ACT Reading: Meaning-in-Context

Meaning-in-context questions are one of the most common question types in the Reading section of the ACT. These questions ask you to decipher the definition of a word or the meaning of a phrase or sentence used in a passage. Practice is important for mastering these questions, which can use words with multiple meanings. The following strategies should help you master any meaning-in-context question:

  • Read the passage first

    You’ll be asked several questions about each reading passage. For many meaning-in-context questions, you’ll need to know the entire passage’s purpose. Make sure you read the passage before looking at questions to prevent the questions from misleading you while you read.

  • Takes notes

    Taking notes is an important step to scoring well on reading comprehension questions. It’ll help you figure out the passage’s purpose or any shifts in the argument. These will be helpful when trying to find the context of a word, phrase, or sentence.

  • Finding the context

    Meaning-in-context questions will give you the specific line number where you can find the word, phrase, or sentence you need to define. More often than not you’ll need to read (at least) a sentence or two before and after that part of the passage.

Meaning-In-Context Practice Question

These three strategies should be enough to help you score well on meaning-in-context questions. Now, let’s try a sample question:
I’ve often had to endure the surprise that city folk feel when they first see my paintings. Many of them haven’t imagined that my people could take such joy in a simple meal, sitting in a low-lit room and eating potatoes and soup and bread. At first, I thought that they pitied the people I painted, but when I talked to them, they would tell me how much they wanted to sit with their families and know what it was like to be united by a common goal. I painted scenes of fathers and mothers digging together, babies slung on backs and children trailing behind. It was my job to show the city folk that this was another way to live.
My subject matter as much as my artistic ability conveyed the message of my work. Without a proper representation of my subject matter, the city folk would not have seen its beauty. But without my subject matter to begin with, any of my attempts to represent something beautiful would have been short-lived.
When the author says, “My subject matter as much as my artistic ability conveyed the message of my work” (at the beginning of the second paragraph) he means that:
A. his paintings of rural life and his artistic talent enable others to understand his work’s message.
B. his new life in the city and his elite circle of friends will influence others through his work.
C. his talent as an artist was what made him more famous than the subjects he chose to paint.
D. he hid messages in the canvas of his country life paintings.


We need to figure out what the author means by “subject matter” and “artistic ability” in this sentence. The subject matter is in paragraph one: hints about city folk needing to understand another way of life, a simpler one with people just eating “potatoes, soup and bread” around a table. His artistic ability implies that he’s good at what he does. But, it’s also important to notice that his subject matter and artistic ability are equally important (“as much as”) for the message of his work. Is there an answer choice that relays this? A conveys this message perfectly, as it mentions rural life, which is opposite from the urban life of the city folk, and the artist’s talent, another way of putting artistic ability. The other answer choices are meant to confuse you, with C testing if you read the question and passage closely. Don’t fall into these traps!