SAT Reading Vocabulary: Multiple Choice Strategies, Part 2

In my last post on multiple choice strategies in SAT Reading, Multiple Choice Strategies in Sat Reading: Implicit and Explicit Information, we looked strategies for questions that focus on comprehending the specific information in a reading passage.

Comprehension of content is the main focus of multiple choice questions in SAT Reading. However, it’s not the only focus. There are always some questions the Reading section that focus more on knowledge of specific vocabulary words, with comprehension of the information in the passage as a secondary skill for choosing the right answer.


Vocabulary and Grammar Questions

First, let’s look at an example vocabulary-based question. This passage for this question has been adapted from An African Millionaire, a novel by Grant Allen.


We were a square party of four–Sir Charles and Amelia, myself and Isabel. We had nice big rooms, on the first floor, overlooking the lake; and as none of us was possessed with the faintest symptom of that rising mania which shows itself in the form of an insane desire to climb mountain heights of disagreeable steepness and unnecessary snowiness, I will venture to assert we all enjoyed ourselves. We spent most of our time sensibly in lounging about the lake on the jolly little steamers; and when we did a mountain climb, it was on the Rigi or Pilatus–where an engine undertook all the muscular work for us.


As used in the second sentence in the passage, “disagreeable” most nearly means

A) fitting
B) difficult
C) declarative
D) argumentative

While this type of question does test your comprehension of the broader context around a vocabulary word, it also tests vocabulary knowledge on a much more basic level. You can eliminate some answers simply by knowing the common dictionary definitions of the keyword.

Regardless of context, it’s highly unlikely that “disagreeable” would ever be used to mean “fitting,” as “fitting” in the opposite of the most common sense of “disagreeable” (opposing ideas or course of action). “Declarative” is related somewhat to the word “disagreeable” because a person can declare that they disagree. However “declarative” definitely does not mean the exact same thing as “disagreeable.” So again we have an answer choice that can be eliminated without passage context, simply by using one’s basic knowledge of vocabulary.

With (A) and (C) now eliminated, we’re left with choices (B) and (D). Both of these choices are potential matches for “disagreeable,” per the word’s dictionary definition. Now you’ll need to look beyond the basic definition of the word and analyze the context of the passage surrounding “disagreeable.” Answer (B) seems appealing. The steepness of a mountain is being discussed in terms of climbing and steepness could be described as “difficult,” where climbing is concerned. To make sure this really is the best answer, it’s a good idea to check answer (D) and see if it might also work.

“Disagreeable” is being used to describe a quality of mountains, the steepness of their slopes. A geographic quality is not a conscious, thinking, speaking being and thus can’t make an argument, so “argumentative” seems like it probably won’t work. It might work to describe a mountain slope if there is some metaphorical language saying that the mountain slopes are like people who argue, but no such metaphor appears in the passage. So you can eliminate answer (D) and stick with (B).

This strategy of analyzing answers based on a word’s definition and on its broader context will always work for vocabulary questions in SAT Reading. Strategies related to the dictionary definition of a word are the primary strategies for these questions, because the basic definition of the word is the first thing you should look at in order to eliminate obviously incorrect answer choices.

Once the choices that don’t work in any context are ruled out, analyzing the context surrounding the word becomes necessary. Usually there will be at least two answers that are both possible definitions of the vocabulary word in the question. Even if there appears to be only one correct answer remaining, double checking your answer against the context will help you make sure you really are answering correctly.



  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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