Upper Level: Verbal Reasoning Study Guide for the ISEE

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General Information

The school to which you are applying for admission wants to know how well you can think about what you read and about language-related ideas. This is because academic success has been shown to be dependent on this type of reasoning ability. A strong basis for this type of thinking is formed by having a large working vocabulary. Finding the correct answer to the questions in this section will be easier if you can do the things listed here.

Practice Doing these Things When Reading:

Locate Information within Text

To locate information within a text, first have a clear idea of what exactly you’re looking for. Read the passage, go back and read the question, and read the passage again, this time seeking out the answer to the question. Your eyes will be better equipped to locate familiar information than if you simply read the question and read the passage.

Make Inferences

Making inferences means identifying information that the author doesn’t tell you directly. For instance, if the author stated that a woman’s belly was rounding and she felt sick frequently, you can infer that the woman in question is pregnant. To make an inference, identify clues in the passage or story, put the clues together, and make an educated guess as to what the author is saying.

Find the Main Idea

The main idea of a passage (or text) is the overall purpose or idea of the work. In Hansel and Gretel, for instance, the main idea might be that children should not wander into the woods alone. When searching for a main idea, first read the passage. Once you have read, deduce what the overall idea of the story is. In an expository essay, the main idea might be that a certain event had a profound impact on the life of the author. In a persuasive piece, the main idea may be that global warming is adversely affecting our quality of life. Whatever the case, asking yourself, “What is the overall purpose of this?” will typically deliver the main idea.

Make Comparisons and Contrasts

Although the two often go hand in hand, comparisons and contrasts are actually two different processes.

In a comparison, similar elements are identified and discussed. For instance, a comparison of a mermaid and a fish might look something like this: both have scales, both live in the ocean, and both require water to survive.

In a contrast, dissimilar elements are identified and discussed. Using the same example, a contrast between a fish and a mermaid might include: mermaids have human torsos, while fish do not; mermaids have hair facial features, while fish do not; and fish are commonly caught for food, while mermaids are certainly not.

Follow Directions

In a timed test, many students rush through questions and fail to truly synthesize the requests being made of them. Take your time, truly reading and understanding your test questions. Although most test questions are not created to be difficult or to trick, tests are intended to measure both your knowledge and your ability to follow directions.

Pay close attention to language (some questions might ask a straightforward question, while others might be negative statements, using “not”), and follow all directions exactly as stated.

Find Similarities and Differences in Concepts and Situations

Finding similarities and differences in concepts and situations is the same as comparing and contrasting, but instead of using two simple objects, you must compare more abstract things. A comparison of concepts, for instance, might acknowledge the similarities in the theology of both Christian and Catholic teachings. A contrast of these same teachings would identify disparities between the two types of thought.

Similarly, finding similarities between situations might look like this: In The Gift of the Magi, both spouses sold something they loved in order the buy the other a special gift. Finding differences would be: In The Gift of the Magi, one spouse sold a watch, while the other sold her hair.

Evaluate Arguments for Strength and Support

To evaluate an argument for strength and support, you must first identify what the author is arguing. This is usually found in the thesis (first paragraph), or the topic sentences of paragraphs (usually the first sentence). The sentences that follow should include support and evidence to back up the argument.

As you determine whether or not an argument is strong, look to the support provided. Is there enough support—typically two to three pieces of evidence—per point? Is the support from a reputable source (an independent study), or is it anecdotal? A strong argument has both a significant quantity of support and has support coming from a high-quality source.

Evaluate Text for Logic

Evaluating a text for logic goes hand in hand with evaluating an argument’s strength and support; although an argument may have powerful support (a reputable source and a significant amount of evidence), the conclusion made may not be logical. To evaluate this, you must first ask, “Is the evidence relevant to the author’s claim?” If the information is not relevant, the text is not logical. If it is relevant, you must next ask, “Is the conclusion sound, based on the evidence?” If the evidence is relevant to the argument, but presents evidence or information that does not back up the claim, or contradicts the claim, you once again have a text containing faulty logic.

Find the Best Synonym

When you are asked to locate a synonym for a word, be aware that some of the answers may be extremely similar, and your job is not to find the only word that matches, but the best word that matches. For instance, take a look at the following sentence.

“Marla and Luna _____ along, their shoulders heavy.”

The possible answers include: walked, traipsed, ran, and flew.

Marla and Luna are assumed to be girls—making flew an unlikely choice. The phrase “their shoulders heavy” suggests the girls are sad or are in some way upset—again, making run unlikely. Walked and traipsed, then, are the only two viable choices. How do you decide? Again, use the phrase “their shoulders heavy.” Walk is a generic word and does not provide a vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Traipse, however, means to walk wearily or reluctantly and gives the reader a more vivid picture of the sentence’s content.

Use Sentence Clues for Word Choice

To choose the most appropriate word to fill in a blank on this test, you will need to use two types of context clues:

Syntactic Clues

Syntactic clues are clues based on grammar. To use syntactic, or syntax, clues, read the sentence and identify what aspect of the sentence is missing. Is the sentence complete without the word? If not, what is missing? A subject? A verb? If the sentence is technically complete without the word in the blank, what best fits beside the blank? If it stands before or after a verb, an adverb is likely to be the culprit. If it stands before or after a noun, an adjective may be in order. Having a general understanding of English grammar and rules will aid you in finding syntactic clues.

Semantic Clues

Semantic clues are meaning clues but are a bit more general than context clues. Semantic clues are ones that indicate where the text will go, based on the subject matter. A paragraph about Mickey Mouse, for instance, might contain Semantic clues such as “Walt Disney,” “Minnie Mouse,” and “Donald Duck.” When searching for semantic clues, first identify what the passage is about. From there, you can identify which choice makes the most sense, based on which word(s) fit the general idea of the sentence or passage.

Use Remainder of Text for Additional Clues

Apart from syntactic and semantic clues, you can use context clues. Context clues are more focused than the aforementioned clues, as they require the reader to determine which of the words fits best within the context of the sentence. Take a look at the following sentence:

Rita’s relationship with her mother was tense at best, ____ at worst.

Choices: peaceful, relaxed, angry, and antagonistic.

Using syntax clues, we can conclude that the word needed is an adjective. Each of the responses is an adjective, so we must move on to semantic clues. Semantic clues show that the sentence is about a difficult relationship, so we can assume peaceful and relaxed are not viable answers. Context clues suggest the relationship is a tumultuous one at its best, suggesting that angry is not quite powerful enough to describe the dynamic at its worst. Antagonistic, then, is the only reasonable choice.

Other Tips

  • It is always a good idea to engage in activities that build your vocabulary. Reading a lot is probably the best way to do this, but there are also many online games and puzzles that can serve as a fun way to learn new words.

  • If you don’t think you have retained a lot of previously studied vocabulary, it probably wouldn’t hurt to scan some of those old lists and see what you do remember.

  • Take your time and carefully read both the passages and the questions. Simply skimming or glancing at either could result in misunderstanding either—or both.

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