On SAT Reading, there are three kinds of questions that require you to read large amounts of text and distill them down into answers. At PrepScholar, we call these "Big Picture" questions.
In contrast to "little picture" questions that ask for specific details, big picture questions tend to ask about big ideas found in large chunks of text, which can be anything from a paragraph or a series of paragraphs up to an entire passage (or multiple passages, if it's a paired passage question). Learning to answer these sorts of questions will prove very useful for college or university, where professors will expect you to do exactly this with even more dense and academic writing.
But how do you identify these "big picture" questions on SAT Reading? And what are the best ways to approach answering them? Below, I’ll discuss the three primary types of big picture questions you’ll encounter on the SAT, along with common ways the SAT will ask you about each. I'll also give you expert SAT Reading strategies to answer these questions, illustrated with examples from real practice questions.
Secret Bunker Turn Right and My Garden_in The Big Picture by Amanda Slater, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped and rotated from original.
Type 1: Main Point, Perspective, and Author Attitude
On the SAT, very rarely do you get asked questions about the main point that are worded in as straightforward a manner as these questions:
“The main idea of the passage is that the author...”
“Unlike Passage 1, Passage 2 focuses primarily on recycling’s...”
Instead, the questions are far more likely to ask you about the author’s attitude or perspective towards something discussed in the passage. Here are a few examples of ways I’ve seen these questions asked, all modified from actual SAT questions:
- “The author discusses the video game Portal from the perspective of...”
- “As a commentary on narrative structure, this video game is best described as...”
- “The author’s attitude toward the video game Portal is best described as...”
- “Which statement is most consistent with the author’s argument?”
- “The authors of both passages agree that Valve’s Portal"
- “In lines 39-62, the author reveals herself to be someone who believes that..."
In some ways, these are just inference questions that are only focused around the point of view of the author (or narrator). What makes these questions big picture questions, rather than inference questions, is that the perspective author/narrator inevitably affects what is written in the whole passage, rather than just being confined to a phrase or a few lines. Again, this is an important skill for you to have going into post-high school life: if you can figure out where someone’s coming from, you can use that to inform how trustworthy you should consider their information.
Type 2: Primary Purpose
These questions ask what’s THE point (vs. what’s A point, which would be a detail question). Is the cited text describing an issue or event? Is it trying to review, inform, prove, contradict, parody, or hypothesize? Primarly purpose questions are almost always asked in this way:
“The primary/main purpose of the passage/paragraph/X paragraphs is to…”
On occasion, there's a little variation in the wording:
- “The principal function of the opening paragraph is to…”
- “The fifth paragraph (lines 31-39) primarily serves to…”
- “The primary purpose of the passage is to show how the author”
The answer to primary purpose questions will almost always be in the form “verb a noun.” Sometimes questions with "verb a noun" answer choices are function questions instead of big picture questions; which type of question it is depends on the answer choices. More specific answer choices that include information about WHAT the point of the paragraph is indicate a big picture question, while vaguer answer choices point to questions asking about the paragraph's function (what does the paragraph DO).
For example, if the question was “The primary purpose of the paragraph is to…", answer choices like "analyze a faulty assumption" or "disparage an opposing viewpoint" would indicate this is more of a function question. If, on the other hand, the answers choices were more like "show how the author really enjoys food from all over the world” or “explain the reason many critics continue to disparage British food” or “propose a solution for cuisines that languish in obscurity,” then it would be safe to assume it is a big picture question.
Type 3: Rhetorical Strategy
Rhetorical strategy questions are more common with, but not limited to, questions about paired passages. Rather than asking WHY something happens in the passage (an inference question), these questions ask HOW something happens/happened in the passage(s).
In contrast to primary purpose questions, which have relatively specific answer choices (eg. "The primary purpose of this paragraph is to...explain what rhetorical strategy questions are"), rhetorical strategy questions sometimes require generalization. Like the answers to primary purpose questions, however, the answers to rhetorical strategy questions are still in the form of "verb a noun" (or more often, “verbs an X of Y,” as in "explaining the appeal of a discredited tradition").
Abstract answer choices can be tricky, because they can require some degree of analogy/inference skill (you have to take the answer choices and see if they apply to the passage). How do you get around this? Answer the question in your own words first, THEN see which answer aligns with yours (we’ll show an example later on).
Here are some examples of questions you might be asked that fall into the rhetorical strategy category:
- “Which of the following statements best describes/captures/characterizes the relationship between the two passages?”
- “Which statement best describes a significant difference between the two passages?”
- “Lines 57-58 (“This is . . . Day”) mark a transition within Passage 2 from a...”
- “Unlike the author of Passage 2, the author of Passage 1 develops his or her argument by..."
- “Lines 39-70 present the author’s argument primarily by...”
- “Which best describes the overall structure of the passage?”
- “Unlike the author of Passage 1, the author of Passage 2 develops an argument by relying on”
Notice that the wording of some of these questions is similar to that of little picture/detail questions; again, just as with primary purpose questions, the answer choices are what turn the question into rhetorical strategy. Here's a specific example:
“Unlike the author of Passage 1, the author of Passage 2...”
This is a rhetorical strategy question because is abstract. If the answer choices were more specific (eg “offers an example of how food is important in building culture”), then this would be a detail question, and you would need to use little picture skills to find this specific detail in the passage.
A Brief Warning: Big Picture Questions ≠ Function
Big picture questions are different from function questions because they ask WHAT the author said (not asking why the author wrote a thing). The wording of the questions sometimes makes it difficult to clearly see this, so I wanted to hash it out here.
Questions about the author’s purpose (function question) ask “why is the author writing this?” rather than “what is the perspective the author is saying/arguing?” (which would be a big picture question).
Questions about the paragraph’s function ask “how does this paragraph function?” or “what is the purpose of this paragraph in the context of the passage as a whole?” rather than “The main argument of this paragraph is,” “what is the primary purpose of this paragraph” or “The author develops her argument by…” Read more about what exactly goes into answering function questions on SAT Reading in our upcoming article.
Strategies For Answering Big Picture Questions
Naturally, part of this depends on how you read the passages. If you have enough time to read each passage all the way through, then you should be trying to figure out the main point and author perspective as you read. You can do a quick check to see if there will be any questions about it first (usually they're among the first few questions on the passage), but even if there aren’t any questions that directly ask you about the main point, knowing it can be helpful in answering other questions (more on that later).
If you read the questions first before going back to the passage, you may be able to get a sense of what the big picture is just by the various questions that are asked - for instance, if all the passages are asking about food in the UK, you can be pretty sure that the main point of the passage isn't going to be about the Mayan calendar. This is also the one case where I recommend answering detail questions first - those are much easier to answer with just line numbers and their answers (as well as the questions themselves) may give you even more clues about the main point/primary purpose/rhetorical strategy of the passage.
If you skim the passage, then attack questions, you should focus on just the key information the first time skimming through and answer the big picture questions first. But how do you know what the key information is? Read on for three strategies to help you out with that.
Check The Introduction and Conclusion
When it comes to nonfiction passages, chances are that if the author’s done a good job, the main point and perspective should be clear in the conclusion (if not also in the introduction). This can be true for fiction passages as well, but since having a clear thesis isn’t as essential to the construction of a successful piece of fiction, the author doesn’t always structure her writing that way.
When finding the main point of a single paragraph, however, this rule gets a little fuzzy, because sometimes there will be direction-changing words in the middle of the paragraph that are essential to understanding the main point. In addition, last/conclusion sentences often try to take the argument a step beyond what has been discussed in the article, placing it in a broader context.
Still, reading the introduction and conclusion can be helpful as a place to start. If the introduction and conclusion seem to contradict each other, that is a clear sign that you need to go even deeper into the passage/paragraph to find the main point/primary purpose/rhetorical strategy.
Use Key Words
If you're looking for key words in a passage or paragraph, it makes sense that you’d want to note where the author says things like “important” or “significant” – those things probably are important (or even significant). What isn't as obvious, however, is that you should also pay attention to words that signal changes of direction to help uncover key information.
Words like “in contrast,” “while,” “however,” and so on, indicate important, contrasting information, while words like “again,” “still,” and “similarly” indicate the information is the same (or comparable to) what was just written. Spotting key words and reading the sentences around them can help you get to the meat of the issue and also help you avoid the trap of just reading the first sentence of a paragraph and assuming that's what the paragraph will be about. Let's take a look at this strategy in the context of a sample of my own writing:
This paragraph is excerpted from the paper “‘This was a triumph:’ Narrative and dynamic uses of music in Portal” by Laura Staffaroni (©2013 by Laura Staffaroni). This paper was written as the final assignment for a Research and Materials class.
In general, because Portal is a puzzle game, it might be expected to lack a strong narrative; this, however, is not the case. While the gameplay is focused on the solving each level’s puzzle, you are also provided with tantalizing bits of story in the form of dialogue spoken to you by GLADoS, the AI directing the “tests.” Bits of the story are revealed over the course of the game in this way, picking up with the introduction of secret rooms with writing on the walls and the adorable but deadly turrets.
The beginning sentence seems to start with “Portal doesn’t have a strong narrative,” which might cause you to stop reading - after all, you've found the author's argument, right? Not so fast! The word “however” in that sentence should catch your eye, as should the following sentence that starts with “While”, because they indicate that something in contrast to the opening statement is being presented.
Answer In Your Own Words
If you come across a question that asks you a big picture question, try to formulate the answer using your own words before you look at their answer choices. When doing this, it's important that you rely only on what you read in the passage or paragraph, not on things that COULD BE true but aren’t supported by the passage. After you've answered the question in your own words, when you go to look at the answer choices you can simply see which one best matches your own answer and choose it.
You must be careful, however, not to oversimplify with this strategy. Remember, the central argument and primary purpose are asking about the specific point the author is making, not a general topic or theme. Also, since you're not being directly scored on your "own word" answers, you should use as few words as possible to write them down – you don’t want to waste too much time on something that won’t be graded.
Putting SAT Reading Strategies To Use: An Example
Before I set you loose on big picture practice questions, I thought I'd do a walkthrough of an example from an actual SAT to find the primary purpose of a paragraph. Other than the introductory information about the paragraph, everything that appears in italics is my thought process.
Questions 7-19 are based on the following passage.
In the following passage from a newspaper commentary written in 1968, an architecture critic discusses old theaters and concert halls.
After 50 years of life and 20 years of death, the great Adler and Sullivan Auditorium in Chicago is back in business again. Orchestra Hall, also in Chicago, was beautifully spruced up for its sixty-eighth birthday. In St. Louis, a 1925 movie palace has been successfully transformed into Powell Symphony Hall, complete with handsome bar from New York’s demolished Metropolitan Opera House.
Here's the question:
The principal function of the opening paragraph is to
Where to start with figuring out the primary purpose/function of the opening paragraph?
Step 1: Check out the introduction and conclusion (sentences, in this case).
In the case of this paragraph, that means basically reading the whole thing, but okay.
“After 50 years of life and 20 years of death, the great Adler and Sullivan Auditorium in Chicago is back in business again.”
“In St. Louis, a 1925 movie palace has been successfully transformed into Powell Symphony Hall, complete with handsome bar from New York’s demolished Metropolitan Opera House.”
Do these sentences support each other or contradict each other?
My thinking: I mean, they sort of support each other, in that each sentence describes an old theater being reopened/renovated in some way. But that’s more a similarity than support. Hmm. Could try looking deeper.
Step 2: Look for direction words
“again” and “great”: “After 50 years of life and 20 years of death, the great Adler and Sullivan Auditorium in Chicago is back in business again.”
So this shows that there has been a change – the auditorium was open, then closed (“death” seems a little extreme, but whatever), and now is “back in business again,” which is to say open. Oh, and it is not just the Adler and Sullivan Auditorium, but “the great Adler and Sullivan Auditorium” (bolding mine), so clearly this auditorium is important.
Step 3: Answer the question in your own words
The main things the opening paragraph talks about are old, important theaters being reopened and given facelifts (sorta), which means the main function of the paragraph is probably something like “introduce the idea of old theaters being reopened and made relevant again”? maybe? Or maybe “given new life” is better. Hmm. Time to look at the answer choices (and also the question again).
The question, once more:
The principal function of the opening paragraph is to
Okay, let's consider the answer choices one by one.
(A) introduce the concept of conventional arts centers
Hey, it starts with introduce! Score one for me being able to answer in my own words while still using SAT answer choice verbs! What about the second part (“concept of conventional arts centers”)? Hmm. Nothing is really said in the paragraph to indicate these centers are conventional. Old, sure. Reopened, yes. Important, certainly. I’ll mark this as a “probably not” answer.
(B) illustrate the trend toward revitalization of cultural landmarks
“cultural landmarks” is a big yes – these theaters are clearly important (and cultural!). “Revitalization” seems like it has something to do with bringing things back to life (vital is something related to life, and re- means “again”). And hey, the word “again” even appears in the paragraph to show that the theaters were dead and now aren’t. Definitely a possibility.
(C) explore the connection between classical architecture and the arts
Um, not really. The paragraph does mention buildings, but the only specific mention of architecture is that the bar from the Met that they salvaged is “handsome.” Plus, no connection is explored. So probably not.
(D) provide an explanation for the theater’s resurgent popularity
I mean, this could be true, I guess, but there’s not really evidence in the passage of “resurgent popularity.” You could infer that theater must be more popular if they are opening more theaters up again…but wait. “The theater?” There are multiple theaters mentioned in this paragraph. So what are they referring to when they say “THE theater?” Answer: they are trying to trick me! This is a wrong answer.
(E) contrast the beauty of old theaters with ordinary modern buildings
Can immediately get rid of this – there is no contrasting being done in this paragraph except that the theaters were closed and now are reopened.
Looking back over the answers, (B) is clearly the one that discusses the PRINCIPAL function of the opening paragraph, which is to talk about old theaters being reopened and made new. Boom!
The answer is (B).
August 25th "The Big Picture We've Done It_I'm a World Record Holder!" by Amanda Slater, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.
Try it out on your own!
Below, I've provided three questions on short paired passages from an official, publicly available SAT practice test. As a bonus, these questions also involve paired passages (for more on paired passages, read my article about how best to attack paired passages on the SAT).
The passages below are followed by questions based on their content; questions following a pair of related passages may also be based on the relationship between the paired passages. Answer the questions on the basis of what is stated or implied in the passages and in any introductory material that may be provided.
Food has always been considered one of the most salient markers of cultural traditions. When I was a small child, food was the only thing that helped identify my family as Filipino American. We ate pansit lug-lug (a noodle dish) and my father put patis (salty fish sauce) on everything. However, even this connection lessened as I grew older. As my parents became more acculturated, we ate less typically Filipino food. When I was twelve, my mother took cooking classes and learned to make French and Italian dishes. When I was in high school, we ate chicken marsala and shrimp fra diablo more often than Filipino dishes like pansit lug-lug.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin—who in 1825 confidently announced, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are”—would have no trouble describing cultural identities of the United States. Our food reveals us as tolerant adventurers who do not feel constrained by tradition. We “play with our food” far more readily than we preserve the culinary rules of our varied ancestors. Americans have no single national cuisine. What unites American eaters culturally is how we eat, not what we eat. As eaters, Americans mingle the culinary traditions of many regions and cultures. We are multiethnic eaters.]
1. Which of the following statements best captures the relationship between the two passages?
2. The two passages differ in their discussions of food primarily in that Passage 1
3. Unlike the author of Passage 2, the author of Passage 1 makes significant use of
Answer key (scroll down when ready):
1. C 2. A 3. E
- Big picture questions require being able to read through a text and sum up “what’s the point,” "what's the author's point of view," or "what does the author do here?"
- Knowing the answers to these questions can be useful for answering other types of questions, like function and author technique questions, that rely on you understanding the "big picture" of what's going on in the passage.
- No matter how you approach the passage, use the strategies of checking the intro/conclusion, looking for key words, and coming up with the answer in your own words to help you answer big picture questions
Want more in depth guides like this? So far, I’ve covered paired passages, vocab-in-context questions and sentence completion questions on SAT Reading – continue to check back over the next few weeks to get them all!
What if you keep running out of time on Critical Reading sections? Learn strategies to stop that from happening here.
What are the other types of questions you’ll find on the SAT Critical Reading sections, and what’s the best way to read the passages to answer them? Check out our article on the three best ways to read the passage on SAT Reading.
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.