Verbal Reasoning is the first and fastest section on the ISEE. It is composed of two parts:
You will have 20 minutes to answer 20 Synonym Questions and 20 Sentence Completion Questions. These questions test your knowledge of vocabulary and your ability to apply that knowledge.
Achieving a great score on the Verbal Reasoning section means doing more than memorizing long lists of vocabulary words and their definitions. Instead of passively reviewing words over and over again in the hopes that their definitions will stick in your long-term memory, preparing for the ISEE will require you to study vocabulary not just regularly, but actively.
This means changing the way you study vocabulary, as well as finding ways to improve your vocabulary even when you aren’t preparing for the test.
Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes
All words have parts: roots (or stems), prefixes, and suffixes. Understanding these parts can help you remember the new words you learn, and it can even allow you to deduce the meaning of words you have never seen before (a key skill to master for the Verbal Reasoning section of the ISEE).
Roots are the basic building blocks of words. They carry meaning, but they usually can’t stand alone as words. Take “volve” as an example. You might recognize this root from words like “evolve,” “revolve,” or “devolve.” Each of these words builds upon the meaning of the root “volve,” which means “roll” or “turn,” but “volve” itself is not a word.
This is where prefixes and suffixes come in. Prefixes attach to the beginning of a word, while suffixes attach to the end of a word. Prefixes and suffixes work together with roots to give words their specific meanings and create new words.
Let’s add some prefixes to “volve” as an example:
In some cases, it can take a little bit of creativity and interpretation to see how the “literal” meaning of a word connects with its dictionary definition. With “volve,” each of the verbs above convey a change or movement, but they each have a different sense because of the different meanings of the attached prefixes.
We can also add suffixes to words, often as a way of changing their part of speech. For example, the suffix “ion” means “the act or state of.” Add this to “evolve” and you get “evolution” - the act or state of evolving. As you can see, the spelling of roots will sometimes change slightly when you add a prefix or suffix, but their meanings are maintained.
Here are some common word parts that you should be familiar with, including prefixes, stems/roots, and suffixes. The next time you study new vocabulary words, try breaking them down into smaller parts. Chances are good you’ll find some of those pieces on this list, along with their meanings.
Common Stems and Roots
Of course, there is more to word meanings than a finite list of roots, prefixes, and suffixes that you can memorize. The building blocks of the English language come from across the world and throughout history. The broader study of word meanings - including where they come from and how they change over time - is known as “etymology.”
Every word has an etymology, even if it doesn’t break down nicely into the word parts listed above.
Some words have fascinating and unexpected etymologies. “Clue,” for instance, comes from a Germanic word meaning “a ball or thread or yarn,” with the idea being that you could find your way through a complicated maze or labyrinth by leaving behind an unraveled ball of thread as you walk through it. “Mercurial,” which means “unpredictable in mood or mind,” is connected with the centuries-old belief in the influence of the planet Mercury on human behavior.
While not every word is composed of common, easily recognizable roots, then, studying a word’s etymology can help you remember its meaning.
One great source to investigate the etymology of any word is etymonline.com. Try looking up the last vocab word you learned, or browse their list of Trending Words to learn some new ones.
With word parts and etymology in mind, a large percentage of your Verbal Reasoning preparations should be devoted to learning new vocabulary words.
Piqosity has curated 1,000 words pertinent to the Middle Level ISEE to help you prepare.
At the beginning of your preparations, you should make a plan regarding how you will utilize this material. You might commit to learning a certain number of new words per day, or a certain number of new words per week. The important thing is that you stick to your plan and follow through with it. If you don’t, your vocabulary is likely to stagnate.
As discussed above, remember to explore the etymologies of words as you study them, and to recognize the roots, prefixes, and suffixes that comprise them wherever possible. These aspects of your vocabulary study will help to enrich your understanding: you’ll know not only the dictionary definitions of the words, but also how they relate to one another and why they mean what they mean in the first place. This will come in handy when you inevitably encounter words you don’t know on the ISEE.
Finally, making an effort to actually use the words you study is a great way to make them “stick.” You might try incorporating them into your next school writing assignment, or using them in conversation with friends and family. At the very least, you can write an original sentence for each word that reflects your understanding of its meaning.
What does it look like to explore and study a group of new words? Try it for yourself! Look up the following words in an online dictionary, as well as in an etymology dictionary like Etymonline:
Pay attention to not only the words’ meanings, but also:
To help get you started, let’s break down the “ebullient.” First, Google’s definition:
Here, we see that:
Interesting! Let’s see what more we can learn by checking Etymonline.com:
Here, we see that:
As it turns out, “ebullient” has a thought-provoking history. The meaning “cheerful and full of energy” is most common today, and the word is no longer used to mean “boiling.” If you think about it, though, you can see the connection: someone who is “cheerful and full of energy” might be described as “bubbling out” with energy. In fact, this type of personality is often referred to as “bubbly.”
Note that Google also provides some etymology for many words along with a dictionary definition:
With that being said, Google’s etymologies are typically less detailed than those found on dedicated etymology dictionaries such as Etymonline.
Now, try your hand at exploring the other words on the list: “harangue,” “omnipresent,” “pensive,” and “revulsion.” Then, come back to this page and see how your findings compare to the information in the table below.
Keep in mind that not every word will break down nicely into word parts or have an interesting history. The key for effective word study is to explore each word in order to find what is interesting or memorable about it, or how it connects with words you already know. This will help you remember the words you study, both on test day and in general.
Another way you can improve your vocabulary in the course of your everyday life is by reading. Whether you’re reading for pleasure or for your school assignments, don’t just skip over unfamiliar words - look them up. This is a great habit to get into not only as you prepare for the ISEE, but also as you progress through your academic career and toward college, in general.
Etymonline also offers a free extension for Google Chrome, which allows you to instantly look up the etymology of words as you browse the internet.
Up to this point, this overview has focused on the many ways in which you can improve your vocabulary as you prepare for the ISEE. It’s just as important, however, to be familiar with the way Verbal Reasoning questions are structured, and to develop strategies to help you maximize your accuracy and manage your time efficiently on test day.
The best way to gain these skills is to ensure that the practice you do is frequent, thoughtful, and reflective:
For Synonyms, you must know the definition of the word in all capital letters as well as the definition of each answer choice. Here’s what a Synonym question looks like:
With 20 capitalized words and 4 answer choices paired with each capitalized word, you must potentially define 100 vocabulary words on the Synonyms portion of the ISEE’s Verbal Reasoning section. You do not receive any context for these words.
Plus, it is likely several of the Synonyms questions will be words that do not appear among the 1200+ words found on Piqosity. Thus, you need a systematic approach to answering every question, whether you recognize the word or not.
It is important to note that a positive word does not necessarily mean “good”, and a negative word does not necessarily mean “bad”. Think about context. A positive word can be a word where the action is moving up, such as “ascend.” A negative word can be a word where the action is moving down, such as “descend.” In the same sense, entering a room is positive while exiting a room is negative.
Basically, a word is positive if it moves forward, up, or toward something, if it adds or increases, or if it complements something. A word is negative if it moves back, down, or away from something, if it takes away or decreases, or if it contrasts something. There are more aspects to positive and negative words, but you will get a better feeling for these aspects after studying more words.
Systematic Approach Example
Let’s look at how we might apply our systematic approach to Synonym questions to the sample question included above:
For Sentence Completion questions, you must understand the structure of the sentence, know the definition of each answer choice, and decide whether or not each answer choice will fit within the context of the sentence’s structure.
Here are two examples of what a Sentence Completion question can look like:
While Synonym questions focus on your knowledge of words and your ability to decipher the meaning of new words, Sentence Completion questions require you to pair your vocabulary knowledge with the use of context clues to identify each correct answer.
Each question will contain a complete sentence with one blank. For each question, you must choose which word best matches the context of the sentence.
Students who read slowly need to allot themselves more time for this portion of the Verbal Reasoning section. For example, 5 minutes for Synonyms questions and 15 minutes for Sentence Completion questions.
The good thing about the way Sentence Completion questions are designed is that, unlike with Synonym questions, they always have clues built in. If you can identify and interpret these clues, you’ll be well-equipped to let your vocabulary knowledge do the rest of the work in reaching the correct answer.
You’ll need to be able to:
The first step in answering any Sentence Completion question is to identify the “relationship words” found in the sentence. For the most part, these include what you have probably referred to in the past as “transition” words, but there are several different roles they can play in a sentence to help you make sense of context clues:
Let’s identify the relationship words in the two example questions included above:
In order for these relationship words to actually help us, we need to identify what specific details they modify, or refer to.
Contrast, Similarity, and Cause and Effect relationship words define the relationship between two specific details, while punctuation marks indicate that a specific phrase defines or explains what comes before it. In either case, then, the next step is to identify the information that each relationship word modifies:
The final step before we assess our answer choices and pick the best answer is to use our understanding of the sentence’s relationship words along with the specific details they modify to interpret the meaning of the sentence:
Now that we’ve predicted our answers, the rest of the process is very similar to the finals steps of the Systematic Approach to Synonym questions: