ISEE Middle Level Reading : Determining Context-Dependent Word Meanings in Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ISEE Middle Level Reading

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Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

The world described by physics is a surprisingly strange world, somewhat distant from our regular experience. Many high school students likely suspect this fact, given the difficulty that they often experience when taking physics courses. However, they are rarely instructed in the explicit difference between the world expressed by their equations and the world that they experience. Many of the concepts used in physics are related to the figures, facts, and equations that are learned in mathematics. The world is recast into a form that looks more like a geometry problem than the world as experienced in day-to-day life. All of this at first seems strange to the budding young physics student. However, after performing a number of experiments, he or she soon sees that these mathematical formulas seem to “work.” That is, these equations really do predict the outcomes of experiments in the real world, not merely in mathematical equations on paper.

Still, it is interesting to notice some examples of how much is overlooked in these kinds of mathematical models. Most obviously, there are few (if any) objects in reality that perfectly match the form and shape of a pure geometric figure. Few physical triangles are exact triangles in the manner of the shapes used in geometric problems. Likewise, motion becomes merely something to be expressed in an equation that has time as a variable. Finally, all of the physical descriptions of light waves tell us about everything except for what it is like to experience color. This last reason is perhaps the most interesting reason of all. No matter how many equations and shapes are used to describe color, none of these will have anything to do with the experience of color itself. To speak of a “rectangular surface” or an “icosahedron-like body” does not tell us anything about colors. Rectangles and icosahedrons can be any color. That is, color does not enter into their definitions at all—a red rectangle is just as much a rectangle as is a green one.

What is the meaning of the boldfaced word “recast” in its context?

Possible Answers:

Molded to fit a necessary shape

Expressed in a poetic manner

Presented in a new form

Deceptively altered in meaning

Expressed in a dramatic manner

Correct answer:

Presented in a new form

Explanation:

The word "recast" is here used in a secondary, but legitimate, manner. In its original, physical sense, to "recast" something means to melt it down and put it into a new shape. The "cast" is the mold into which liquid metal is poured in order to be given a shape. When ideas are "recast," they are given a new form. Here, the paragraph is speaking of the description of the world being recast into a form that is more geometric and mathematical than "worldly."

Example Question #2 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

"Darwinism's Effect on Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

For much of the history of human thought, the sciences have studied subjects that seemed to be eternal and unchanging. Even the basic laws of the Nile’s flooding were investigated in the hopes of finding never-altering laws. Similarly, the scientific investigations of the ancient Near East and Greece into the regular laws of the stars ultimately looked for constant patterns. This overall pattern of scientific reasoning has left deep marks on the minds of almost all thinkers and found its apotheosis in modern physics. From the time of the early renaissance to the nineteenth century, physics represented the ultimate expression of scientific investigation for almost all thinkers. Its static laws appeared to be the unchanging principles of all motion and life on earth. By the nineteenth century, it had appeared that only a few details had to be “cleared up” before all science was basically known.

In many ways, this situation changed dramatically with the arrival of Darwinism. It would change even more dramatically in early twentieth-century physics as well. Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged many aspects of the “static” worldview. Even those who did not believe that a divine being created an unchanging world were shaken by the new vistas opened up to science by his studies. It had been a long-accepted inheritance of Western culture to believe that the species of living organisms were unchanging in nature. Though there might be many different kinds of creatures, the kinds themselves were not believed to change. The thesis of a universal morphing of types shattered this cosmology, replacing the old world-view with a totally new one. Among the things that had to change in light of Darwin’s work was the very view of science held by most people.

What is the meaning of the underlined word “apotheosis”?

Possible Answers:

Culmination

Realization

Reaction

Negation

Explanation

Correct answer:

Culmination

Explanation:

The final sentences of the first paragraph give a good clue to the meaning of "apotheosis." The general idea is that modern physics represented the highest development of this idea of unchanging laws. Indeed, it did so to the point of seeming as though everything had been discovered—only details needed to be "cleaned up" and finalized. Therefore, the best meaning, based on our context clues, is "culmination," meaning high point.

Example Question #73 : Sat Critical Reading

"Comparing Technologies: A Difficult Endeavor" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

Comparisons of technology are often difficult to make, not only because of the rapid pace of improvements but also because of the many new applications that are available as time progresses. If we were to consider the contemporary graphing calculator and the calculation capacities of computing machines from fifty years ago, there would be astounding improvements between these two devices. However, the improvements are not reduced merely to speed improvements. A graphing calculator also has numerous output capacities that far exceed those available much older computers, none of which had the ability to represent their output in any manner even closely resembling that of contemporary devices. Merely consider the display capacities of such a device. These enable users to input many new kinds of information, enabling design engineers to design new hardware functions to match the new means of collecting user input.

The situation is even more obvious when one considers the numerous functions performed by a modern “smartphone.” These devices are equipped with a panoply of features.  With all of these new functions come many new types of computational capabilities as well. In order to process images quickly, specialized hardware must be designed and software written for it in order to ensure that there are few issues with the phone’s operation. Indeed, the whole “real time” nature of telecommunications has exerted numerous pressures on the designers of computing devices. Layers of complexity, at all levels of production and development, are required to ensure that the phone can function in a synchronous manner. Gone are the days of asynchronous processing, when the computer user entered data into a mainframe, only to wait for a period of time before the processing results were provided. Today, even the smallest of digital devices must provide seamless service for users. The effects of this requirement are almost beyond number.

What is meant by the underlined word “applications”?

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers

Employment opportunities

Formal requests

Practical uses

Computer software

Correct answer:

Practical uses

Explanation:

The word "apply" has a number of meanings, though they all have a general sense of taking something from one domain and placing or using it in another. When we apply for a job, we take a form (or series of documents) and give them to someone. Likewise, we apply a decal to a window by placing it upon the window. Ideas are "applied" to reality when they are used in new practical settings. This is the idea of the term in this sentence. Do not be confused by the metaphorical use of the term in a word like "software application." The passage is trying to trick you into confusing these terms.

Example Question #74 : Sat Critical Reading

"Comparing Technologies: A Difficult Endeavor" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

Comparisons of technology are often difficult to make, not only because of the rapid pace of improvements but also because of the many new applications that are available as time progresses. If we were to consider the contemporary graphing calculator and the calculation capacities of computing machines from fifty years ago, there would be astounding improvements between these two devices. However, the improvements are not reduced merely to speed improvements. A graphing calculator also has numerous output capacities that far exceed those available much older computers, none of which had the ability to represent their output in any manner even closely resembling that of contemporary devices. Merely consider the display capacities of such a device. These enable users to input many new kinds of information, enabling design engineers to design new hardware functions to match the new means of collecting user input.

The situation is even more obvious when one considers the numerous functions performed by a modern “smartphone.” These devices are equipped with a panoply of features.  With all of these new functions come many new types of computational capabilities as well. In order to process images quickly, specialized hardware must be designed and software written for it in order to ensure that there are few issues with the phone’s operation. Indeed, the whole “real time” nature of telecommunications has exerted numerous pressures on the designers of computing devices. Layers of complexity, at all levels of production and development, are required to ensure that the phone can function in a synchronous manner. Gone are the days of asynchronous processing, when the computer user entered data into a mainframe, only to wait for a period of time before the processing results were provided. Today, even the smallest of digital devices must provide seamless service for users. The effects of this requirement are almost beyond number.

What does the underlined word “panoply” mean?

Possible Answers:

Amazing advancement

Advanced technology

Several items

None of the other answers

Large assortment

Correct answer:

Large assortment

Explanation:

Generally speaking, the word "panoply" means a complete assortment or complete collection. In the sentence following this one, the passage continues, "With all of these new functions . . . " This implies that there are many different functions on modern "smartphones." The best option is "large assortment," which captures the sense of completeness or sheer number that is part of being a "panoply."

Example Question #11 : Specific Words In Natural Science Passages

"Interpreting the Copernican Revolution" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

The expressions of one discipline can often alter the way that other subjects understand themselves. Among such cases are numbered the investigations of Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus is best known for his views concerning heliocentrism, a view which eventually obliterated many aspects of the ancient/medieval worldview, at least from the standpoint of physical science. It had always been the natural view of mankind that the earth stood at the center of the universe, a fixed point in reference to the rest of the visible bodies. The sun, stars, and planets all rotated around the earth.

With time, this viewpoint became one of the major reference points for modern life. It provided a provocative image that was used—and often abused—by many people for various purposes. For those who wished to weaken the control of religion on mankind, it was said that the heliocentric outlook proved man’s insignificance. In contrast with earlier geocentrism, heliocentrism was said to show that man is not the center of the universe. He is merely one small being in the midst of a large cosmos. However, others wished to use the “Copernican Revolution” in a very different manner. These thinkers wanted to show that there was another “recentering” that had to happen. Once upon a time, we talked about the world. Now, however, it was necessary to talk of man as the central reference point. Just as the solar system was “centered” on the sun, so too should the sciences be centered on the human person.

However, both of these approaches are fraught with problems. Those who wished to undermine the religious mindset rather misunderstood the former outlook on the solar system. The earlier geocentric mindset did not believe that the earth was the most important body in the heavens. Instead, many ancient and medieval thinkers believed that the highest “sphere” above the earth was the most important being in the physical universe. Likewise, the so-called “Copernican Revolution” in physics was different from the one applied to the human person. Copernicus’ revolution showed that the human point of view was not the center, whereas the later forms of “Copernican revolution” wished to show just the opposite.

Of course, there are many complexities in the history of such important changes in scientific outlook. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the wide-reaching effects of such discoveries, even when they have numerous, ambiguous effects.

What is meant by “heliocentrism”?

Possible Answers:

That something is centered on the sun

None of the other answers

That something is primarily made of helium

That something is centered on the earth

That something floats like helium gas

Correct answer:

That something is centered on the sun

Explanation:

Perhaps you do not know the word "heliocentrism." However, from the context clues in the selection, you can tell that Copernicus' theories were opposed to earlier ones that held that the earth was the center of the universe. The word "heliocentric" comes from the Greek "helios," which means sun, with the suffix "-centric." To be "heliocentric" means "to be centered on the sun," as is the planetary motion of our solar system.

Example Question #1 : Finding Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from “Humming-Birds: As Illustrating the Luxuriance of Tropical Nature” in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The food of hummingbirds has been a matter of much controversy. All the early writers down to Buffon believed that they lived solely on the nectar of flowers, but since that time, every close observer of their habits maintains that they feed largely, and in some cases wholly, on insects. Azara observed them on the La Plata in winter taking insects out of the webs of spiders at a time and place where there were no flowers. Bullock, in Mexico, declares that he saw them catch small butterflies, and that he found many kinds of insects in their stomachs. Waterton made a similar statement. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of specimens have since been dissected by collecting naturalists, and in almost every instance their stomachs have been found full of insects, sometimes, but not generally, mixed with a proportion of honey. Many of them in fact may be seen catching gnats and other small insects just like fly-catchers, sitting on a dead twig over water, darting off for a time in the air, and then returning to the twig. Others come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose. Mr. Gosse also remarks, ” All the hummingbirds have more or less the habit, when in flight, of pausing in the air and throwing the body and tail into rapid and odd contortions. This is most observable in the Polytmus, from the effect that such motions have on the long feathers of the tail. That the object of these quick turns is the capture of insects, I am sure, having watched one thus engaged pretty close to me.”

The meaning of the underlined word “evolutions” in context is __________.

Possible Answers:

ideas

rebellions

modifications

rotations

movements

Correct answer:

movements

Explanation:

Seeing the word “evolutions” in a science passage may bring specific things to mind—Darwin, natural selection, and survival of the fittest, perhaps. However, it’s always important to consider how the word is used in the passage provided. Words with very strong common meanings may be used for their more obscure secondary meanings in order to trick you. The passage uses the word “evolutions” in this sentence: 

“[Other hummingbirds] come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose.”

If the word “evolutions” weren’t used here and there were instead a blank space in the sentence, what kind of word would you use to fill it in? Maybe something like “motions” or “behavior,” right? With that in mind, let’s consider the answer choices. “Modifications,” which may seem to be most in line with the typical meaning of “evolution,” doesn’t make sense in the sentence’s context. Neither does “rebellions” or “ideas.” Choosing between “movements” and “rotations,” nothing tells us that the hummingbirds are specifically “rotating,” so the best answer choice is the more general “movements.”

Example Question #5 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

Adapted from “Introduced Species That Have Become Pests” in Our Vanishing Wild Life, Its Extermination and Protection by William Temple Hornaday (1913)

The man who successfully transplants or "introduces" into a new habitat any persistent species of living thing assumes a very grave responsibility. Every introduced species is doubtful gravel until panned out. The enormous losses that have been inflicted upon the world through the perpetuation of follies with wild vertebrates and insects would, if added together, be enough to purchase a principality. The most aggravating feature of these follies in transplantation is that never yet have they been made severely punishable. We are just as careless and easygoing on this point as we were about the government of the Yellowstone Park in the days when Howell and other poachers destroyed our first national bison herd, and when caught red-handed—as Howell was, skinning seven Park bison cows—could not be punished for it, because there was no penalty prescribed by any law. Today, there is a way in which any revengeful person could inflict enormous damage on the entire South, at no cost to himself, involve those states in enormous losses and the expenditure of vast sums of money, yet go absolutely unpunished!

The gypsy moth is a case in point. This winged calamity was imported at Maiden, Massachusetts, near Boston, by a French entomologist, Mr. Leopold Trouvelot, in 1868 or 69. History records the fact that the man of science did not purposely set free the pest. He was endeavoring with live specimens to find a moth that would produce a cocoon of commercial value to America, and a sudden gust of wind blew out of his study, through an open window, his living and breeding specimens of the gypsy moth. The moth itself is not bad to look at, but its larvae is a great, overgrown brute with an appetite like a hog. Immediately Mr. Trouvelot sought to recover his specimens, and when he failed to find them all, like a man of real honor, he notified the State authorities of the accident. Every effort was made to recover all the specimens, but enough escaped to produce progeny that soon became a scourge to the trees of Massachusetts. The method of the big, nasty-looking mottled-brown caterpillar was very simple. It devoured the entire foliage of every tree that grew in its sphere of influence.

The gypsy moth spread with alarming rapidity and persistence. In course of time, the state authorities of Massachusetts were forced to begin a relentless war upon it, by poisonous sprays and by fire. It was awful! Up to this date (1912) the New England states and the United States Government service have expended in fighting this pest about $7,680,000!

The spread of this pest has been retarded, but the gypsy moth never will be wholly stamped out. Today it exists in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, and it is due to reach New York at an early date. It is steadily spreading in three directions from Boston, its original point of departure, and when it strikes the State of New York, we, too, will begin to pay dearly for the Trouvelot experiment.

Based on the context in which it is used, what is the most likely definition of the underlined word “entomologist”?

Possible Answers:

a type of insect that eats other insects

someone who causes and then solves a problem

a scientist who studies invasive species

someone who draws pictures of insects

a scientist who studies insects

Correct answer:

a scientist who studies insects

Explanation:

The word “entomologist” is used in the following part of the passage:

“The Gypsy Moth is a case in point. This winged calamity was imported at Maiden, Massachusetts, near Boston, by a French entomologist, Mr. Leopold Trouvelot, in 1868 or 69.” 

“Entomologist” is describing “Mr. Leopold Trouvelot,” so it cannot mean “a type of insect that eats other insects.” Nothing in the passage suggests that Mr. Trouvelot drew insects, so we can discard “someone who draws pictures of insects” as an answer choice. The answer “someone who causes and then solves a problem” doesn’t make sense either; while Mr. Trouvelot causes a problem by introducing the gypsy moth to the United States, he isn’t able to solve it. This leaves us with two answer choices: “a scientist who studies invasive species” and “a scientist who studies insects.” Nothing suggests that Mr. Trouvelot is a scientist who studies invasive species; indeed, at this point in the passage, the gypsy moth hasn’t even been released yet, so it is debatable whether we could call it an invasive species before it “invades.”

Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

Adapted from Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

The examples of protective resemblance so far quoted are mostly permanent adaptations to one particular sort of surrounding. There are, however, numerous animals which possess the power of adjusting their color more or less rapidly so as to harmonize with a changing environment.

Some of the best known of these cases are found among those mammals and birds that inhabit countries more or less covered with snow during a part of the year. A good instance is afforded by the Irish or variable hare, which is chiefly found in Ireland and Scotland. In summer, this looks very much like an ordinary hare, though rather grayer in tint and smaller in size, but in winter it becomes white with the exception of the black tips to the ears. Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue. 

The common stoat is subject to similar color change in the northern parts of its range. In summer it is of a bright reddish brown color with the exception of the under parts, which are yellowish white, and the end of the tail, which is black. But in winter, the entire coat, save only the tip of the tail, becomes white, and in that condition the animal is known as an ermine. A similar example is afforded by the weasel. The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.

Which of the following terms is closest in meaning to the underlined word “inconspicuous”?

Possible Answers:

important

hidden

fraudulent

wily

obvious

Correct answer:

hidden

Explanation:

The word “inconspicuous” is used the passage’s last sentence, “The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.” “Important” makes no sense in this context, so we can discard that answer. “Wily” (sneaky and clever) and “fraudulent” (deceptive) may each seem like an ok answer, but neither of these would necessarily make the animal a better predator, and “wily” doesn’t describe how a predator would relate to its prey, and “fraudulent” is usually reserved for describing human behavior and intentions. “Hidden” would certainly make the animal a better predator, though—if a predator were “hidden” from its prey, it would be much harder for the prey to avoid the predator. “Hidden” makes the most sense in the context of the sentence, so it is the correct answer.

Example Question #3 : Determining Context Dependent Word Meanings In Science Passages

Adapted from Cassell’s Natural History by Francis Martin Duncan (1913)

The penguins are a group of birds inhabiting the southern ocean, for the most part passing their lives in the icy waters of the Antarctic seas. Like the ratitae, penguins have lost the power of flight, but the wings are modified into swimming organs and the birds lead an aquatic existence and are scarcely seen on land except in the breeding season. They are curious-looking creatures that appear to have no legs, as the limbs are encased in the skin of the body and the large flat feet are set so far back that the birds waddle along on land in an upright position in a very ridiculous manner, carrying their long narrow flippers held out as if they were arms. When swimming, penguins use their wings as paddles while the feet are used for steering.

Penguins are usually gregarious—in the sea, they swim together in schools, and on land, assemble in great numbers in their rookeries. They are very methodical in their ways, and on leaving the water, the birds always follow well-defined tracks leading to the rookeries, marching with much solemnity one behind the other in soldierly order. 

The largest species of penguins are the king penguin and the emperor penguin, the former being found in Kerguelen Land, the Falklands, and other southern islands, and the latter in Victoria Land and on the pack ice of the Antarctic seas. As they are unaccustomed from the isolation of their haunts to being hunted and persecuted by man, emperor penguins are remarkably fearless, and Antarctic explorers invading their territory have found themselves objects of curiosity rather than fear to the strange birds who followed them about as if they were much astonished at their appearance. 

The emperor penguin lays but a single egg and breeds during the intense cold and darkness of the Antarctic winter. To prevent contact with the frozen snow, the bird places its egg upon its flat webbed feet and crouches down upon it so that it is well covered with the feathers. In spite of this precaution, many eggs do not hatch and the mortality amongst the young chicks is very great.

Based on the way it is used in the passage, what is the most likely meaning of the underlined word “gregarious”?

Possible Answers:

Sociable

Argumentative

Dedicated

Solitary

Having a large appetite

Correct answer:

Sociable

Explanation:

The word “gregarious” is found in the following sentence, the first sentence of the second paragraph:

“Penguins are usually gregarious—in the sea, they swim together in schools, and on land, assemble in great numbers in their rookeries.”

What does the sentence tell us about penguins? They like to be in groups, whether on land or in the sea. This allows us to infer that “gregarious” means preferring to be in groups rather than alone, or “sociable.” None of the other answer choices are supported by the passage.

Example Question #21 : Passage Based Questions

Adapted from “Feathers of Sea Birds and Wild Fowl for Bedding” from The Utility of Birds by Edward Forbush (ed. 1922)

In the colder countries of the world, the feathers and down of waterfowl have been in great demand for centuries as filling for beds and pillows. Such feathers are perfect non-conductors of heat, and beds, pillows, or coverlets filled with them represent the acme of comfort and durability. The early settlers of New England saved for such purposes the feathers and down from the thousands of wild-fowl which they killed, but as the population increased in numbers, the quantity thus furnished was insufficient, and the people sought a larger supply in the vast colonies of ducks and geese along the Labrador coast. 

The manner in which the feathers and down were obtained, unlike the method practiced in Iceland, did not tend to conserve and protect the source of supply. In Iceland, the people have continued to receive for many years a considerable income by collecting eider down, but there they do not “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Ducks line their nests with down plucked from their own breasts and that of the eider is particularly valuable for bedding. In Iceland, these birds are so carefully protected that they have become as tame and unsuspicious as domestic fowls In North America. Where they are constantly hunted they often conceal their nests in the midst of weeds or bushes, but in Iceland, they make their nests and deposit their eggs in holes dug for them in the sod. A supply of the ducks is maintained so that the people derive from them an annual income.

In North America, quite a different policy was pursued. The demand for feathers became so great in the New England colonies about the middle of the eighteenth century that vessels were fitted out there for the coast of Labrador for the express purpose of securing the feathers and down of wild fowl. Eider down having become valuable and these ducks being in the habit of congregating by thousands on barren islands of the Labrador coast, the birds became the victims of the ships’ crews. As the ducks molt all their primary feathers at once in July or August and are then quite incapable of flight and the young birds are unable to fly until well grown, the hunters were able to surround the helpless birds, drive them together, and kill them with clubs. Otis says that millions of wildfowl were thus destroyed and that in a few years their haunts were so broken up by this wholesale slaughter and their numbers were so diminished that feather voyages became unprofitable and were given up. 

This practice, followed by the almost continual egging, clubbing, shooting, etc. by Labrador fishermen, may have been a chief factor in the extinction of the Labrador duck, that species of supposed restricted breeding range. No doubt had the eider duck been restricted in its breeding range to the islands of Labrador, it also would have been exterminated long ago.

Based on the context in which it is used in the first paragraph, what is the meaning of the underlined word “acme”?

Possible Answers:

employment

pinnacle

usefulness

warmth

quilt

Correct answer:

pinnacle

Explanation:

The word “acme” is used in the following sentence in the passage: “Such feathers are perfect non-conductors of heat, and beds, pillows, or coverlets filled with them represent the acme of comfort and durability.” If we were to remove the word “acme” from this sentence and replace it with another term, what term would make sense? Something like “peak” or “perfection” would make sense. 

Considering that, let’s now look at the answer choices. While the sentence is talking about “warmth” and bedding, of which a “quilt” is a type, it’s clear that neither “warmth” nor “quilt” can be the correct answer. “Usefulness” and “employment” don’t make as much sense as “pinnacle” does, so “pinnacle” is the correct answer.

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