How to Study ISEE Vocabulary Words: Top 5 Tips

ISEE SaMPLE QUESTION: sentence completion

ISEE SaMPLE QUESTION: sentence completion

On the Verbal Reasoning section of the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE), there are two types of questions: Synonym and Sentence Completion.

Both question types require knowledge of grade-level appropriate vocabulary words, so a solid vocabulary is an important component to receiving a high score on the ISEE. A strong vocabulary can also be useful on the Reading Comprehension section of the test.

How can you ensure you know plenty of ISEE vocabulary words? Check out the tips, tricks, and study guides provided here to become a word wizard and ace the ISEE.

What are Sentence Completion Questions?

Students read a sentence that is missing a word or phrase. From four provided answer choices, students must select the option that most logically completes the sentence.

On the Upper Level ISEE, some questions may have two blanks.

What Are Synonym Questions?

For synonym questions, students are given an abstract, grade-level appropriate word. The word is not used in a sentence, so there is no context to help the student determine its meaning.

Four alphabetized answer choices are provided, and students must pick the word that is closest in meaning to the original vocabulary word.

ISEE Sample question: Synonym

ISEE Sample question: Synonym

What Core Vocabulary Do I Need to Know for the ISEE?

ISEE vocabulary words are intended to be appropriate for each grade level, so you can research word lists for your grade and create flashcards or a list to study.

We’re also providing three downloadable vocabulary lists, one for each level of the ISEE. These lists are a great starting point for enhancing your vocabulary.

What is the Best Way to Study ISEE Vocabulary?

Here are our five top tips for studying ISEE vocabulary and enhancing your word knowledge.

Read More

The best way to increase your vocabulary is by reading. You don’t have to read a boring textbook, but you do need to pick an interesting book that is on grade-level.

Set a goal to read a certain amount of pages or minutes each week. If you consistently read an engaging yet challenging text, you will notice both your vocabulary and reading comprehension improving.

Learn About Roots, Prefixes, and Suffixes

When you don’t know the meaning of a word, knowledge of roots, prefixes, and suffixes, can help you make an educated guess.

Root words have a particular meaning and can have prefixes or suffixes added to them to change the meaning slightly. A prefix is added to the beginning of a root word, while a suffix is added to the end.

Below is a list of 5 of the most commonly used terms in each category.


  • Chron=Time. Examples: Chronology, synchronize

  • Cred=To believe. Examples: Credulous, credibility, incredible

  • Ject=Throw. Examples: Eject, reject

  • Mit, mis=Send. Examples: Mission, emit

  • Ped=Foot. Examples: Pedestrian, pedicure, pedometer

  • Un=Not, opposite. Examples: Unlock, unenthusiastic

  • Re=Again; back. Examples: Return, reread

  • Dis=Not, away, apart, negative. Examples: Disagree, distrust

  • Mis=Wrongly. Example: Mistake, misunderstand

  • Inter=Between, among. Example: Interstate, intermission

  • Ist=One who. Examples: Scientist, publicist, biologist

  • Ness=State of being. Examples: Happiness, harshness

  • Acy=State or quality. Examples: Privacy, democracy

  • Ism=Belief, doctrine. Examples: Communism, Catholicism

  • Ly=Describing how something is. Examples: Quickly, easily, happily
  • Consider finding a list of additional roots, prefixes, and suffixes and creating flashcards.

    Although studying vocabulary lists can be effective, studying roots, prefixes, and suffixes is easier and guaranteed to be helpful on the test. With this knowledge, you can determine the meaning of words you have never even seen before.

    Learn About Context Clues

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    Context clues will not help you on ISEE Synonym questions, which provide no context, but they can be very helpful on Sentence Completion and even Reading Comprehension questions.

    When you don’t know the meaning of a word, context clues are other words in the sentence or passage that can help you figure out the unknown word’s meaning. On the ISEE, you can also use context clues to help you figure out what word belongs in the blank(s) on Sentence Completion questions.

    Let’s focus on the four major types of context clues: antonym, synonym, example, and definition.

    An antonym clue* is when the sentence indicates that the unknown word (or the word that belongs in the blank) is the opposite of another word.

    Words indicating antonym clues include “even though,” “but,” “although,” “unlike,” “however,” “rather than,” “on the other hand,” etc.

    For example, imagine a sentence says, “Marty was gregarious, unlike his younger brother, who was quiet and shy.”

    This sentence tells us that “gregarious” means the opposite of “quiet and shy.” Even if we have never seen the word gregarious before, we can infer that it means talkative or social.

    A synonym clue, naturally, is when the provided sentence signals that the word in the blank has the same meaning as another word in the sentence.

    Synonym clues are sometimes signaled by words and phrases like, ““as,” “like,” “similar to,” “likewise,” “in the same way,” etc.

    If a sentence says, “Alicia felt timorous standing in front of the class for her presentation, just like her mother, who got very nervous about public speaking,” what can we infer the word “timorous” means?

    Since Alicia is like her mother, who gets nervous speaking in public, we can assume that timorous is a synonym for nervous.

    An example clue is when the sentence includes examples of the vocabulary word that can help you determine the word’s meaning.

    Example clues are sometimes indicated by the following words and phrases: “such as,” “like, “for example,” “includes,” etc.

    Consider a sentence that says, “He could make the journey by plane, train, car, or another conveyance.” We can see that planes, trains, and cars are examples of conveyances, so we can infer that conveyance means a type of transportation.

    Definition clues, perhaps the easiest type, occur when the sentence provides a definition of the word that belongs in the blank.

    Definition clues are also sometimes indicated by words and phrases such as “that is,” “which is,” “in other words,” “also known as,” etc.

    A sentence with a definition context clue might look something like this: “Biologists use an elaborate taxonomy, or classification system, to categorize animals and plants.”

    The sentence provides a definition for taxonomy, so you know that it means “a classification system.”

    There are other types of context clues, but studying these four types can significantly improve your ability to determine the meaning of ISEE vocabulary words.

    Create Flash Cards

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    We’ve suggested studying age-appropriate vocabulary lists, roots, prefixes, and suffixes, and context clues. That’s a lot of information to learn, and one effective way to learn it is by using flash cards.

    Flash cards are a great study tool because you don’t need a partner to use them; you can study flash cards by yourself.

    Write a vocabulary word or root, prefix, and suffix on one side of an index card and write the definition on the other side.

    To learn about the types of context clues, you can write an example sentence on one side and the name of the context clue type on the other side. It’s not essential for you to know what each type of context clue is called, but you do need to learn to recognize context clues so you can use them to help you determine the meaning of a word or answer a question.

    If you don’t have index cards handy, you can also use a sheet of paper. Fold the paper in half, writing the words on one side and the definitions on the other.

    We also like flash cards because they are quick and easy to use. Spend 10-15 minutes a day going through your flash cards, and you’ll notice an obvious increase in your vocabulary.

    You can study them on the car or bus as you go to and from school, while you wait for dinner, or just before you go to bed. Flash cards are one way to enhance your knowledge of ISEE vocabulary words without making a major time commitment.

    Answer ISEE Practice Questions

    Work on ISEE practice questions, particularly Synonym and Sentence Completion, to improve your ability to answer these question types and to learn vocabulary that may appear on the ISEE.

    So where can you download ISEE practice questions?

    The Educational Records Bureau (ERB), who designs the ISEE, has released a variety of practice questions. Since they also create the ISEE itself, completing these practice questions can help you become familiar with vocabulary that may appear on the ISEE, or vocabulary words that are very similar to those you will see on the test.

    Just click one of the buttons below to get an official printable ISEE practice test plus our 5 proven test prep strategies for using official ISEE practice tests to effectively prepare.

    Get Upper Level ISEE Practice Test

    Get Middle Level ISEE Practice Test

    Get Lower Level ISEE Practice Test

    When you encounter an unfamiliar vocabulary word on an ISEE practice question, you can add the word to your vocabulary flashcards.

    When you answer vocabulary questions wrong, take some time to figure out why the right answer is correct and how you can approach this question type more effectively in the future.

    Answering practice question will not only help improve your vocabulary, but it will also allow you to hone your strategy for ISEE vocabulary questions.

    What Strategies Can I Use On the Test to Answer ISEE Vocabulary Questions?

    Now you know our five tips for learning ISEE vocabulary words, but how do you put this knowledge into practice on the test? What do you do during the test itself when you encounter an unfamiliar word?

    First, look at the word’s root, prefix, and suffix to see if you can find any clues about the word’s meaning. For example, if you see the word “disorderly,” and you know that the prefix “dis” means “not,” you can infer that the word means “not orderly.”

    If this doesn’t help, see if the ISEE vocabulary word reminds you of any words that you do know. As an example, imagine you don’t know the meaning of the word “pacify.” Does the word remind you of anything? Perhaps you said pacifier, and you know that a pacifier is used to calm a baby. You can then conclude that “pacify” has something to do with calming someone.

    If it’s a Sentence Completion question, you can look at context clues to help you figure out the word’s meaning. We’ll look at an example of this strategy in a moment.

    Another good strategy on ISEE vocabulary questions is to use process of elimination. Although you may not know the meaning of every answer choice, you are likely to know at least one or two. Cross out obviously wrong answers to help you narrow down possible answer choices.

    If you end up having to guess, at least you’ll be able to make an educated guess with a greater chance of answering the question correctly.

    Let’s briefly take a look at a Synonym and a Sentence Completion question to see how we can incorporate all of these strategies effectively.

    The following is a Middle Level Synonym question.

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    Roots, prefixes, and suffixes can help us on this question. Even if you don’t know the word unruly, you probably do know that the prefix “un” means “not.” This allows you to infer that “unruly” probably has something to do with not following the rules.

    “Dis” also means not, so we can see that answer choice A means “not orderly,” while answer choice C means “not tasteful.”

    You can use process of elimination on Answer Choice D: “doubtful,” which you probably already know. Doubtful does not mean “not following the rules.”

    That leaves you with A: disorderly, B: disputed, and C: distasteful. Even if you aren’t sure about the meaning of one word, such as Answer Choice B, you can still answer the question correctly.

    Which word means the same as “not following the rules, disorderly or distasteful? Disorderly is probably closest in meaning, so you can choose Answer Choice A.

    Our next example is a Middle Level Sentence Completion question.

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    Here we can use context clues to answer the question. This is an example of an antonym context clue.

    The word “but” shows us that Carver’s opinion of his experiments was different from the opinions of the “skeptical farmers” who thought his experiments would fail.

    Since “skeptical” means having doubts, we know that George Washington Carver did not have doubts about his experiments and did not think they would fail. We must look for the answer choice that conveys this information.

    We can also use process of elimination by eliminating answer choices that are obviously wrong.

    Answer Choice A, amazed, does express that George Washington Carver had positive feelings about his experiments, but it isn’t an exact match. If you’re unsure about Choice A, you can keep it for now.

    Answer Choice B, indifferent, would mean that George Washington Carver had no opinion about his experiments or did not care. Since we know this is untrue, we can eliminate Choice B.

    Answer Choice C, optimistic, would mean that George Washington Carver had hope that his experiments would succeed. Optimistic (hopeful) is the opposite of skeptical (doubtful), so this may be our answer.

    Our last option, Choice D, suspicious, can be eliminated, because it has a similar meaning to “skeptical,” and we know that Carver’s opinion is the opposite of the skeptical farmers.

    That leaves us with A: amazed and C: optimistic. Optimistic is a stronger answer choice, because the experiments are not yet finished, so Carver is not amazed, but he is optimistic that there will be positive result. You can conclude that the answer is Choice C.

    These two examples should give you an idea of how you can use roots, prefixes, and suffixes, process of elimination, and context clues to correctly answer ISEE vocabulary questions. Continue to practice these strategies as you answer practice questions to build familiarity and confidence.

    Study ISEE vocabulary words and roots, prefixes, and suffixes with flashcards, learn about context clues, read more, and answer practice questions to become a vocabulary master and earn a high score on the ISEE.