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ACT and SAT Reading Sections: The Questions

Last time we covered some general strategies for the reading comprehension sections of the ACT and SAT. Now we’ll look at the types of questions the tests actually ask. Like all aspects of the ACT and SAT, the reading questions follow a set formula. They always present the same handful of question types, and all the information you need to answer the questions is found within the passages themselves.

Understanding the types of questions on the ACT and SAT is important for a couple of reasons. The first is time management. Knowing what type of question you are being asked allows you to quickly narrow down what you need to find and where you need to find it in a passage. The second is that some types of questions will come more naturally to you than others will. Note what categories questions fall into as you’re working on practice exams. This way you can focus on the types of questions you find most difficult and make the most effective use of your study time.

Types of Questions


You need to locate something specific in the passage. These questions can be as simple as finding a person, place, thing, or date, or they can involve having to interpret a more subtle tidbit of information. Detail questions refer to a very narrow section of the passage. They’ll mention specific paragraphs, line numbers, characters, or events in the narrative. Follow these clues to find where you need to look for the answer.

Main Ideas:

These are about finding the focus of a paragraph, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole. Much of the time the main idea will be in the first sentence of a paragraph or the first paragraph of a passage. However, not all passages are this straightforward. Narrative fiction especially breaks from this classic topic sentence/introductory paragraph structure. Ask yourself what you think the main idea is as you’re reading a passage. What people, places, things, or concepts are mentioned over and over? Is there a specific notion that the author returns to again and again? Try to get a rough grasp of the author’s central point, and then see if this matches up with any of the possible answers.

Meaning of words:

These questions ask you what a specific word or phrase means in context. The key point here is in context. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security just because you know the dictionary definition of a word. Likewise, don’t despair just because you see a word that you don’t recognize. The passages always provide enough information to figure out a word’s meaning.

Look at the sentence in which a word or words appear, as well as the surrounding sentences, for clues to its usage and meaning. Ask yourself how an author is using a word. Is it intended to be taken literally or metaphorically? What other words in the passage are closely associated with the one(s) you are being asked to define? Also consider the subject matter of the passage itself. A natural science passage on a discovery in chemistry and a social science passage discussing human relationships are likely to use the word “caustic” in very different ways.

Comparative Relationships:

These questions ask you to compare and contrast characters, points of view, interpretations of data, and the like. Once again, the type of passage gives you a clue as to how to approach finding the answer. A short story of narrative fiction or a deeply personal humanities essay might ask you to define the relationship between two characters or how the narrator views him or herself compared to others. Social and natural science questions are more likely to ask you to compare conclusions drawn from studies or to contrast different approaches to a particular problem.

Sometimes questions will ask you to compare and contrast two shorter passages. When you see paired passages, expect questions dealing with the following: how each author might feel about a particular issue or situation, what the main idea of each passage is, and how the author of one passage might respond to an argument put forth by the other.

Cause-Effect Relationships:

Questions of cause and effect show up most often in narrative fiction and natural science passages. A fiction passage could ask how the actions of one character influenced another. A science passage might ask what factors caused a species to die out or what hypothesis best explains a natural phenomenon.

Make sure the answer isn’t stated outright before you do anything else. Some questions do make you do the work of putting the cause and effect relationship together, but many passages will simply give you the answer if you re-read the relevant paragraph(s).


These questions want you to take some aspect of the passage and sum it up as succinctly as possible. While main idea questions ask you to extract the core essence of a passage, generalizations expect you to make some sort of broad observation or draw a conclusion about the author’s argument. Try to pick the answer that most effectively summarizes the information you’re being asked to condense, one that is neither overly vague nor overly specific.

Sequence of Events:

Whereas cause-effect relationship questions simply want to know what event is responsible for what outcome, sequence of events questions expect you to sort out the order in which events occurred. These questions can take a couple different forms. You may be asked where a particular event fits within other events in a passage. For example, a narrative fiction passage question could ask at what point a particular character performed a particular action. You may also be asked to put a series of steps in their correct order. A natural science passage question could ask you to list the proper sequence of a series of important discoveries or steps in an experiment.

The chronological order of the passage is your best asset here. Passages are chosen for the ACT and SAT in part because of their straightforward nature. They may have some nonlinear elements, but none will have wildly jumbled narratives or events totally out of sequence. The test format simply doesn’t allow for passages that are overly complex or clever.

Author’s Voice and Method:

These are questions of authorial intent. What is the main purpose of a passage? What is the author trying to accomplish? Has the author adopted a particular style or point of view? If so, what is it and why has he or she chosen this approach? This may sound similar to main idea questions. However, the main idea is what the author is trying to get across. The method is how the author tries to get that point across.

The SAT is particularly notorious for asking you to identify the tone of a passage. Tone questions are as much about the type of passage as the subject matter contained therein. A narrative fiction or humanities tone question is more likely to be asking for the emotional essence of a passage. A story or personal memoir expressing a deep sense of longing for the way things were would be considered nostalgic or wistful. Social and natural science passage tone question are typically geared toward the author’s attitude or approach to the subject matter. You might be asked if the author’s tone toward a controversial subject is skeptical, objective, or dismissive.


Once or twice a passage the reading sections will ask you to answer a question the opposite way you normally would. When you see not or except, that’s your cue that you’re looking for the WRONG answer. You’ll need to go through the passage and eliminate the correct answers until you find one that isn’t supported by the text.

It’s important to remember that so-called not/except questions are not actually their own specific type of question; they are simply asking you to turn one of the previous question types on its head. Don’t start scouring the entire passage for answers if the question nudges you to a specific part of the passage the way a details question would. Identify the type of question you’re being asked to find the incorrect answer for, and work from there. If you still find yourself spending a long time on not/except questions on practice tests, consider skipping them and coming back after you’ve finished the rest of the questions.