SSAT Upper Level Reading : Finding Context-Dependent Meanings of Phrases in Narrative Science Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Content Of Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “In Mammoth Cave” by John Burroughs (1894)

Some idea of the impression which Mammoth Cave makes upon the senses, irrespective even of sight, may be had from the fact that blind people go there to see it, and are greatly struck with it. I was assured that this is a fact. The blind seem as much impressed by it as those who have their sight. When the guide pauses at a more interesting point, or lights the scene up with a great torch or with small flares, and points out the more striking features, the blind exclaim, "How wonderful! How beautiful!" They can feel it, if they cannot see it. They get some idea of the spaciousness when words are uttered. The voice goes forth in these colossal chambers like a bird. When no word is spoken, the silence is of a kind never experienced on the surface of the earth, it is so profound and abysmal. This, and the absolute darkness, to a sighted person makes him feel as if he were face to face with the primordial nothingness. The objective universe is gone; only the subjective remains; the sense of hearing is inverted, and reports only the murmurs from within. The blind miss much, but much remains to them. The great cave is not merely a spectacle to the eye; it is a wonder to the ear, a strangeness to the smell and to the touch. The body feels the presence of unusual conditions through every pore.

Which of the following answer choices is supported by the author’s statement that inside Mammoth Cave, “The objective universe is gone”?

Possible Answers:

Every individual should visit Mammoth Cave.

The universe is more clearly understood within Mammoth Cave.

Sound is the primary sensory experience within the cave.

The experience of the cave alters perceived reality.

Blind people experience the cave in the same way as people with sight.

Correct answer:

The experience of the cave alters perceived reality.

Explanation:

The author states that in the darkness of the cave, “the objective universe is gone; only the subjective remains; the sense of hearing is inverted, and reports only the murmurs from within.” When the author says that the objective is gone and the subjective remains he means that the experience of the cave causes people to perceive things as they would individually, within the quiet of their own minds, rather than based on observable and generally agreed upon facts and prejudices. The author believes that the experience of the cave alters the perception of those who are undergoing the experience.

Example Question #41 : Natural Science Passages

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.

Which of the following best restates the meaning of the underlined phrase “as the population increased in numbers, the quantity thus furnished was insufficient”?

Possible Answers:

As the population of Icelandic ducks increased, their food sources began to deplete

As the number of ducks increased, the number of eggs they laid became no longer satisfactory

As the population of New England settlers increased, the amount of eider down collected was no longer enough

As the number of Icelandic citizens increased, the populations of Icelandic ducks decreased

As the number of citizens of New England increased, the desirability of eider down decreased

Correct answer:

As the population of New England settlers increased, the amount of eider down collected was no longer enough

Explanation:

In order to answer this question correctly, you have to consider the context in which this phrase appears: “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.” It only makes sense for “population” to refer to a population of people, not of ducks, as the sentence concludes by saying “the people sought a larger supply in the vast colonies of ducks and geese along the Labrador coast.” They would not need to seek out a larger supply of ducks and geese if the population of ducks and geese was increasing. Knowing this, we can discard the answer choices “As the number of ducks increased, the number of eggs they laid became no longer satisfactory” and “As the population of Icelandic ducks increased, their food sources began to deplete.” The sentence is only discussing New England settlers; it does not mention Iceland. So, “As the number of Icelandic citizens increased, the populations of Icelandic ducks decreased” cannot be correct either. This leaves us with two answer choices: “As the number of citizens of New England increased, the desirability of eider down decreased,” and “As the population of North America increased, the amount of eider down collected was no longer enough.” The important distinction made between these two answer choices hinges on the meaning of the word “quantity.” “Quantity” means number of, so the correct answer is “As the population of New England increased, the amount of eider down collected was no longer enough.” If you read the sentence quickly and confused quantity with “quality,” which means how good something is, you may have picked the other answer choice. It’s important to read carefully, especially when answering questions that deal with paraphrasing!

Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Phrases And Clauses In Natural 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.”

What can we infer from the author’s use of the underlined phrase, “sometimes, but not generally”?

Possible Answers:

Hummingbirds can be found with both honey and insects in their stomachs, and this is what scientists observe most often.

Hummingbirds can be found with only honey in their stomachs quite often.

Hummingbirds can be found with honey in their stomachs, but it is not common.

None of the other answers

Hummingbirds can be found with insects in their stomachs, but this is rare.

Correct answer:

Hummingbirds can be found with honey in their stomachs, but it is not common.

Explanation:

The phrase “sometimes, but not generally” is found in the sentence, “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.” The phrase is specifically talking about the presence of honey in hummingbirds’ stomachs, not of insects, so we can eliminate the answer choice “Hummingbirds can be found with insects in their stomachs, but this is rare.” Since “not generally” means “not most of the time,” the author is saying “sometimes, but not most of the time, hummingbirds have honey in their stomachs.” This is only accurately stated by the answer choice “Hummingbirds can be found with honey in their stomachs, but it is not common.” The answer choices “Hummingbirds can be found with both honey and insects in their stomachs, and this is what scientists observe most often” and “Hummingbirds can be found with only honey in their stomachs quite often” are incorrect because neither suggests that finding a hummingbird with honey in its stomach is rare, which is what the author is saying.

Example Question #1 : Finding Context Dependent Meanings Of Phrases 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 phrase “on the wing” is __________.

Possible Answers:

vacationing

without preparation or preplanning

in flight

located on a feather on a bird’s wing

having been thrown

Correct answer:

in flight

Explanation:

The phrase “on the wing” is used in the following sentence in the passage:

“[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.”

“On the wing” may initially appear to mean just what it says, “located on a feather on a bird’s wing,’ but considering the way it is used in the passage, this doesn’t make any sense. The sentence describes the hummingbirds “darting about,” and in order for them to do that, they would have to be flying, so you can tell that “on the wing” means “in flight.” None of the other answer choices make sense given the context in which the phrase is used.

Example Question #43 : Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “Birds in Retreat” in “Animal Defences—Active Defence” in 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)

Among the large running birds are forms, like the African ostrich, in which the absence of powers of flight is largely compensated by the specialization of the legs for the purpose of rapid movement on the ground. For straightforward retreat in open country nothing could be more effective; but another kind of adaptation is required in birds like rails, which are deficient in powers of flight, and yet are able to run through thickly-growing vegetation with such rapidity as to commonly elude their enemies. This is rendered possible by the shape of their bodies, which are relatively narrow and flattened from side to side, so as to easily slip between the stems of grasses, rushes, and similar plants. Anyone who has pursued our native land-rail or corn-crake with intent to capture will have noted how extremely difficult it is even to get within sight of a bird of this sort. 

Certain birds, unfortunately for themselves, have lost the power of flight without correspondingly increased powers of running, and have paid the penalty of extinction. Such an arrangement, as might be anticipated, was the result of evolution in islands devoid of any predatory ground-animals, and a classic example of it is afforded by the dodo and its allies, birds related to the pigeons. The dodo itself was a large and clumsy-looking species that at one time abounded in the island of Mauritius, which, like oceanic islands generally, possessed no native mammals, while its indigenous reptiles were only represented by lizards. The ubiquitous sailor, however, and the animals (especially swine) which he introduced, brought about the extinction of this helpless bird in less than a century after its first discovery in 1598. Its memory is now only kept green by a few contemporary drawings and descriptions, certain museum remains, and the proverb "as extinct as a dodo.” A similar fate must overtake any organism suddenly exposed to new and unfavorable conditions, if devoid of sufficient plasticity to rapidly accommodate itself to the altered environment.

What does the author mean in using the underlined phrase “kept green”?

Possible Answers:

kept obscure

kept envious

kept feeling ill or worried

kept literally alive

kept fresh and current

Correct answer:

kept fresh and current

Explanation:

 The phrase “keep green” appears in the following sentence in the passage’s second paragraph:

“[The dodo’s] memory is now only kept green by a few contemporary drawings and descriptions, certain museum remains, and the proverb "as extinct as a dodo.” 

From this context, we can tell that “kept green” is not being used to refer to the dodo itself, as at this point, the passage is discussing the “memory” that remains of the dodo as an extinct species. This means that “kept literally alive” cannot be correct. Nothing in the sentence suggests that the phrase means “kept envious, “”kept feeling ill or worried,” or “kept obscure.” However, the drawings, descriptions, remains, and proverb all keep the dodo’s memory fresh and current, so “kept fresh and current” is the correct answer.

Example Question #1 : Language 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.

The phrase “harmonize with,” underlined in the first paragraph, most closely means __________.

Possible Answers:

match

conduct

sing in harmony with

parallel

systematize

Correct answer:

match

Explanation:

The phrase “harmonize with” appears in this sentence in the first paragraph: “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.” While “harmonize with” can mean “sing in harmony with,” this meaning doesn’t make sense in the context of the passage’s sentence. “Parallel,” “systematize,” and “conduct” don’t make sense either—only “match” makes sense, so it is the correct answer.

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