10 Test Question Terms and What They Ask Students to Do

Prepare for the Test by Understanding the Questions

When a middle or high school student sits to take a test, he or she faces two challenges. 

The first challenge is that the test is may be about the content or the material a student knows. A student may study for this form of testing. A second challenge is that the test may require the student to apply skills necessary to understand the content. It is the second challenge, the application of skills, where a student must understand what a test question is asking. In other words, studying will not prepare the student; the student must understand the academic vocabulary of test-taking. 

There is research on how educators need to be explicit in their instruction to help students develop the skills to understand the vocabulary or the academic language of any test question. One of the seminal studies on the explicit instruction of vocabulary was in 1987, "The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition" by Nagy, W. E., & Herman. The researchers noted:

"Explicit vocabulary instruction, which is the direct and purposeful teaching of new vocabulary words, complements implicit vocabulary instruction by (a) modeling for students how to acquire more than a superficial understanding of words essential to their comprehension of specific texts and (b) engaging them in meaningful practice with such words."

They recommended teachers be direct and purposeful in the teaching of the academic vocabulary, such as those words used in test questions. This academic vocabulary belongs to a category called Tier 2 vocabulary, which is comprised of words that appear in written, not spoken, language.

The questions in course-specific or in standardized tests (PSAT, SAT, ACT) use the same vocabulary in their question stems. These question stems, for example, may ask students to"compare and contrast" or "read the information and summarize" for both literary and informational texts.    

Students should be engaged in meaningful practice with Tier 2 words so they will understand the language of the questions in any course-related or standardized test.

Here are ten examples of Tier 2 verbs and their related synonyms that teachers should teach in preparation for any content area test in grades 7-12.

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A question that asks a student to analyze or provide an analysis is asking a student to look closely at something, at each of its parts, and see if the parts fit together in a way that makes sense. The practice of looking closely or "close reading" is defined by The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC):

"Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately."

In ELA or social studies a student may analyze development of a theme or words and figures of speech in a text in order to examine what they mean and how they affect the overall tone and feeling of the text.

In math or science a student may analyze a problem or solution and decide to do what to do about each individual part.

Test questions may use words similar to analyze including: decompose, decontextualize, diagnose, examine, grapple, investigate, or partition. 

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A question that asks a student to compare means a student is asked to look at common characteristics and identify how things are alike or similar.

In ELA or social studies students can look for repeated language, motifs or symbols that an author used in the same text.

In math or science students may look at results to see how they are similar or how they match to measures such as length, height, weight, volume, or size.

Test questions may use similar words like associate, connect, link, match, or relate.

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A question that asks a student to contrast means as student is asked to provide the characteristics that are not alike.

In ELA or social studies there may be differing points of view in an informational text.

In math or science students may use different forms of measurement such as fraction vs. decimals.

Test questions may use similar words to contrast like: categorized, classify, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish. 

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A question that asks a student to describe is asking the student to present a clear picture of a person, place, thing or idea.

In ELA or social studies a student may describe a story using content specific vocabulary such as introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion.

In math or science students may want to describe a shape using the language of geometry: corners, angles, face, or dimension.

Test questions may  also use similar words: depict, detail, express, outline, portray, represent.

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A question that asks a student to elaborate on something means that a student must add more information or add more detail.

In ELA or social studies a student may add more sensory elements (sounds, smells, tastes, etc.) to a composition.

In math or science a student supports a solution with details on the answer.

Test questions may  also use similar words: broaden, elaborate, enhance, expand.

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A question that asks a student to explain is asking the student toto provide information or evidence. Students can use five W’s (Who, What, When, Where, Why) and H (How) in the "explain" response, especially if it is open-ended.

In ELA or social studies a student should use details and examples to explain what a text is about.

In math or science students need to provide information about how they arrived at an answer, or if they noticed a connection or a pattern.

Test questions may also use the terms answer, articulate, clarify, communicate, convey, describe, express, inform, recount, report, respond, retell, state, summarize, synthesize. 

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A question that asks a student to interpret is asking the student to make meaning in their own words.

In ELA or social studies, students should show how words and phrases in a text can be interpreted literally or figuratively.

In math or science data may be interpreted in many different ways.

Test questions may also use the terms define, determine, recognize. 

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A question that asks a student to infer requires the student to read between the lines in finding the answer in the information or clues the author provides.

In ELA or social studies students need to support a position after gathering evidence and considering information. When students encounter an unfamiliar word while reading, they may infer meaning from words around it.

In math or science students infer through a review of data and random samples.

Test questions may also use the terms deduce or generalize,.

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A question that asks a student to persuade is asking the student to take identifiable point of view or position on one side of an issue. Students should use facts, statistics, beliefs and opinions. The conclusion should someone to take action.

In ELA or social studies students may persuade listeners to agree with a writer or speaker’s point of view.

In math or science students prove using criteria. 

Test questions may  also use the terms argue, assert, challenge, claim, confirm, convince defend, disagree, justified, persuade, promote, prove, qualify, specify, support, verify.

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A question that asks a student to summarize means to reduce a text in a concise way using as few words as possible.

In ELA or social studies student will summarize by restating key points from a text in a sentence or short paragraph.

In math or science student will summarize piles of raw data to reduce for analysis or explanation.

Test questions may also use the terms arrange or incorporate.

View Article Sources
  • Nagy, W. E., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Breadth and depth of vocabulary knowledge: Implications for instruction. In M. McKeown & M. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp.13-30). New York, NY: Psychology Press.