The New SAT: Language of the Test - List #3

How can you perform well on the new reading section of the SAT if you don’t fully understand the language being used in the directions and in the questions? Learn this list of 25 words that are based on our analysis of the words likely to appear in question stems, answer options and test directions.

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definitions & notes only words
  1. passage
    a section of text, particularly a section of medium length
    A passage on the SAT Reading Test is a distinct block of text. You'll see this word often in question stems, where you will be asked questions that begin "According to the passage" or "The main purpose of the passage." Of course, when you are asked such questions, you will have to revisit the passage itself to determine the correct answer. Don't rely on your memory alone!
  2. shift
    change in quality
    To shift is to change. Not all reading passages on the SAT will travel along a straight or direct path. Sometimes a passage may take a turn in tone or message; the focus of a narrative may shift, or a writer's perspective may even shift. Chances are it will be your job to identify where in the passage that shift took place.
  3. primarily
    for the most part
    Primarily is used often in SAT questions to mean "mostly." For example, a test question may begin, "The author of Passage 1 refers to x primarily to suggest..." This is a way to tell you: "Sure, there could be other reasons the author refers to x, but you should be looking for the main (primary) reason!"
  4. primary
    most important
    Just like central, the word primary tends to show up before words like purpose or claim on the SAT to indicate that the MAIN idea is being discussed. When being asked about a primary idea in a passage, rereading the introduction and conclusion may be a good strategy to "think big." (There could be many secondary ideas at play throughout the passage.)
  5. argue
    present reasons to support one's views
    When you see argue on the SAT, don't think fight. Instead, think about making a point through building a logical argument. You may be asked to identify the main purpose of a passage, and your answer options may begin as "to argue that...," or "to describe...," or "to examine...." If you choose "to argue that..." then you have determined that the passage itself is an argument.
  6. controversy
    a dispute where there is strong disagreement
    Where there's controversy, there's disagreement. A controversy is an issue about which people tend to have strong contradictory opinions. Since the SAT prioritizes argument, you can expect to encounter some topics of controversy in its reading passages.
  7. support
    establish or strengthen as with new evidence or facts
    To support is to make stronger. Like a foundation supports a buiding, evidence and facts support an argument's claim. You will see this word all over the SAT Reading Test and sometimes you'll be asked to identify evidence that supports a previous answer on the test. At other times, you may be asked to interpret a graph and whether or not it supports a particular idea in a reading passage. When you see the word support, think about all those things a writer does to prove his or her point.
  8. analysis
    an investigation of the component parts of a whole
    Learn the difference between analysis and summary if you opt to write the SAT essay. The SAT essay asks you to analyze how a writer has crafted an argument, not to summarize the argument or to assert your own opinion about the issue. Analysis involves breaking the argument down into pieces (or features) and considering how those pieces come together to persuade the reader of a particular stance.
  9. contradict
    be in opposition to
    In Latin contra means "against," so think of that when you see contradict on the SAT. To contradict means to go against another opinion. If one passage contradicts another, then they disagree. Contradictory stances are opposing points of view. You will encounter lots of words for agreement and disagreement on the Reading Test, and this one belongs in the disagreement camp — along with oppose, counter, and refute.
  10. refute
    overthrow by argument, evidence, or proof
    When you refute something, you disprove it. This word is stronger than disagree. When you use the word refute, you are implying that it's more than just a matter of opinion; there is evidence that invalidates an argument. On the SAT, you may see data that refutes a claim, or a passage that refutes another passage (in a paired passages context).
  11. consistent
    in agreement or reliable
    Something consistent stays on the same track, steady as she goes. If the point in one SAT passage is consistent with a point in another SAT passage, that means that there is agreement. If you are asked to identify a written statement that is consistent with data being presented graphically, you need to find a statement from the text that agrees with the data.
  12. reflect
    manifest or indicate
    Remember when we said that there are a lot of words on the SAT that fall into either the agreement camp or into the disagreement camp? Well, reflect lives in the agreement camp. If an example of word choice reflects a particular idea, it supports or agrees with that idea. Thinking about how a mirror reflects an image may help you remember the meaning of this word.
  13. reflection
    a calm, lengthy, intent consideration
    When you reflect ON something, you think about it. That's why you might notice that a reading passage on the SAT may be referred to as a reflection; in other words, it is a writer's thoughts (reflections) on a particular issue.
  14. criticize
    point out real or perceived flaws
    On the SAT Reading Test, you will often need to try to figure out an author's purpose. Those types of questions will have answer options beginning with verbs with either positive or negative connotations. To criticize is to be critical, to pick something apart and to identify its weak points. This is definitely a verb with a negative connotation. If an author is out to criticize, chances are he or she is using harsh language.
  15. critique
    appraise or judge in an analytical way
    Don't confuse the words critique and criticize on the SAT. If a writer critiques something, he or she reviews it. Unlike criticize, which has a negative connotation, critique is neutral. You could critique a movie and only point out its wonderful qualities. Or, you could critique something and point out its negative features.
  16. demonstrate
    show the validity of something, as by example or explanation
    To demonstrate is to show. On the SAT, you will probably run across this word as an answer option for a question on purpose. The purpose of a passage could be to demonstrate a concept or a character trait, for example. Another word that is used in a similar way is illustrate.
  17. illustrate
    clarify by giving an example of
    When you see the word illustrate on the SAT Reading Test, don't think about fine art; think about how a writer "paints a picture" with words instead. An example could illustrate an abstract concept. A narrator could illustrate a setting. A passage could illustrate a phenomenon. Got the idea? Illustrate in this sense is used almost like convey.
  18. confirm
    establish or strengthen as with new evidence or facts
    When you confirm something, you prove it to be true. This word could be used on the SAT in reference to a science passage, where results confirm a hypothesis. You can remember this word by remembering how you have to confirm a doctor's appointment by saying, "Yes, I'll be there." Confirming has to do with establishing or validating.
  19. motivation
    the condition of being given incentive for action
    Someone's motivation is their reason for doing something. On the SAT, a reading comprehension question could ask you about the purpose of a particular paragraph or passage and one possible answer choice may begin "To reveal the motivations of..." Motivation is one of those words that comes up a lot when discussing fictional characters or people in general.
  20. motive
    the reason that arouses action toward a desired goal
    Just like motivation, motive is used when discussing a person's or character's reason for doing something. When you answer an SAT question on motive, you should be prepared to identify evidence to support your assumption.
  21. percent
    a proportion in relation to a whole
    A percent is a part of something in relation to its whole. It can be translated into a fraction. 50 percent of a pizza represents one half of that pizza. Yes, expect some math to sneak into the SAT Reading Section! There will be graphic figures depicting data, and you will be asked to interpret such data. Often the data will be conveyed in percentages so you may be asked questions that begin like, "Based on data in the table, what percent of..."
  22. percentage
    a proportion in relation to a whole
    Just like percent, percentage refers to a part of something in relation to its whole and is expressed in a number. Whereas percent is usually used right after a number (like "10 percent"), percentage is used in prose like, "The table shows the percentage of each class that is preparing to take the SAT."
  23. dictate
    determine, order, or control how something is done
    Dictate has many meanings, but the meaning you would most likely encounter on the SAT has to do with causation. For example, a character's actions may be dictated by his circumstances. The government may dictate policy, or a certain tradition may dictate wearing black while mourning. Dictate in this sense tends to mean "setting the standards or rules for."
  24. clarify
    make clear and comprehensible
    Just like it sounds, to clarify means to "make clear." You will often see this word at the beginning of answer options on the Reading Test. For example, you may be asked to infer the purpose of a statement from a passage, and one of the answer options could begin, "To clarify..." Language that is used to clarify is usually easy to understand and explanatory in tone.
  25. conclusion
    a position or opinion reached after consideration
    You are sure to see the word conclusion on the SAT Reading Test, but beware: this word has multiple meanings. If you see it in its plural form, conclusions, it usually indicates the logical conclusions drawn in an argument. However, if the test refers to an argument's one and only conclusion, that would probably be referring to the final paragraph of the passage.
Created on December 8, 2015 (updated December 18, 2020)

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