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Page 1 ESL Sentence Meaning Study Guide for the ACCUPLACER® test

How to Prepare for the ESL Sentence Meaning Test

General Information

Similar to the Reading Comprehension test, the ESL Sentence Meaning section of the exam tests your ability to comprehend sentence meaning and intent. It differs from the Reading Comprehension test in that it requires you to identify the meaning of simple phrases or collections of two sentences. The sentences cover a variety of subjects, including science, history, arts, human relations, and practical situations. Within these areas, you may be required to identify these parts of speech:

  • particles
  • phrasal verbs
  • directional prepositions
  • adverbs
  • adjectives
  • connective words
  • basic nouns and verbs
  • idioms

Particles, Phrasal Verbs, and Directional Prepositions

You should be able to identify particles, verbs, and directional prepositions within sentence sequences.

A particle is a part of speech that relies upon other words to possess meaning. This includes the words to, in, the, a, and other words that are used in slang phrases, such as away in go away and of in put it off.

In these sentences, the italicized words are particles:

“I had always wanted to study a foreign language.”

The last time I went to the movie theater I saw a horror film.”

A phrasal verb is a phrase used to describe a verb that has been paired with a preposition or adverb that alters the initial meaning of the verb. These can be tricky to identify and are most commonly found in colloquialisms.

An example of a phrasal verb is the phrase showed up in this sentence:

“Shelley showed up to the birthday party two hours late.”

Though showing means one thing, show up is a phrase that means to arrive—a meaning quite different from the initial verb.

The phrasal verbs are italicized in these sentences:

“They were fighting for weeks but they finally made up.” (“To make up” means to reconcile.)

“The whole family chipped in to buy their grandmother a new car for her birthday.” (“To chip in” means to contribute an amount of money or effort to a larger total.)

Directional prepositions are words used to denote direction. The word to is the most common example of a directional preposition, though the words into and onto are also examples.

Look for the italicized directional prepositions here:

“The children got scared at the Halloween party and went running toward their parents.”

“He drove the car into a stop sign last Saturday night.”

Adverbs, Adjectives, and Connective Words

Adverbs and adjectives are both descriptive words. Adverbs are words used to describe verbs and are usually identified by the suffix -ly.

In the following sentences the italicized words are adverbs:

“He had studied a lot so he was able to do the exam very quickly.”

“She always checks her work carefully before submitting it.”

Adjectives are words used to describe nouns and possess a wide variety of forms—many of them lacking a prefix and a suffix.

The adjectives are in italics in these sentences:

“The tall, handsome man walked briskly into the meeting.”

“Rattlesnakes are long, thin animals that usually live in hot, dry regions.”

Connective words are words used to connect two different ideas or sentences—some of them directly related, some of them directly opposing one another. When working to identify connective words, ask yourself whether there are two ideas, notions, or thoughts in a single sentence. Identify the two separate ideas and find the word that connects the two.

In the following sentences, the italicized words are connective words:

“She had always wanted to be a doctor because her uncle was one.”

“She went to the party despite not wanting to.”

Basic Nouns and Verbs

Basic nouns are identified by their status as a person, place, or thing. Though nouns can have a far more complex definition, including noun phrases, questions in this portion of the test only require you to identify and understand basic nouns.

In these sentences, the basic nouns are italicized:

“I bought a new car yesterday.”

“The boy and the girl played together in the park.”

Similarly, many more complicated verbs and verb phrases exist. For this section of the test, though, you are only required to understand and have the skills to pick out basic verbs. To identify verbs, ask yourself what the action is in a sentence: verbs denote action.

In these sentences, the verbs are in italics:

“I went to the party on Friday with my friend Sean.”

“The little girl swims every Monday evening after school.”


An idiom is a phrase possessing a figurative meaning. Idioms can be quite tricky for ESL students because they may appear to be nonsensical or meaningless. Idioms are phrases that have been adopted into popular culture and are used commonly in speech to describe everyday situations. “The end of the road,” for instance, may seem like a nonsense phrase when directions or location is not involved. When paired with a hopeless situation, however, this phrase is understood to mean that someone or something is no longer viable or possible. If you encounter something with an unclear meaning, you may have found an idiom. To determine the meaning, use context clues to infer meaning; simply look at the phrases and situation surrounding the idiom.

Can you find the idioms here? They are in italics.

“Even though he didn’t do anything very important in high school or college, he is definitely a big cheese nowadays in the business world.” (“Big cheese” means important or powerful person.)

“She missed school the last 3 days because she was feeling really under the weather.” (“Under the weather” means to feel ill.)