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Understanding your "Words in Context" subscore

What is the "Words in Context" subscore on the SAT? 

Words in Context

Your “Words in Context” subscore measures your understanding of the meaning and use of words and phrases in the context of passages on the SAT Reading Test and the Writing and Language Test.
Total: 18 questions
Reading Test: 10 questions focusing on word/phrase meanings and the effect of word choice.
Writing and Language Test: 8 questions covering a variety of skills, from making text more precise to maintaining style and tone to combining two or more sentences into a smoother, more effective single sentence.
In order to answer these questions you will need to use context clues to determine a word’s meaning, figure out what a particular word or phrase is doing (i.e. analyze its effect or impact), or make choices about which word or phrase to use in a particular writing situation.

What is context?

We’re so glad you asked! To better understand the meaning of the word context, let’s look at the meaning of its parts: “con-” and “text.”
Con- This prefix means “with” or “together”
Text You might know that “text” means “reading material,” but did you know that the Latin root of this word, texere, means “to weave?”
When you put them together, con and text make a pretty important and powerful word that could be defined like this:
Context = the surrounding circumstances, ideas and words woven together to form the setting or background for an event, statement, or idea.
Context—the words or ideas expressed before and after— provides us with the information we need to fully understand, evaluate or interpret the ideas in the passage.
Example: “You misinterpreted my words because you took them out of context. I did say that I was hesitant to bake cookies for the fundraiser, but it’s not because I don’t want to participate, as you claim. I also told you I ran out of butter, and the last time I made cookies, nobody bought them.”

High-utility academic words and phrases

The SAT focuses on the type of vocabulary that you can find in a wide range of challenging reading across a range of subjects—it does not test you on obscure, seldom-used words and phrases presented with little context.
Okay—so where’s “The List?” There isn’t any official list. We do not recommend practicing by memorizing long lists of vocabulary!
Read with Purpose Since the SAT focuses on academic words and phrases commonly encountered in challenging texts, a good way to prepare is to read texts across a range of subjects and types. As you encounter unfamiliar words or phrases, practice using context clues to determine their meaning, and then look them up to check if you were right! Many students create word notebooks to keep track of all the new words they’re learning. Give it a try and let us know if it works for you!
Here are a few examples to show you how words can change depending on their context:
Example: “restrain”
Depending on context, restrain can mean several things:
  • To hold back physically: “His classmates had to restrain him from eating the last cupcake.”
  • To control emotions: “I wasn’t able to restrain my excitement upon winning the tournament – I threw my ping-pong paddle into the crowd and hit my poor brother on the forehead, knocking him out.”
  • To limit: “The embargoes and tariffs were designed to restrain trade.”
Example: “discriminate”
Discriminate is often used in a negative way, but it also can be positive:
  • To judge, or make an unfair distinction about people based on their race, age or gender: “Widespread racial discrimination led to the disenfranchisement of thousands.”
  • To tell apart: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.”
  • To note subtle differences: “The dolphin’s electroreception enables it to better discriminate between shrimp and crayfish on the muddy river bottom.”
Example: “compromise”
As a verb, compromise has three distinct meanings:
  • To settle a dispute by mutual agreement and concession: “My sister wanted to listen to hip-hop and my brother wanted to listen to bebop, so we compromised and put on some R&B.”
  • To accept a standard that is below what is desirable: “I am willing to accept another motel room, but I’m not prepared to compromise on hygiene.”
  • To endanger by foolish behavior: “When Skywalker went along, he compromised the entire mission because Vader could sense his proximity.”
As the above examples suggest, high-utility academic words and phrases are different from other kinds of vocabulary: The context of their use will tell you which meaning the author intends!
Academic These words may not be part of your everyday conversational language yet, but you will very likely run into them more regularly in academic and career settings.
Non-technical SAT doesn’t test technical terms; “Atomic mass,” “ductile,” and “isotope” may sound like high-utility academic words and phrases, but they’re generally only used in readings about and discussions of science. This doesn’t mean that these terms aren’t worth knowing—far from it!—but it does mean that their usefulness is more limited than that of words that you will encounter in a wider variety of texts and discussions.
Powerful! The College Board has chosen to focus on high-utility academic words and phrases because of their great power in unlocking the meaning of complex texts that you’re likely to encounter in high school and postsecondary courses.

Words in Context question types

Questions in the Words in Context category ask you to consider both the meanings and roles of words and phrases as they are used in particular passages. You’ll also be asked to think about how to make language use more effective. These questions focus on the following skills:
  • Interpreting words and phrases in context (Reading Test only)
  • Analyzing word choice rhetorically (Reading Test only)
  • Making effective use of language (Writing and Language Test only)

Interpreting Words and Phrases in Context (Reading Test)

These questions require you to figure out the precise meaning of a given word or phrase based on how it’s used in a particular passage. Generally, these words or phrases have more than one dictionary definition, so the extended context will help you decide which of the choices makes the most sense.
Example: “intense”
Maybe you associate “intense” with emotion or attitude, as in “He’s an intense person,” or perhaps with determination, as in “She worked intensely for six hours to ace the quiz.” However, neither of these quite matches how “intense” is used in the following excerpt from a longer passage:
[. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and cityregions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources.
Question: As it is used in the passage, the word “intense” most nearly means...
(A) forceful
(B) concentrated
(C) energetic
(D) passionate
In this case, “intense” is more about degree: the clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in the coming decades is likely to be denser—or more concentrated— in fewer large cities and city-regions, according to the author. While prior knowledge of what “intense” often means could be useful here, you also have to interpret the context to determine exactly how the word is being used in this case.
Top tip: Plug In! One good strategy here is to use context clues in the paragraph to come up with your own word that could replace “intense” while maintaining the intended meaning of the sentence. Then, cross out the choices that don’t match your word. Another effective strategy is to plug the choices into the passage and see which one sounds best.

Analyzing Word Choice Rhetorically (Reading Test)

These questions ask you to consider how an author’s choice of words and phrases helps shape meaning, tone, and style. Sometimes, these questions deal with the connotations, or associations, that certain words and phrases evoke.
Example 1:
The author uses the phrase “wait for it” throughout the passage primarily to
(A) Contrast Aaron’s personal style with that of his rival
(B) Emphasize Aaron’s lazy, passive attitude
(C) Summarize Aaron’s chosen approach to life
(D) Criticize Aaron’s failure to take action
This question is asking us to consider the context of the passage to arrive at a conclusion about the rhetorical effect of the repetition of a single brief phrase.
Top tip: Ask "What is it doing?" A good way to approach questions like these is to rephrase the question to make sure you understand it, and then predict your own answer—using your own words—before you look at the choices. The question is basically asking you what the phrase is doing. Go through the text and answer that question in your own words, and then use process of elimination to rule out the choices that don't match. Trust yourself!
Example 2:
Consider how you (or an author) might describe someone who wasn’t accompanied by other people. Saying that person was “alone” is more or less just pointing out a fact. To say instead that that person was “solitary” offers a stronger sense of isolation. To instead call that person “forlorn” or even “abandoned” goes a step further in casting the person’s separateness in a particular, negative way.
Every word counts, and every word represents a choice. Deciding which word or phrase to use in a given context to offer just the right flavor is something that authors do all the time.

Making effective use of language (Writing and Language Test)

While the Reading Test asks you to interpret how authors use words and phrases, the Writing and Language Test asks you to make those kinds of decisions yourself as you revise passages.
Make it concise Some questions present language that’s wordy or redundant, and ask you to choose a more concise way of conveying the same idea without changing the meaning.
Make it precise Other questions may ask you to choose the most accurate or exact way to say something or the most appropriate way to express an idea in a given context.
Maintain style or tone Still other questions may have you pick out the word or phrase that does the best job of maintaining the style or tone of the passage, or of continuing a particular linguistic pattern, such as repetition for emphasis or cohesion. In these cases, you may have to replace informal language with a more formal expression (or vice versa, depending on the style and tone of the overall passage), or decide which option most effectively maintains a pattern.
Combine sentences Yet other questions may require you to combine whole sentences or parts of two or more sentences to make choppy or repetitive sentences flow more smoothly, or to accomplish some other goal (such as placing emphasis on an action rather than on the person performing the action).
These language use questions aren’t directly about grammar, usage, or mechanics. Instead, these questions try to get you to think about how language should be used to accomplish particular writerly aims, such as being clearer, more precise, or more economical.
We hope you found this article helpful!
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