SSAT Middle Level Reading : Finding Context-Dependent Meanings of Words in Narrative Science Passages

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

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Example Questions

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Example Question #142 : Natural Sciences

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:

rebellions

movements

rotations

ideas

modifications

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 #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 #1 : Context Dependent Meanings Of Words And Phrases In Narrative 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

Solitary

Argumentative

Having a large appetite

Dedicated

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 #2 : Context Dependent Meanings Of Words And Phrases In Narrative Science Passages

"Cacti" by Ami Dave (2013)

Cacti are plants suited to the desert, and we must always keep this factor in mind when growing ornamental cacti in our gardens, for it helps us provide cacti with conditions that allow them to survive and thrive. For example, a cactus should never be watered over its body, as it will start to rot. This is because it is covered with a waxy coating which prevents water loss through evaporation. When one waters the cactus over its body, the waxy coating is washed away and the plant begins to rot. The amount of water that one must supply to the cactus is very much dependent upon the season and upon the climate of the place. During the summer season one should water cacti every four days, whereas in the rainy season, once every fifteen days is quite enough.

Cacti need a minimum of two and a half hours of sunlight per day; however, they should not be kept in the sun all day because they may wrinkle when exposed to too much bright sunlight. Unlike other plants, cacti produce carbon dioxide during the day and oxygen during the night, so they are ideal plants to be kept in bedrooms to freshen up the air at night.

If a cactus is to thrive and prosper, the size of the pot in which it is grown needs to be monitored carefully. The pot should always be a little smaller than the plant itself because it is only when the plant has to struggle to survive that it will thrive. If the pot is too spacious and the plant does not need to struggle, chances are that the cactus will die. Similarly, if a cactus shows no signs of growth, stop watering it. Watering should be resumed only when the plant begins to grow again.

The substrata of a cactus pot is ideally composed of pieces of broken bricks at the bottom, followed by a layer of charcoal above the bricks, and then coarse sand and pebbles above the charcoal. Leaf mould is the best manure.

Grafting cacti is very simple. A very small piece of the cactus plant should be stuck with tape to the plant that needs grafting. The smaller the piece, the easier it is to graft. To reproduce cacti, one has to simply cut off a piece of the cactus, allow it to dry for a few days, and then place it over the cacti substrate. It will automatically develop roots.

It is very easy to differentiate between cacti and other plants that look like cacti. All cacti have fine hair at the base of each thorn. The so-called “thorns” are in fact highly modified leaves which prevent loss of water through transpiration. If one ever gets pricked by cacti thorns, one should take tape, place it over the area where the thorns have penetrated the skin, and then peel it off. All of the thorns will get stuck to the tape and will be removed.

The term "substrata" as it is used in the passage refers to __________.

Possible Answers:

the thorns of a cactus

the foundation of a ceramic pot

the scientific classification of the cactus

a layer of dirt beneath the surface soil

the stalk of a cactus

Correct answer:

a layer of dirt beneath the surface soil

Explanation:

As used in the passage, "substrata" most likely refers to a layer of dirt beneath the surface. Context clues, such as "coarse sand and pebbles above it" and "leaf mould" hint at this definition of the term. 

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

"Cacti" by Ami Dave (2013)

Cacti are plants suited to the desert, and we must always keep this factor in mind when growing ornamental cacti in our gardens, for it helps us provide cacti with conditions that allow them to survive and thrive. For example, a cactus should never be watered over its body, as it will start to rot. This is because it is covered with a waxy coating which prevents water loss through evaporation. When one waters the cactus over its body, the waxy coating is washed away and the plant begins to rot. The amount of water that one must supply to the cactus is very much dependent upon the season and upon the climate of the place. During the summer season one should water cacti every four days, whereas in the rainy season, once every fifteen days is quite enough.

Cacti need a minimum of two and a half hours of sunlight per day; however, they should not be kept in the sun all day because they may wrinkle when exposed to too much bright sunlight. Unlike other plants, cacti produce carbon dioxide during the day and oxygen during the night, so they are ideal plants to be kept in bedrooms to freshen up the air at night.

If a cactus is to thrive and prosper, the size of the pot in which it is grown needs to be monitored carefully. The pot should always be a little smaller than the plant itself because it is only when the plant has to struggle to survive that it will thrive. If the pot is too spacious and the plant does not need to struggle, chances are that the cactus will die. Similarly, if a cactus shows no signs of growth, stop watering it. Watering should be resumed only when the plant begins to grow again.

The substrata of a cactus pot is ideally composed of pieces of broken bricks at the bottom, followed by a layer of charcoal above the bricks, and then coarse sand and pebbles above the charcoal. Leaf mould is the best manure.

Grafting cacti is very simple. A very small piece of the cactus plant should be stuck with tape to the plant that needs grafting. The smaller the piece, the easier it is to graft. To reproduce cacti, one has to simply cut off a piece of the cactus, allow it to dry for a few days, and then place it over the cacti substrate. It will automatically develop roots.

It is very easy to differentiate between cacti and other plants that look like cacti. All cacti have fine hair at the base of each thorn. The so-called “thorns” are in fact highly modified leaves which prevent loss of water through transpiration. If one ever gets pricked by cacti thorns, one should take tape, place it over the area where the thorns have penetrated the skin, and then peel it off. All of the thorns will get stuck to the tape and will be removed.

What is the most reasonable definition of the underlined word "transpiration," as it is used in the last paragraph of the passage?

Possible Answers:

An act of revealing something

The evaporation of water from peripheral regions of the plant

The act of watering something

An act of going across something

The occurrence of an important event

Correct answer:

The evaporation of water from peripheral regions of the plant

Explanation:

The keywords here are "loss of water." This implies that transpiration has something to do with how the plant gets rid of water. The only answer choice that has anything to do with water is the one that addresses the evaporation of water, which is indeed how the cactus rids itself of water.

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

Adapted from ‘The Man-Like Apes’ by T.H. Huxley in A Book of Natural History (1902) edited by David Starr Jordan.

The Orangutan is found only in Sumatra and Borneo, and is common in either of these islands—in both of which it occurs always in low, flat plains, never in the mountains. It loves the densest and most sombre of the forests, which extend from the seashore inland, and thus is found only in the eastern half of Sumatra, where alone such forests occur, though, occasionally, it strays over to the western side. On the other hand it is generally distributed through Borneo, except in the mountains, or where the population is dense. In favorable places the hunter may, by good fortune, see three or four in a day.

Except in the pairing time, the old males usually live by themselves. The old females and the immature males, on the other hand, are often met with in twos and threes; and the former occasionally have young with them, though the pregnant females usually separate themselves, and sometimes remain apart after they have given birth to their offspring. The young Orangs seem to remain unusually long under their mother’s protection, probably in consequence of their slow growth. While climbing the mother always carries her young against her bosom, the young holding on by the mother’s hair. At what time of life the Orangutan becomes capable of propagation, and how long the females go with young is unknown, but it is probable that they are not adult until they arrive at ten or fifteen years of age. A female which lived for five years at Batavia had not attained one-third the height of the wild females. It is probable that, after reaching adult years, they go on growing, though slowly, and that they live to forty or fifty years. The Dyaks tell of old Orangs which have not only lost all their teeth, but which find it so troublesome to climb that they maintain themselves on windfalls and juicy herbage.

The underlined word “propagation” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

Consumption

Reproduction

Foraging

Selflessness

Aggression

Correct answer:

Reproduction

Explanation:

To understand the most likely meaning of this word, it is best to consider the larger context of the text of which it is a part. In this portion of the passage, the author is discussing the slow growth of orangutans, as well as their child-rearing habits. This suggests that when the author says, “At what time of life the orangutan becomes capable of propagation," he most probably means “at what time they become capable of giving birth” or “reproduction.” This is supported by the larger context of the sentence in which “propagation” appears: “At what time of life the orangutan becomes capable of propagation, and how long the females go with young is unknown, but it is probable that they are not adult until they arrive at ten or fifteen years of age.” The author is talking about when they are “adult” and “how long the females go with young.” All signs point towards “reproduction.” “Reproduction” is the process of generating and having babies. For further help, "foraging" means looking for food when food is not easily found, especially in the wild; “selflessness” is the opposite of being selfish; and “consumption” is eating.

Example Question #52 : Science Passages

Adapted from "How the Soil is Made" by Charles Darwin in Wonders of Earth, Sea, and Sky (1902, ed. Edward Singleton Holden)

Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose. In almost all humid countries they are extraordinarily numerous, and for their size possess great muscular power. In many parts of England a weight of more than ten tons (10,516 kilograms) of dry earth annually passes through their bodies and is brought to the surface on each acre of land, so that the whole superficial bed of vegetable mould passes through their bodies in the course of every few years. From the collapsing of the old burrows, the mold is in constant though slow movement, and the particles composing it are thus rubbed together. Thus the particles of earth, forming the superficial mold, are subjected to conditions eminently favorable for their decomposition and disintegration. This keeps the surface of the earth perfectly suited to the growth of an abundant array of fruits and vegetables.

Worms are poorly provided with sense-organs, for they cannot be said to see, although they can just distinguish between light and darkness; they are completely deaf, and have only a feeble power of smell; the sense of touch alone is well developed. They can, therefore, learn little about the outside world, and it is surprising that they should exhibit some skill in lining their burrows with their castings and with leaves, and in the case of some species in piling up their castings into tower-like constructions. But it is far more surprising that they should apparently exhibit some degree of intelligence instead of a mere blind, instinctive impulse, in their manner of plugging up the mouths of their burrows. They act in nearly the same manner as would a man, who had to close a cylindrical tube with different kinds of leaves, petioles, triangles of paper, etc., for they commonly seize such objects by their pointed ends. But with thin objects a certain number are drawn in by their broader ends. They do not act in the same unvarying manner in all cases, as do most of the lower animals.

The underlined word “unvarying” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

inherent

wonderful

wondering

creative

consistent

Correct answer:

consistent

Explanation:

In context, the author is talking about how worms react to different circumstances, with regard to choosing objects to plug the holes of their burrows by selecting different materials. The worms show some sort of creative judgment which clearly greatly impresses the author. The author says, “They act in nearly the same manner as would a man . . . for they commonly seize such objects by their pointed ends. But with thin objects a certain number are drawn in by their broader ends. They do not act in the same unvarying manner in all cases, as do most of the lower animals.” Here it is clear that “unvarying” means not varying, staying constant and consistent. The worms are “do not act in the same unvarying manner . . . as do most of the lower animals.” Instead the worms are not consistent, able to change based on circumstance. To provide further help, “inherent” means naturally possessed or natural; “wondering” means thinking; and “wonderful” means great and brilliant.

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

Adapted from "How Animals Spend the Winter" by W. S. Blatchley in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

One of the greatest problems that each of the living forms about us has had to solve, during the years of its existence on earth, is how best to perpetuate its kind during that cold season that once each year, in our temperate zone, is bound to come. Many are the solutions to this problem. Each form of life has, as it were, solved it best to suit its own peculiar case, and to the earnest student of Nature there is nothing more interesting than to pry into these solutions and note how varied, strange, and wonderful they are.

To fully appreciate some of the facts mentioned below it must be borne in mind that there is no such thing as “spontaneous generation” of life. Every cell is the offspring of a pre-existing cell. Hence every weed that next season will spring up and provoke the farmer’s ire, and every insect that will then make life almost intolerable for man or beast, exists throughout the winter in some form.

Beginning with the earthworms and their kindred, we find that at the approach of winter they burrow deep down where the icy breath of the frost never reaches, and there they live, during the cold season, a life of comparative quiet. That they are exceedingly sensitive to warmth, however, may be proven by the fact that when a warm rain comes some night in February or March, thawing out the crust of the earth, the next morning reveals in our dooryards the mouths of hundreds of the pits or burrows of these primitive tillers of the soil, each surrounded by a little pile of pellets, the castings of the active artisans of the pits during the night before.

If we will get up before dawn on such a morning we can find the worms crawling actively about over the surface of the ground, but when the first signs of day appear they seek once more their protective burrows, and only an occasional belated individual serves as a breakfast for the early birds.

The underlined word “perpetuate” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

consume

continue

pause

consume

halt

protect

Correct answer:

continue

Explanation:

In context, the author says, “One of the greatest problems which each of the living forms about us has had to solve, during the years of its existence on earth, is how best to perpetuate its kind during that cold season that once each year, in our temperate zone, is bound to come.” Throughout this essay, he is talking about how animals continue their kind through the winter. The use of the word “perpetuate” can be most easily determined from a careful reading of the second paragraph, where the author says, “Hence every weed that next season will spring up and provoke the farmer’s ire, and every insect which will then make life almost intolerable for man or beast, exists throughout the winter in some form.” This information tells us that it is how to continue its kind during winter that concerns every living form. To provide further help, “consume” means eat or use up.

Example Question #42 : Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from "How Animals Spend the Winter" by W. S. Blatchley in A Book of Natural History (1902, ed. David Starr Jordan)

One of the greatest problems that each of the living forms about us has had to solve, during the years of its existence on earth, is how best to perpetuate its kind during that cold season that once each year, in our temperate zone, is bound to come. Many are the solutions to this problem. Each form of life has, as it were, solved it best to suit its own peculiar case, and to the earnest student of Nature there is nothing more interesting than to pry into these solutions and note how varied, strange, and wonderful they are.

To fully appreciate some of the facts mentioned below it must be borne in mind that there is no such thing as “spontaneous generation” of life. Every cell is the offspring of a pre-existing cell. Hence every weed that next season will spring up and provoke the farmer’s ire, and every insect that will then make life almost intolerable for man or beast, exists throughout the winter in some form.

Beginning with the earthworms and their kindred, we find that at the approach of winter they burrow deep down where the icy breath of the frost never reaches, and there they live, during the cold season, a life of comparative quiet. That they are exceedingly sensitive to warmth, however, may be proven by the fact that when a warm rain comes some night in February or March, thawing out the crust of the earth, the next morning reveals in our dooryards the mouths of hundreds of the pits or burrows of these primitive tillers of the soil, each surrounded by a little pile of pellets, the castings of the active artisans of the pits during the night before.

If we will get up before dawn on such a morning we can find the worms crawling actively about over the surface of the ground, but when the first signs of day appear they seek once more their protective burrows, and only an occasional belated individual serves as a breakfast for the early birds.

The underlined word “belated” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

reckless

punctual

late

early

surprising

Correct answer:

late

Explanation:

In context, the author says, “when the first signs of day appear they seek once more their protective burrows, and only an occasional belated individual serves as a breakfast for the early birds.” So, you may understand that the worms appear so early that they are back underground before even the perennial “early birds” can get them. So the one that is actually caught and eaten for breakfast by the “early birds” may be said to be “belated,” or late. To provide further help, “punctual” means on time, and “reckless” means not careful.

Example Question #2 : Finding Context Dependent Meanings Of Words In Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from "The Greatest Sea-Wave Ever Known" by R. A. Proctor in Wonders of Earth, Sea, and Sky (1902, ed. Edward Singleton Holden)

The inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands, which lie about six thousand three hundred miles from Arica—a city in Chile, might have imagined themselves safe from any effects that could be produced by an earthquake taking place so far away from them. But on the night between August 13th and 14th, the sea around this island group rose in a surprising manner, and many thought the islands were sinking, and would shortly subside altogether beneath the waves. Some of the smaller islands, indeed, were for a time completely submerged. Before long, however, the sea fell again, and as it did so the observers "found it impossible to resist the impression that the islands were rising bodily out of the water." For no less than three days this strange oscillation of the sea continued to be experienced, the most remarkable ebbs and floods being noticed at Honolulu, on the island of Woahoo.

But the sea-wave swept onward far beyond these islands. At Yokohama, in Japan, more than ten thousand five hundred miles from Arica, an enormous wave poured in on August 14th, but at what hour we have no satisfactory record. So far as distance is concerned, this wave affords most surprising evidence of the stupendous nature of the disturbance to which the waters of the Pacific Ocean had been subjected. The whole circumference of the earth is but twenty-five thousand miles, so that this wave had traveled over a distance considerably greater than two-fifths of the earth's circumference. A distance which the swiftest of our ships could not traverse in less than six or seven weeks had been swept over by this enormous undulation in the course of a few hours.

The underlined word “traverse” most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

abandon

demolish

remote

retract

cross

Correct answer:

cross

Explanation:

In context, the author says, “A distance that the swiftest of our ships could not traverse in less than six or seven weeks had been swept over by this enormous undulation in the course of a few hours.” First, a little additional help: “swiftest” means fastest, as “swift” means fast or quick, and “undulation” means wave. The author is talking about the distance traveled by the sea-wave, which is the biggest clue that the correct answer must be “cross.” “Traversed” and “crossed” are synonyms of one another and both mean traveled across. To provide further help, “abandon” means leave behind; “demolish” means destroy or tear-down; “remote” means far-away or emotionally distant and detached; and “detract” means reduce or take away from.

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