The Expert Guide to ISEE Verbal Reasoning: Strategies, Tips, and Examples

The Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE)’s Verbal Reasoning section is designed to assess vocabulary and verbal reasoning skills. These abilities are believed to be strong indicators of a student’s potential for academic success.

There are two types of questions on the Verbal Reasoning section: Synonym questions and Sentence Completion questions.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about these two question types, including how to ace the Verbal Reasoning section.

How Many Questions Does the Verbal Reasoning Section Ask?

The number of Verbal Reasoning questions you’ll answer depends on your grade level. There are three different ISEE levels:

  • Lower Level: Admission to grades 5 and 6

  • Middle Level: Admission to grades 7 and 8

  • Upper Level: Admission to grades 9-12
  • Upper and Middle Level students are given 20 minutes to answer 40 Verbal Reasoning questions.

    On the other hand, students taking the Lower Level test answer 34 Verbal Reasoning questions within 20 minutes.

    Regardless of level, the Verbal Reasoning section is almost equally divided between Sentence Completion and Synonym questions.

    What Do Synonym Questions Look Like?

    Synonym questions provide students with a vocabulary word that is written in all capital letters. Beneath the word, four answer choices are listed alphabetically.

    From the list of four choices, students must select the word that is closest in meaning to the word in question.

    The words are not used in a sentence, so there is no context to help you determine the word’s meaning. Instead, you must already know the vocabulary being tested or have knowledge of prefixes, roots, and suffixes to help you make an educated guess. For this reason, these questions are particularly challenging.

    What Do Sentence Completion Questions Look Like?

    Sentence Completion questions provide students with a sentence that includes a blank. Upper Level students may be given questions with two blanks.

    Middle Level ISEE Sentence Completion Sample 

    Middle Level ISEE Sentence Completion Sample 

    From four provided answer choices, students must select the word that most logically completes the sentence. If there are multiple blanks, keep in mind that the correct answer choice must make sense for both blanks.

    How Should I Approach Synonym Questions?

    Use the simplefive-step approach below to increase your chances of success with Synonym questions.

    Step 1: Before reading the answer choices, come up with a definition or synonym for the provided word.

    Sometimes ISEE answer choices can be tricky, or you may find yourself overwhelmed when presented with several possible answers.

    To avoid confusion, read the provided word and then mentally come up with a definition or synonym.

    If you don’t recognize the word, try to think of a similar word that can help you make an educated guess about the provided word’s definition.

    For example, you may not know the meaning of the word “ocular,” but it looks very similar to the word “binoculars.” You can use this information to make an educated guess that “ocular” has something to do with eyes or sight.

    Or see if you recognize any helpful prefixes, suffixes, or roots. (We’ll talk more about those later.)

    Step 2: Next, find the answer choice that is closest to your answer.

    Now that you’ve come up with a definition or synonym for the word in question, read through the answer choices.

    Answer choices are listed in alphabetical order, so you can start by skimming for the word you’ve selected. If the word isn’t there, try to choose the word that is closest to your answer.

    If you’re still stuck, continue to the next step.

    Step 3: Use process of elimination by crossing out obviously wrong answers.

    If you don’t know the meaning of all four answer choices, you can use the words you do know to help you make an educated guess.

    If you see an answer choice that you know does not have the same meaning as the provided word, cross it out.

    Do your best to narrow down the answer choices as much as possible, because every answer choice you eliminate increases your chances of finding the correct answer by 25%.**

    Step 4: Use roots, prefixes, and suffixes to help you make an educated guess.

    If you don’t know the meaning of the provided word or some of the answer choices, try to find clues to the words’ meanings using roots, prefixes, suffixes, or similar words.

    In Step 1, we discussed how to use similar words. If an unfamiliar word resembles a word that you do know, you can make an educated guess about the word’s meaning.

    Roots, prefixes, and suffixes can also be used to make educated guesses. A prefix is added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning, while a suffix is added to the end of a word to impact its meaning. Root words can have prefixes or suffixes added to them.

    For example, a common prefix is “dis” which means not, away, apart, or negative. Examples include distrust and disagree. A common suffix is “ness,” meaning a state of being, like in happiness and harshness. “Chron” is a root word that means time, as in chronology and synchronize.

    Understanding common roots, prefixes, and suffixes can give you clues about a word’s meaning. For example, the word disorderly means not orderly.

    We recommend finding a list of common roots, prefixes, and suffixes and creating flashcards to study in the weeks or months leading up to the test.

    Step 5: If you find yourself stuck on a Synonym question, skip it and come back later.

    As always, it is best to skip a question if you find yourself spending too much time trying to solve it.

    Mark the question you’re skipping with a circle, star, etc. Also be sure that you’ve skipped over the question on your answer sheet to avoid bubbling your answer to the next question in the wrong spot.

    There is no penalty for incorrect guesses on the ISEE, soyou should answer every single question on the test. If you skip a question, return to it and make a guess, even a random guess, after answering easier questions.

    Let’s try applying our five-step approach to a sample Middle Level Synonym question.

    Middle Level ISEE Sample Question: Synonyms

    Middle Level ISEE Sample Question: Synonyms

    For Step One, we must come up with a definition or synonym for the provided word, which is “pacify” in this case.

    If you don’t already know the word pacify, ask yourself what similar words you know. Perhaps you said pacifier. What does a pacifier do? Calm a baby. So you can infer that “pacify” may be related to calming someone or something.

    As we move on to Step Two, we have to search for the answer choice that best fits our definition of “pacifier.”

    We are looking for the word that is most closely related to the act of calming someone or something. In this case, we would select Answer Choice D: soothe.

    If you were unsure which answer choice to select in Step Two, you could move on to Step Three, using process of elimination.

    Does Answer Choice A, admire, have anything to do with calming someone? No. You can eliminate it.

    What about Answer Choice B, “forgive?” No, forgive is not really related to calming someone, so you can eliminate Choice B.

    Choice C, praise, also has nothing to do with our definition, so we can eliminate it.

    Finally, Choice D says, “soothe,” which has the same meaning as “calm.” Therefore, Choice D is the correct answer.

    Step Four, using roots, prefixes, and suffixes, was not really necessary to solve this question. However, it could have been helpful to know that the suffix “ify” means to “make someone become something” and the root word “pac” means “peace.”

    If you weren’t able to come up with a definition for pacify using other methods, knowledge of roots and suffixes could help you infer that “pacify” means “make someone become peaceful,” or “soothe” someone.

    Lastly, if you got stuck on this question, you would follow Step Five and return to the question after answering easier problems.

    How Should I Approach Sentence Completion Questions?

    The best approach to completing Sentence Completion questions is similar to the approach we discussed for Synonym questions. Follow these five steps to master this question type.

    Step 1: Read the provided sentence and mentally fill in the blank.

    Read the sentence carefully, making sure you understand it. Next, think of a word that you feel logically completes the sentence.

    If you are able to come up with a word that makes sense, look for the answer choice that most closely matches your answer.

    Step 2: Use context clues.

    If you aren’t able to think of an appropriate word right away, try using context clues. Context clues are words that give you clues about the meaning of an unfamiliar word or, in this case, about the word that belongs in the blank.

    Pay attention to clues that another word in the sentence is the selected word’s synonym or antonym. Clues may also include examples or even a definition of the word in question.

    We’ll look at some examples of context clues in a moment.

    Step 3: Think about what you do know about the word.

    As you’re looking for context clues, you can also think about what you do know about the mystery word.

  • Do you know if it’s a verb, an adjective, or a noun?

  • Is the word going to be something positive or negative?

  • Do you know what topic the word might be related to?

  • Can you tell if the word is a synonym or antonym of one of the words in the sentence?

  • Or have you been provided with a definition or example(s) of the word?
  • By using context clues and logical thinking, you should be able to determine some general information about the word you’re seeking.

    Step 4: Once you have some idea of what you’re looking for, use process of elimination.

    Now that you have some criteria in mind for the mystery word, you can eliminate answer choices that do not match your requirements.

    For example, if you know that the word must be negative, you can read through the answer choices and cross out any choices that have a positive connotation.

    You may not know the meaning of every answer choice, but the more choices you can eliminate, the better your chances of answering the question correctly.

    For answer choices that are unfamiliar, you can try using roots, prefixes, suffixes, or similar words to determine the meaning.

    Step 5: If you get stuck, skip it and come back later.

    At times, you may not be able to eliminate many answer choices, and you may get stuck on a particular question.

    Don’t panic. Just mark it with a star or circle, move on to the next question, and come back to it later. Remember to fill in some sort of answer for every question, even if you have to guess.

    Now let’s apply the five-step strategy to a Middle Level Sentence Completion question.

    ISEE Middle Level Sample Question-Sentence Completion

    ISEE Middle Level Sample Question-Sentence Completion

    Step One is to read the sentence and mentally fill in the blank. At first glance, you may have trouble coming up with an appropriate word.

    If you get stuck, move on to Step Two, using context clues. In this case, we have what is called an antonym context clue.

    We know that the word in the blank has to be the opposite of “willing to compromise.” How do we know this? The sentence says that Kareem’s friends are wrong to believe that he is __, and the reason they are wrong is that he is usually willing to compromise.

    For Step Three, we must determine what we do know about the word. So far, we know that it’s the opposite of “willing to compromise.”

    What does it mean to be willing to compromise? When a disagreement arises, someone who is willing to compromise will talk out the issue and give up some of what they want in order to find a solution that makes everyone happy. Being willing to compromise is a positive trait.

    Since we are looking for the opposite of “willing to compromise,” we can guess that we are looking for a negative trait.

    What might be a word that’s the opposite of “willing to compromise?” Perhaps “stubborn” or “selfish.”

    Now we’re ready to look at the answer choices and move on to Step Four, using process of elimination.

    Answer Choice A says “cautious.” Is cautious a negative trait? No. Is it the opposite of “willing to compromise?” No. We can eliminate Choice A.

    Choice B suggests “gullible.” Gullible means easily believing almost anything. Is this a negative character trait? Maybe. But is it the opposite of “willing to compromise?” No. Choice B can also be eliminated.

    Answer Choice C says “obstinate.” Obstinate means stubborn. Is that a negative character trait? Yes. Is it the opposite of “willing to compromise?” Yes. A stubborn person would want to get their way instead of compromising. Choice C may be correct, but let’s look at Choice D just in case.

    Choice D says “protective.” Is protective a negative character trait? No. Is it the opposite of “willing to compromise?” No. We can eliminate Choice D, meaning the correct answer is C.

    Even if you didn’t know the meaning of every answer choice, you could probably have at least eliminated “protective” and “cautious,” leaving you with only two answer choices and a good chance of guessing correctly.

    Of course, if you did get stuck, you would simply follow Step Five by returning to the question later.

    What Long-Term Strategies Can I Use to Improve my Verbal Reasoning Score?

    Sometimes, no matter what awesome strategies you use, correctly answering the ISEE’s Verbal Reasoning questions requires some vocabulary knowledge. Here are a few long-term strategies you can use to enhance your vocabulary.

    First, you should begin reading more often. Reading is the best way to increase your vocabulary and comprehension, so set a weekly goal to read a certain amount of pages or minutes.

    You can also make flashcards of grade level appropriate vocabulary words, as well as common prefixes, roots, and suffixes. Practice your flashcards a few times a week to expand your vocabulary and your ability to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.

    Lastly, you should answer ISEE Verbal Reasoning practice questions using the five-step approaches discussed here. This will help you become comfortable using the strategies we’ve discussed, and you’ll build confidence and familiarity with these question types.

    Use our five-step approaches and implement the long-term strategies mentioned here, and you’ll be well on your way to mastering ISEE Verbal Reasoning.

    What’s Next?

    Start practicing now by downloading an ISEE sample test. Choose from lower, middle or upper level free official ISEE tests.

    Learn some more key tips for the ISEE sentence completion section, using passages and questions from official ISEE tests.

    Plus, discover additional top tips for scoring high on the ISEE synonym section.

    Also, become a master at figuring out the answers to each question type on the ISEE reading comprehension section so you can get these challenging questions correct.