Page 2 High School English I: Reading Study Guide for the STAAR® test
Passage Type I: Reading Across Genres
The first reporting category asks you to “understand and analyze a variety of written texts across reading genres.” This means that you will encounter multiple types of writing (fiction, nonfiction, drama, poetry, etc.) covering a variety of subjects. These texts may be contemporary writings about current events or social issue, perhaps delivered through a particular cultural lens, or they may be historical writing. Regardless of the types of writing, your task is generally the same: analyze, make inferences, and draw conclusions about the theme and genre across a number of texts. You should employ the reading strategies covered above and be familiar with those terms so that you can perform your best on the assessment. Eight of the 52 questions on the test assess these skills, or 15% of the content, so it is important to review them.
The vocabulary questions on this assessment test your ability to determine the meaning of grade-level words across multiple content areas (English, science, math, social studies, and the arts). To determine the meaning of unknown vocabulary words, be sure to employ your vocabulary skills:
- look at context clues
- look for recognizable word parts (prefixes, roots, suffixes)
- see if the word reminds you of any word you already know
- use reference materials (dictionary, thesaurus, glossary) to look up unfamiliar words
Test questions assessing vocabulary might ask you which word from the passage is closest in meaning to another word or to select the definition of a particular word based on its use in the passage.
Content Area Words
Vocabulary words are grade-level academic words from a variety of disciplines, including math, science, social studies, and the arts. Many of the words are derivatives of Latin or Greek words, while others might have French or Spanish roots. While not necessarily course-specific, these would be content words whose roots, prefixes, or suffixes should assist you in determining word meaning because they are considered to be part of “common knowledge.”
Sometimes, there are clues in the surrounding text that can help you determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Using context clues means looking at the surrounding text. At times, you’ll look within the same sentence as the unknown word and sometimes in the sentences leading up to or following the sentence with the unknown word. You will be looking to see if the author provides any clues that will help you determine a word’s meaning. Sometimes the word is defined in the sentence:
“Sam’s esophagus, the tube that connects a person’s throat to his stomach, was painful and swollen so he could not eat his lunch.”
There may be a synonym or antonym placed near the unknown word to help the reader figure out what the word means:
“Before she could attend Prince Harry’s wedding, Molly had to visit the millinery to find a hat to wear on the big day.”
You may have to look outside the same sentence to find the clue:
“Rohan loved coding. He would spend hours at the computer writing commands in computer languages for everything from new apps to fun games.”
Word Meaning Types
Words have two different types of meaning: denotative and connotative. It’s important to understand and note the difference.
Denotative Meaning— The denotative meaning of a word is what it literally means. It is the definition you would get if you were to look the word up in the dictionary. For example:
“Raul saw a snake in the grass.”
If you were to look it up, the definition of snake would be listed as “a limbless scaled reptile.” This is the literal or denotative definition of snake.
Connotative Meaning— The connotative meaning of a word is a little more complicated. Connotation refers to the “emotional baggage” contained within a word. In other words, it is what someone feels or how it makes them react when they see it or hear the word. Words can have a negative, positive, or neutral connotation. Using our snake example from above, we’ll change the sentence slightly:
“Raul saw Sara and thought, ‘What a snake!’”
From this sentence, we can infer that Raul is not a big fan of Sara because to call someone a snake has a negative connotation. If you like and respect and admire someone, you don’t generally call them a snake.
Much of our English language comes from words or phrases borrowed or adapted from other languages. Knowing Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes can help you break apart and decipher many unfamiliar words. Understanding French, Spanish, or Italian can also unlock some mysterious words if you recognize similar word parts. Below are some commonly used words and phrases borrowed from a variety of world languages that you may encounter on the STAAR® test, and in life.
Caveat emptor— This Latin phrase refers to the idea that a buyer must be aware of what he or she is purchasing and is responsible for checking the quality or suitability of the item being purchased. For example, when buying a used car, most sales are “as is” and there is no warranty protecting the buyer from future problems with the car. As a result, the term caveat emptor comes into play as the buyer will want to have a mechanic look at the car before purchase so that any potential problems can be identified and the sale negotiated as a result. The buyer cannot (or should not) rely on the seller’s claims that “it’s a great car!” but must check it out himself or herself to determine that the car is not a lemon!
Carte blanche— This French phrase literally means “blank document.” When used, it usually refers to someone having free reign or full discretion about a topic. For example:
“The spoiled child was given carte blanche in the toy store to pick out his birthday presents.”
This sentence means that the kid was set free in the toy store and allowed to pick out whatever he wanted, with no rules or restrictions put in place. Carte blanche gives complete permission to someone to do something any way they want to do it.
Tete a tete— Another phrase borrowed from the French, a tete a tete is a private, face-to-face conversation between two people. For example:
“During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held several tete a tetes to negotiate issues of conflict, including nuclear arms.”
Pas de deux— If you are a dancer, you might recognize this term. Borrowed from French, it means a dance of two people but when used in literature may expand to mean a figurative “dance” or negotiation in the relationship of two people or two things. For example:
“The ambassadors from each country were in a delicate pas de deux as they negotiated the hostage release and subsequent peace treaty between their two nations.”
- Bon appetit*— Originally from French meaning “good appetite,” this phrase is used to wish someone enjoyment of their meal.
“As the waiter served our first course, he placed the plates on the table with a flourish and wished us ‘bon appetit!’ before heading back to the kitchen.”
Quid pro quo— This Latin phrase literally means “something for something” and is used to describe a barter or exchange of something:
“There was a quid pro quo arrangement between the two parties: Bert would get his house painted in exchange for giving Ernie the 1965 convertible car.”
Knowing how to use authoritative and reliable reference materials can help you effectively determine the meaning of unknown words. Simply “Googling” a word or searching for it in sites like Wikipedia is not necessarily a reliable way to determine word meaning. Dictionaries are best for looking up definitions of words, their common uses, how to pronounce them, syllable breakdown, and their etymology (word origin and development). If you are looking for a synonym or antonym for a word, a thesaurus is the appropriate resource. A glossary is good for content-specific words. Assessment questions may give you an excerpt from one of these reference sources and ask you to apply your knowledge of how to use it to answer the question. For example, a dictionary entry may have multiple meanings for a word listed and you will have to determine which definition matches the way it was used in a given text.
Comprehension: Literary Texts
When reading literary texts, you’ll need to consider the “big three”: genre, theme, and context. The assessment will ask you analyze, make inferences, and draw conclusions about the theme and genre of a variety of passages in different contexts and to provide textual evidence to support your understanding. This means that you will be presented with multiple texts with similar themes and you will need to determine in what way(s) they are connected.
Genre refers to a category of writing. Within the literary genre, for example, you might encounter passages that are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, or selections that assess your “media literacy,” which is just your ability to access information in the wide variety of ways media transmits information (articles, blogs, etc.).
The theme of a text refers to its main idea or message. The theme may be stated directly to the reader, or the reader may have to infer the theme through an author’s indirect development. There may be several themes present in a text at the same time, and the “correctness” of identifying the theme comes from your ability to support your conclusions with evidence from the text. For example, it is hard to justify the claim that a text is about a man’s love for his dog when the text tells the story of riding on a train. Critical readers can determine not only what they think the text is about, but also what the text says about the topic, which is usually the author’s underlying message.
Understanding the context helps a reader understand the purpose of a text. The background or environment in which a text was written is context. The setting of the text also creates context. Consider this: A story set in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama will have a different context than a story set in 2015 Lincoln, Nebraska. Recognizing the context in which something has been written or the context in which the text is set helps clarify the meaning and relevance of what the text has to say.
Cultural context— The cultural context of a passage refers to the setting and the society in which the action takes place. The environment or surroundings of a person shape that person’s beliefs, attitudes, and experiences. Readers must consider the cultural context of a passage to determine how culture might affect the behavior and opportunities of the people in the text. The cultural context impacts how the reader might interpret the text based on his or her own culture.
Historical context— The historical context of a text refers to the social, cultural, economic, political, and sometimes religious conditions of a particular time and place. Understanding that a text set in Boston, Massachusetts in 1775 will have a different historical context than one set in Boston in 1988 affects how you read and interpret the text.
Contemporary context— Contemporary means “existing at the same time.” Usually, we think of contemporary as being “current”, right now, in today’s day and age, but you can also discuss the contemporary elements of historical people and events if you are talking about things that lived or occured at the same time in history.
Comprehension: Informational/Expository Texts
Comprehension means being able to understand something. In the case of informational or expository texts, it means being able to critically analyze (study) the text, to consider the evidence to make inferences, and then draw conclusions based on those inferences of nonfiction texts intended to inform or explain something to the reader.
The inferences and conclusions made about an expository or informational text must be based on the evidence supplied in the text that can support your understanding. As with any literary text, fiction or nonfiction, you will be asked to analyze texts and draw conclusions about the author’s purpose in cultural, historical, and contemporary contexts. Your ability to determine the main or controlling idea of a text and understand the author’s purpose will also be assessed.
The STAAR® assessment measures your ability to summarize a text, identify when a summary remains an objective presentation of textual elements and when it evolves into a critique that takes a position and expresses a subjective opinion. Within those critiques, you may be asked to differentiate between opinions that are substantiated and backed up by textual evidence and which are unsubstantiated by the text.
Synthesizing and Making Connections
Synthesizing and making connections require you to look within a text and take your summary one step further. Rather than just identifying the main points of a text, when you synthesize and make connections, you are combining the ideas you have about the text as you read through it. Your understanding may change and evolve as more information or evidence is provided by the author. Test questions may ask you to synthesize and make connections within a full text or within just a portion of the text, so be alert for connections you can make and things you are reminded of that you may already have read in the text.
Comparing Multiple Texts
Part of being a strong reader is being able to make connections between texts and not just view each one in its own realm. This means being able to compare multiple texts that deal with the same topic but may approach that topic from different viewpoints (for or against, male vs. female, a young person’s perspective as opposed to an older person’s perspective, as examples). When you compare multiple texts, it is critical that you reference the texts and provide evidence for your points of comparison. It is not enough to make an inference or draw a conclusion and leave it at that—you must be able to explain how you came to this conclusion, or what it was about the texts that caused you to make a particular inference by using references to particular parts of the texts. On the STAAR® assessment, that means being able to determine the correct multiple-choice answer based on the explanations provided. This requires you to carefully read and consider all of the answer options to determine which best captures your understanding of the texts.