How to answer vocabulary questions on the SAT & ACT Reading sections

One of the more unique question types on the SAT & ACT Reading sections deals with the meanings of vocabulary words or phrases in the context of a passage. Most of the vocabulary questions on the SAT and ACT are not hard because of the difficulty of the vocabulary words. Instead, the SAT and ACT test your ability to contextualize vocabulary words. Most of these words have multiple meanings, and your job is to pick which one best fits the context of the sentence.


The most important thing to remember when approaching these questions is to choose the answer that is most consistent with the overall meaning of the sentence, not the literal meaning of the word in question. To do this, it’s often helpful to treat the word from the passage as if it were not even there. Let’s take a look at an example:

The two brothers were constantly fighting, seemingly never able to get along. When the older one made a mistake, the younger one chastised him. If the younger one was slow to understand something, the older one taunted and insulted him. “Stop needling me!” Paul said.

As it is used in the passage, "needling" most nearly means:

(A) piercing
(B) congratulating
(C) provoking
(D) talking to

To answer these questions, you have two options. First, you can treat the word as a blank and choose your own word. Here, if the quote were "Stop ______ me!", we might fill the blank with "aggravating" or "bothering." Alternatively, you can simply read the sentence with each answer choice inserted and choose the one that is most consistent with the overall intended meaning of the sentence and passage. Either way, it’s clear that answer choice C is what makes the most sense. The important thing is to not look for an answer choice that is related to the literal meaning of the word, in this case "needling."

Beware of traps

The most common way the SAT/ACT will try to trick you is by offering answer choices that change the meaning of the sentence. If you replace the word in the sentence with the answer choice, does the meaning of the sentence change? If so, eliminate that answer choice.

Many words on the SAT and ACT have two or more definitions. An answer choice that is close to the primary definition of the word is usually a trap answer. So, when faced with a vocabulary question on the SAT or ACT Reading sections, rely on the overall meaning of the sentence and passage more so than your preconceived notions of the literal meaning of the word.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.

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Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

About Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

As one of the highest-performing tutors in ArborBridge’s history, Erin coaches tutors and develops tools and trainings to disrupt old habits and empower new strengths. With a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University, Erin worked as a classroom teacher and student services director prior to joining ArborBridge in 2017. Her decade of success as an educator has prepared her to ensure that programs are tailored to individual students’ needs.

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