4 Main Types of Sentence Completion Problems


ISEE Verbal Reasoning Sentence Completion


4 Main Types of Sentence Completion Problems

There are 4 major types of sentence completion problems: 1) contrast, 2) cause and effect, 3) definition and 4) examples.



1. Contrast

    • The words that can indicate contrast:

      • but, although, however, rather, even though, once, instead of, despite



Skeptical farmers predicted that George Washington Carver’s experiments with soil improvement would fail, but Carver himself remained -------.

  1.   amazed

  2.   indifferent

  3.   optimistic

  4.   suspicious

Clues> “Skeptical”, “fail”, “but”   
Answer> (C)



Although once ------- in Africa, cheetah populations have been greatly reduced due to hunting, loss of habitat, and decline of the cheetah’s prey.

  1. attractive

  2. threatened

  3. unknown

  4. widespread

Clues> “Although”, “once”, “have been reduced”   
Answer> (D)


2.  Cause & Effect

    • The words that indicate contrast

      • because, since, therefore, thus, hence, accordingly, so, when, after, as

    • There might be no particular word that indicates cause and effect.


Since the student looked puzzled, their teacher -------.

  1. faces became quite cold

  2. classmates began to arrive

  3. friend gave them a present

  4. teacher repeated the directions

Clues> “Since”, “puzzle” ---> what can you do when your students look confused?
Answer> (D)


3.  Definition

    • The word in the blank is almost directly explained in the sentence.



As the excitement of the holiday festivities began to -------, the children became calmer and more focused on their schoolwork.

  1. flourish

  2. peak

  3. resume

  4. subside

Clues> “excitement”, “calmer” ---> which word means to become calmer?
Answer> (D)


4.  Examples

    • The word in the blank is indirectly explained or examples of the blank word are given.

    • The words that indicate examples:

      • for example, for instance, such as



To reach maturity, a seagoing loggerhead turtle must survive many -------, such as attacks by gulls and hungry fish.

  1. allies

  2. destinations

  3. hazards

  4. voyages

Clues> “such as”, “attacks by gulls and hungry fish”
Answer> (C)



* Sample Questions Source: ERB ISEE Practice Test




Focus on Problem Solving rather than Advanced Learning

Many moms secretly compare their kids to other kids. At times they feel anxious if they find their kid’s friends seem to be academically more advanced than their own child. ‘Is my child going to be alright? Shouldn’t s/he be learning more advanced materials just to be safe?’ When teaching students, I often find some parents are only interested in how advanced their child is studying. On one hand, that is understandable, because checking the level at which the child is studying seems be a simple way to gauge if they are doing well academically.


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If you put sincere efforts into truly understanding your child’s real academic levels, however, you will realize ‘how advanced’ he/she is studying doesn’t necessarily mean much. I sometimes feel concerned when I see some ‘smart kids’ solving challenging problems just by memorizing solutions with no fundamental understanding. How do they solve these problems so quickly without ever thinking? Ironically, there are many students who can solve advanced problems while they cannot really answer more fundamental questions. 


For example, let’s think about the multiplication table. Say there are two 2nd-grade elementary students. While one student has completely memorized the multiplication table, the other one has not memorized it yet, but s/he understands it is basically skip-counting or repeated addition. The following problem is given to both students.

'If you receive $5 a month from your parents, how much money will you have in 14 months?'

The first student replies, "I’ve never learned (memorized) 5 x 14 so I don’t know the answer." Since s/he has memorized only up to multiplication of 9, s/he doesn’t even try to solve the problem. The second student, on the other hand, knows s/he has to add 5 together 14 times, and slowly approaches to the answer, which is 70.


Although the example was about the multiplication table, this same principle can be applied to all levels of studying. Developing your own problem-solving skills based on a deep understanding of principles and fundamentals is much more powerful in the end, than just being able to answer quickly from memorizing solutions without true understanding, especially in more advanced grades. For that reason, the second student has more potential than the first one, and the parents shouldn’t be too concerned if their child hasn’t memorized the multiplication table yet. (Of course, memorizing the multiplication table will definitely expedite fast and accurate mathematical operation, and students should master it at some point. However, parents don’t need to panic if their children haven’t memorized it yet as a 2nd grader.)


I have seen a student whose school grades were top notch but solved problems without a true understanding of fundamental concept. So, when a problem was given in a slightly different way, he often did not understand the question. Often, this type of student or their parents are only interested in whether or not their answer is correct. They don’t value the process itself much. Therefore, they focus on “how to get the answer quickly” rather than “understanding fundamentals.” So instead of “wasting” their time struggling to solve problems, they sit and wait for their teacher to show them how to solve problems with mechanical skills. These students quickly absorb the techniques as soon as they are taught, by memorizing. What’s problematic is that equipped with good test-taking skills (at least on a superficial level), they become more confident in their study method, and less interested in spending time in understanding fundamentals. It truly creates a vicious cycle in their proper learning. Getting good school grades with this kind of superficial learning and thinking is, however, only possible in lower grades. If my child’s school grade dropped all of a sudden after high school, perhaps it was predictable, just like a building with weak foundations eventually collapses.


Once a student has realized that s/he lacks a deep understanding of fundamentals, the only option left is to go back to basics and understand the principle. But there is another problem. Many students lose their concentration when they go back and revisit the materials they learned previously. They think what they have already “heard” or “seen” before is what they “know”, and refuse to focus on the fundamentals. So really, the best way to learn "right" is to learn slowly but surely when you first learn the material. Before working on the calculation speed, it is more important to develop problem-solving skills via a deep understanding of basic concepts.


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The curriculum in each grade is part of the large continuous learning spectrum, and it is organically connected from the previous grade to the following grade. So, in-depth study in the current grade level is naturally related to the next grade level, and sometimes it is even more advanced than some of the next grade-level problems. Therefore, instead of caring too much about how “advanced” my child is, try to understand where they truly are, and provide the right amount of challenges based on what they know. This will help them develop their own problem-solving skills.


Your child will eventually do better at school by studying at their own pace, making sure they understand from the basic to the most advanced level in the grade.




Grit and Growth Mindset Training

In my previous article, I introduced Angela Duckworth’s TED speech, where she proposed the secret of successful students is Grit. The easiest way to determine whether a student has Grit or not, is to look into his/her homework. Amongst my students, the high performers generally exhibit consistency in the quality of their homework. They have their own standard of excellence when it comes to tests or homework, and they always try their hardest to meet that standard. The amount of the homework doesn’t matter to them; whether it takes 15 minutes or 2 hours, they do their best. Even when the assignment is too difficult for them to finish, I can still see, they struggle and try very hard to approach the problem from various angles. So, instead of simply counting how many questions that they correctly answered in their homework, I holistically look at the difficulty and the quantity of the homework and see how much time and effort they spent to finish it


I had a student named Terry, and he was one of the most brilliant students and yet one of the laziest. The quality of his homework was very inconsistent; one day, he would bring me a flawlessly completed assignment, and another day, he would jot down random answers that didn’t even make sense. I knew that he was a brilliant kid because when he focused, he was able to solve a difficult problem better than other students. Despite his brightness, Terry often displayed a tendency to easily give up solving challenging problems or not investing enough effort on his work, which made me concerned for his long-term academic career. While he seemed excessively proud of himself when he felt he did better than other students, he also got easily discouraged when he encountered challenging problems. (In fact, a lot of students are like Terry)


Terry didn’t seem to feel the need to diligently finish his homework, because he knew he wouldn’t fall behind in class even if he didn’t do his homework. Students often complacently think that they don’t need to do their homework as long as their test scores are acceptable (relative to their own standard, of course), but this is a big miscalculation. Students who strive to independently solve challenging problems before class can experience different levels of understanding during the class. If they have rigorously tried various approaches to solve a problem from one method to another and find on their own what works and what doesn’t, why or why not, this helps them have a much deeper understanding of the problem, enabling ‘three-dimensional’ learning. Furthermore, such learning habits will continue to accumulate, and will be displayed in their GPA as the students advance in their grades. If your child’s GPA was good until middle school, but suddenly dropped in high school, you may want to look into his/her foundation of learning habits, such as how deeply he/she’s been studying and how much effort he/she’s spent solving problems. Maybe, the GPA difference that started during your child’s high school years was an expected result from the difference in his/her grit.


As Angela mentioned in her lecture, the growth mindset is important to develop grit. Since students with the growth mindset don’t easily get discouraged, they tend to exponentially improve as they advance in their grades. This is why I pay extra attention to those students. Even though they might not have the highest GPA in their class right now, they have the highest potential to do so later. Students with or without the growth mindset can clearly be identified during class. When I teach the students with growth mindset, I am often amazed by the bright spirit and energy they bring to my class. When those students come across a difficult problem and fail to answer it correctly, rather than being discouraged from their failure, they ask me, “how do I solve this problem?” In other words, they have a large amount of interest in solving the problem, and they do not think that their inability to solve the problem was because they weren’t smart enough, or because they weren’t good enough. Sometimes, they even become more interested as a problem gets harder. Now, students like these are rare. And because they’re rare, they’re more noticeable.


Students without the Growth Mindset, on the other hand, have the tendency to only care about whether they were right or wrong. While they feel painfully ashamed about the fact that their answer is wrong, they have little to no interest in how to solve the problem correctly..  Sometimes, I even wonder why they’re so discouraged to that extent. I feel sorry when I see those students. Of course, I was also once a student who felt discouraged by my inability to solve a problem. However in my hindsight, after finishing a doctorate and being in the field of teaching students, it was utterly unnecessary. They’re going through a period of learning and it is not an ultimate judgement day of their lives. Instead of being obsessed with their failure, they should instead ask “why and ‘”how” and this will help overcome many more obstacles to come in their future. Thus, I try my best to help develop the growth mindset in my students when I lecture. Although it is important to improve their knowledge on a subject, in the long run, it is more important to develop the growth mindset in them. Students with the growth mindset will naturally fortify their grit as well.


If grit is one of the common factors of the successful people, you as a parent, would probably want to develop grit in your child. If you don’t know where to start, start with checking their homework. Does your child consistently put effort and finish his/her daily tasks? If your child doesn’t have such a standard yet, you can help them practice it. If the parents emphasize the work ethic on homework, the child will naturally accept that standard and start to give more effort. You don’t have to scold them or be frustrated when you don’t see immediate results because such training is a new challenge to the child. Instead, you should positively encourage them to finish their assignments and continually check on their progress. Doing so will be a good first step in building your child’s growth mindset.



Secret of Successful Students: Grit

What are the secrets of so-called high performing students? There is a lecture I want to introduce that has an answer to this question. This lecture also gives a good idea of what I learned to value from my own teaching experience. 


Angela Lee Duckworth, who had left her management consulting job to become a 7th grade math teacher, wondered about the common characteristics of students with high academic achievement. To find the answer, she entered graduate school and started her research on the subject. Based on the results, she presents one common feature of successful people, Grit.


“I was firmly convinced that every one of my students could learn the material if they worked hard and long enough.”

Angela briefly describes the characteristics of successful students as above. Although this part passes by very quickly in the speech, I believe this summarizes the essence of grit very well. Any student can learn and master the curriculum if they work hard and long enough. Simply put, you do it till you make it.



Of course, it is easier said than done. In reality, it is actually quite difficult to keep your hard work going for years to achieve a long-term goal. People naturally feel discouraged and often give up when faced with failure. For this reason, there is a lot of interest in how to grow resilience and grit so that we can keep ourselves spirited. One of the theories is ‘Growth Mindset’ researched by Dr. Carol Dweck from Stanford University. This theory states that one’s brain can grow and improve as it goes through various challenges. In other words, an individual’s learning capability is not innately fixed, but rather has the potential to grow as it gets exposed to many different challenges. Therefore, students, who have learned their brain capacity could expand, can accept more difficult challenges and do not easily get discouraged when encountered with failure. They believe their failure is not an invariable permanent state, but rather a chance to grow themselves.


I will discuss more about my own experience with my students regarding growth mindset and grit in another article. Until then, however, let me end this article by summarizing what I strongly believe through my teaching experience that is well-aligned with this TED speech.

Great students are great because they try until they’re great. If they’re smart, the process can be easier. If they’re not, it can be a bit harder. The most important thing is, you do it till you make it. 

In short, it’s not over until it’s over.  Never give up.



Watch Angela Duckworth's TED Talks: <Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance>