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

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

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Example Questions

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Example Question #3 : 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:

without preparation or preplanning

vacationing

located on a feather on a bird’s wing

having been thrown

in flight

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 #1 : Distinguishing Between Fact And Fiction In 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 feeling ill or worried

kept fresh and current

kept obscure

kept envious

kept literally alive

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 : Specific Phrases And Sentences In Natural 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

parallel

sing in harmony with

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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