean damages? Paradoxical features – no; creative adaptations – no; fatal nature – maybe, but fatal means deadly and the rest of the sentence tells us that the nervous system adapts, so not fatal. Eliminating all three, we are left with D, destructive actions.

This strategy also works if you are trying to summarize the meaning of a paragraph in one word. Let’s look at an example from above:

My thought process:

from the question I understand that there is probably a difference between Luria’s thoughts and those of other medical researchers. The key phrase from the passage is: “Luria thought, a new view of the brain, a sense of it not as programmed or static, but rather as dynamic and active…” So, other medical researchers thought of the brain as unchanging “programmed and static” and Luria thought of the brain as “dynamic and active.” Which of the answer choices means “programmed and static?” Dynamic – no, that’s what Luria thought; paradoxical – no, that means confusing; creative – no, that is also what Luria thought. The only answer choice that is left “unchanging” is the correct answer, choice B.

Next Steps

Do these strategies make sense in theory … but in practice you always run out of time on ACT Reading? Read this article to find out how to stop running out of time.

Looking for more guides? Check out our articles on Big Picture, Small Picture, Function, and Inference questions.

Do you know how to maximize your reading time on ACT? Read this guide on how to read passages more effectively.

Do you need to know all of the ACT topics? Read all about it here.

Want to see a video in which I cover this topic? Check out my YouTube channel:

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