Lesson Question:

How can students strengthen their vocabularies by solving and creating SAT-style sentence completion questions?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

This lesson introduces students to sentence completion questions and then better prepares them for this section of the SAT by having them use the Visual Thesaurus to formulate original sentence completion questions to stump their classmates.

Length of Lesson:

One hour

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  1. identify strategies for encountering unfamiliar vocabulary words
  2. interpret contextual clues and consult the Visual Thesaurus to solve a sample sentence completion question
  3. formulate original sentence completion questions with the aid of the Visual Thesaurus


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access

Warm Up:

Identifying strategies for encountering unfamiliar words:
  • In their journals, have students write a brief response to the following prompt: "If you are reading and come across an unfamiliar word, how do you figure out what the word means?"
  • Urge students to share their journal responses and then list some student strategies on the board (e.g., using contextual clues to figure out the word's meaning, looking the word up by using the Visual Thesaurus or a traditional dictionary, asking another person for the word's definition, etc.).


Introducing students to sentence completion questions on the SAT:
  • Inform students that since they will not be allowed to use any outside reference sources while taking the SAT, they will have to rely on their knowledge of vocabulary and contextual clues to tackle sentence completion questions (the most "vocabulary-intensive" type of question on the reading section of the SAT).
  • Explain that preparation for the reading section of the SAT should therefore include exercises that strengthen vocabulary building and analysis of contextual clues in a sentence.
  • Supply students with the following sentence completion sample by writing the following problem on the board (from the College Board's 2006-07 "SAT Preparation Booklet"):
There is no doubt that Larry is a genuine______________: he excels at telling stories that fascinate his listeners.
(A) braggart (B) dilettante (C) pilferer
(D) prevaricator (E) raconteur
  • Warn students that instead of following their first instinct to "plug in" each potential word choice, that they should first analyze the sentence prompt by searching for any contextual clues in the sentence that might indicate what word might best fit in the blank.
  • Elicit from students any contextual clues that they see in the prompt (i.e., the colon after the blank signals to the reader that the word is defined after the colon as one who "excels at telling stories?").
Using the Visual Thesaurus to find the answer:
  • Once students know that they are looking to find the word that means "one who excels at telling stories," quickly and silently display the word web for each of the question's possible answers on the white board (words A through E), emphasizing the definitions supplied in the "meanings list" on the right side of the screen.
  • Students will most likely narrow down the choices to "prevaricator" (defined as "a person who has lied or who lies repeatedly" on the Visual Thesaurus) and "raconteur" (defined as "a person skilled at telling anecdotes" on the Visual Thesaurus). " Point out or have a student point out that the best word to fill the blank is "raconteur" since there are no contextual clues in the sentence that imply that Larry's stories are prevarications or lies.
Writing original sentence completion questions:
  • Ask students what all the possible answers in the sample sentence completion question had in common and establish that all the word choices were nouns, and more specifically--types of people (i.e., braggart, dilettante, pilferer, prevaricator, raconteur).
  • Explain that the College Board test-makers spend a lot of time coming up with "good" wrong answers to stump test-takers.
  • Inform students that now it is their turn to play test-maker by creating sentence completion problems to stump their peers.
  • Have each student write one sentence completion problem with five possible answers lettered "A" through "E" (including one right answer and four wrong answers). Students should write sentences that give test-takers enough contextual clues so they can figure out which word of their possible answers best fits in the blank. And, just like in the sample question, the words in the wrong answers should be the same part of speech as the word in the right answer.
  • Urge students to use the Visual Thesaurus to find good "SAT-type" words to help them form their sentence prompts and to help them verify parts of speech for their wrong answers.


Swapping original sentence completion problems:
  • Have each student exchange his or her original sentence completion problem with another student in the classroom to solve. (Students should avoid writing their answers on their partners' test questions so students could swap questions again if time permits.)
  • Encourage students to first try analyzing the sentences for contextual clues before resorting to "plugging in" possible words. Then, have students check their answers by using the Visual Thesaurus to verify definitions of the word choices.

Extending the Lesson:

  • After students have completed at least one round of swapping sentence completion questions with their classmates, you could collect the original test questions written by all of the class members, proofread them for accuracy, and create a collective sentence completion exercise for the following day. Alternatively, you could send students to the College Board's official Web site (www.collegeboard.com) to find additional sentence completion sample questions and to review the other types of tasks included in the reading and writing sections of the SAT.


  • Assess each student's original sentence prompt to see if it contains any contextual clues that could help a student find the word that best completes it.
  • Assess each student's original sentence completion problem to ensure that all its possible word choices are the same part of speech but there is only one word that "best" fits the context of the prompt sentence.

Educational Standards:

Language Arts

Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Level IV [Grade 9-12]

Benchmark 2. Uses a variety of print and electronic sources to gather information for research topics (e.g., news sources such as magazines, radio, television, newspapers; government publications; microfiche; telephone information services; databases; field studies; speeches; technical documents; periodicals; Internet)

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level III (Grades 6-8)

1. Establishes and adjusts purposes for reading (e.g., to understand, interpret, enjoy, solve problems, predict outcomes, answer a specific question, form an opinion, skim for facts; to discover models for own writing)

3. Uses a variety of strategies to extend reading vocabulary (e.g., uses analogies, idioms, similes, metaphors to infer the meaning of literal and figurative phrases; uses definition, restatement, example, comparison and contrast to verify word meanings; identifies shades of meaning; knows denotative and connotative meanings; knows vocabulary related to different content areas and current events; uses rhyming dictionaries, classification books, etymological dictionaries)

4. Uses specific strategies to clear up confusing parts of a text (e.g., pauses, rereads the text, consults another source, represents abstract information as mental pictures, draws upon background knowledge, asks for help)
Level IV (Grades 9-12)
2. Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

3. Uses a range of automatic monitoring and self-correction methods (e.g., rereading, slowing down, sub-vocalizing, consulting resources, questioning)