First Things First: Verbal Reasoning

Vocab and fill-ins and bubbles, oh my!  Don’t you wish someone could simplify all the important information about the Verbal Reasoning section into one compact chart?  Oh wait, we already did that for you…because we are just that awesome.  Here is an overview of the Verbal Reasoning section:

ISEE Verbal Reasoning Section by Level


Total # of questions


Sentence Completions

Total time

Time per question

Single word


Paired word

Lower Level






20 min

35 sec

Middle Level






20 min

30 sec

Upper Level






20 min

30 sec

If you look at the sentence completion portion of the section, you may notice that only the Lower Level test has phrase responses and only the Upper Level test has paired word responses.  We’ll get the low-down on these question types when we cover sentence completions.  For now, let’s get a closer look at each question type.

Close-Up on Synonyms

 As we take a look at the very first questions your child will encounter when the test book is opened, let’s go directly to the source… the test makers themselves.  Here’s what the good old ERB has to say about synonym questions:

“Synonyms focus more on word recognition and the ability to understand the relationships of other words and to discriminate among subtle differences in meaning. The reasoning function of synonyms takes place when the student must choose the word that is closest in meaning to the prompt word from among two or more related answer choices.”

Translation: This is straight-up vocabulary, people! More than half of your child’s verbal reasoning score is going to depend purely on word knowledge.  Here are some examples directly from the ERB guides:

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 6.27.50 PM

Yeah…I’ll bet there were at least a few of those words that YOU would even need to review.  I mean, when was the last time you used the word “parsimonious” in everyday life?  So jumping on the vocabulary train early is a surefire way to boost a verbal reasoning score.

At UP, we strive to make learning vocabulary as effective and fun as possible with games, activities, and lexicon-building strategies embedded in every preparation session.  Memorizing definitions from lists or flash cards may work for some students, but we stay up to date with the latest techniques to increase word retrieval and build a lasting foundation of vocabulary that your child will be able to use on the ISEE and beyond.  Just because we’re feeling generous, contact us to request a copy of our very own “Vocabulary Mastery List” to use for your child’s preparation.

Zooming in on —— Completions

Yes, the answer to the above question is “sentence”! You’re so smart.

The ERB’s explanation of sentence completion questions:

“Sentence completion questions not only test vocabulary, but also measure a student’s knowledge of words and their functions. The student must use both syntactic and semantic information within the text and identify cues within the given sentence and across sentences.”

In case “syntactic” and “semantic” needed to be dusted off and taken off the shelf of rarely-used vocabulary, what our friends at the ERB are saying here is that the way the words are arranged (syntax) and the meaning of words and word groupings (semantics) are both tested in sentence completion questions.  While vocabulary is still important, the context will provide more clues (and also possibly more confusion) as the question is approached.  Let’s look at some examples, shall we?

Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 6.34.58 PM

The bottom line of sentence completions?  Whether it is a single, phrase, or paired-word response, fill in the blank or blanks with what is missing.  As you can see, the vocabulary demands will still be pretty steep on these questions.  However, learning how to approach sentence completions and not get tricked by answer choices are key skills that will be worthwhile in the quest to raise the verbal reasoning score.

Sentence completion questions are used on many aptitude and achievement tests, and here at UP, we have definitely seen our share of them.  Our 4-step approach to sentence completions has helped our students climb to the top of the stanines in verbal reasoning.  Word knowledge isn’t enough.  Strategy is everything on these questions, and our students come out of our programs well-equipped with techniques to complete any sentences that may come their way.  Those blanks don’t scare our kids one bit!

This concludes our insider’s look at the Verbal Reasoning section.  We hope you have enjoyed this edition…and maybe even learned a few vocabulary words!  We dare you to try them out at the office tomorrow (e.g. “This coffee is absolutely reprehensible today”).

For more information on how to conquer the Verbal Reasoning (or any other) section or to request a “Vocabulary Mastery List”, contact us or schedule that free consultation.

Next week we will dare to face the most feared of all ISEE sections…the dreaded Quantitative Reasoning section!  Join us as we stare down this perilous section full of columns and charts and learn to get out alive.

Looking forward to our next quest,

Jenni and Erin


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