When I saw this article the other day, I was curious to see what a credible outlet like U.S. News and World Report had to say about a very common type of question on the SAT. Since these contextual vocab questions come up around ten times on each exam, they’re important to approach wisely and confidently.
Unfortunately for the readers of U.S. News, this article is a clear example of the shortcomings of most off-the-shelf SAT review programs.
Contextual vocab questions ask students to explain words or phrases they encounter in a reading passage. U.S. News suggests that students read for clues, note transition words, study vocabulary, review literary terminology, and be voracious readers.
Is this advice helpful? Yes, absolutely. Is any of it incorrect or misleading? No. It’s all appropriate, and I teach my students many of these same strategies as part of my comprehensive program.
So what’s the problem?
First, these “tips” are completely obvious! If you want to get better at reading comprehension, read more. Study vocabulary. Read for clues. These are all good ideas, but none of them get at the heart of this question type.
Even students who know their juxtaposition from their enjambment, who revel in sesquipedalian words and understand transitions and parallelism in their bones, will still answer some of the trickier questions incorrectly. And even if they look up the right answer after the fact, they tend not to really understand what happened.
The true key to this kind of question lies not just in how students approach the passages, but also in how they approach the answer choices.
The problem with the advice offered by U.S. News is that it buys into the myth that The College Board is evaluating reading comprehension. They’re not. They’re evaluating students’ ability to answer tricky contextual vocab questions, and the tricks are in the misleading answer choices. The College Board knows what associations students might have from the part of the passage in question, and they create tempting, deceptive answer choices that play on those associations.
Essentially, the problem lies not with understanding the text, but with becoming misled by the choices. Misleading choices are not a problem when we read for pleasure; they are an artificial feature of this exam, and one that students must be prepared to overcome.
This is the essence of what makes the SAT exam so challenging. This is why some students are surprised by their scores. This is why the bulk of what I teach in my programs is the necessary deep strategy that helps my students anticipate the College Board’s tricks and rise above them.