Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Practice Exercises


Active readers look up unfamiliar words. But what if you don't have a dictionary? In a testing situation, for example, you almost certainly won't be able to look up words you don't know. But you can use context and word parts to help you determine meaning. This lesson shows you how.

Often in your reading you will come across words or phrases that are unfamiliar to you. You might be lucky enough to have a dictionary handy to look up those words or phrases. But what if you don't? How can you understand what you're reading if you don't know what all the words mean? Fortunately, you can often use context to determine meaning. That is, by looking carefully at the sentences and ideas surrounding an unfamiliar word, you can often figure out exactly what that word means. You can also examine the parts of the word, such as a prefix, suffix, or word root, for clues to the meaning.

How to Determine Meaning from Context

To demonstrate how you can use context to determine what a word means, let's begin with an example. Read the paragraph below carefully and actively.

Andy is the most unreasonable, pigheaded, subhuman life form in the entire galaxy, and he makes me so angry I could scream! Of course, I love him like a brother. I sort of have to, because he is my brother. More than that, he's my twin! That's right. Andy and Amy (that's me) have the same curly hair and dark eyes. Yet though we look alike, we have very different dispositions. You could say that we're opposites. While I'm often quiet and pensive, Andy is loud and doesn't seem to stop to think about anything. Oh, and did I mention that he's the most stubborn person on the planet?

As you read this passage, you probably came across at least two unfamiliar words: dispositions and pensive. While a dictionary would be helpful, you don't need to look up these words. The paragraph provides enough clues to help you figure out what these words mean.

Let's begin with dispositions. In what context is this word used? Let's take another look at the sentence in which it's used and the two sentences that follow:

Yet though we look alike, we have very different dispositions. You could say that we're opposites. While I'm often quiet and pensive, Andy is loud and doesn't seem to stop to think about anything.

The context here offers several important clues. First, the sentence in which dispositions is used tells us something about what dispositions are not. The sentence sets up a contrast between the way that Amy and Andy look and their dispositions. This means that dispositions are not something physical.

Another clue is the general content of the paragraph. We can tell from the paragraph that dispositions have something to do with who Andy and Amy are, since the paragraph describes their personalities.

Yet another clue is what follows the sentence in which dispositions is used. Amy offers two specific examples of their dispositions: She's quiet and pensive; he's loud and doesn't seem to think much. These are specific examples of personality traits.

By now you should have a pretty good idea of what dispositions means. A disposition is

  1. a person's physical characteristics.
  2. a person's preferences.
  3. a person's natural qualities or tendencies.

The best answer, of course, is choice c, a person's natural qualities or tendencies. While a person's disposition often helps determine his or her preferences, this passage doesn't say anything about what Amy and Andy like to do (or not do). Nor are these characteristics physical. Amy is talking about their personalities.

Now, let's look at the second vocabulary word, pensive. Again, the context provides us with strong clues. Amy states that she and Andy "are opposites"— that although they look alike, they have opposite dispositions. She is quiet, and he is loud. Thus, we can expect that the next pair of descriptions will be opposites, too. So we simply have to look at her description of Andy and come up with its opposite. If Andy "doesn't seem to stop to think about anything," then we can assume that Amy spends a lot of time thinking. We can therefore conclude that pensive means

  1. intelligent, wise.
  2. deep in thought.
  3. considerate of others.

The best answer is choice b, deep in thought. If you spend a lot of time thinking, that may make you wise. But remember, we're looking for the opposite of Andy's characteristic, so neither choice a nor c can be the correct answer.


When you're trying to determine meaning from context on an exam, two strategies can help you find the best answer.

  1. First, determine whether the vocabulary word is something positive or negative. If the word is something positive, then eliminate the answers that are negative, and vice versa.
  2. Replace the vocabulary word with the remaining answers, one at a time. Does the answer make sense when you read the sentence? If not, you can eliminate that answer.
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