Passage-based questions on the SAT Critical Reading section can be a real challenge, so it’s helpful to know exactly what you’re getting into before the test. I’ve gone through the publicly available SAT tests and analyzed which types of questions show up the most frequently.
In this article, I’ll go over the different categories of questions, show you how frequently they each appear, and tell you what this information means for your testing strategy.
What are the SAT Reading Question Types?
Before we get to distribution of questions, I’ll briefly outline each of the question types you'll see with passages on the SAT Critical Reading section so you have a better context for the numbers.
Big Picture Questions
Big picture questions are about the author’s point of view, the primary purpose of the passage, and the rhetorical strategy of the author. These “rhetorical strategy” questions are usually found with paired passages on the SAT. They often ask about how two passages relate to one another in terms of argument and author viewpoint.
Example of a big picture question:
Which of the following statements best captures the relationship between the two passages?
A. Passage 1 notes problems for which Passage 2 proposes solutions.
B. Passage 1 presents claims that are debunked by Passage 2.
C. Passage 2 furnishes a larger context for the experiences described in Passage 1.
D. Passage 2 provides an update of the situation depicted in Passage 1.
E. Passage 2 uses material presented in Passage 1 to correct a popular misconception.
Little Picture/Detail Questions
Little picture/detail questions will be about a specific small detail in a passage. They might ask you what a phrase in a passage specifically refers to or give you a line number and ask you to find a detail in that part of the passage.
Example of a little picture question:
The fourth paragraph (lines 50-56) indicates the Plato’s principal objection to “poetry” (line 50) was its
A. confusing language
B. widespread popularity
C. depiction of turbulent events
D. influence on people’s morals
E. misrepresentation of historical figures
Inference questions will ask you to make a logical assumption based on details in the passage. You may have to infer the meaning of a paragraph or line in the passage, determine the implications of a statement in the passage, or make a logical conclusion about opinions stated by passage authors.
Example of an inference question:
Which of the following, if available, would best refute the author’s assertion about the “young upstart” (line 57)?
A. Evidence that certain kinds of particles in nature exceed the speed of light
B. Confirmation of conditions that existed in the earliest stages of the Big Bang
C. Speculation that the deep interior of a black hole is not as dense as scientists have believed
D. Mathematical formulas that link general relativity and quantum mechanics in the same realm
E. Proof that the laws governing the universe depend on the size of the system being studied
Function questions will ask you to figure out what the purpose or effect of a line or paragraph is in the context of a passage or why the author used a certain phrasing in the passage.
Example of a function question:
The author of the passage uses the quotation in lines 5-6 primarily as a:
A. vivid expression of how she views words
B. powerful example of what she sought in Shakespeare
C. scholarly citation linking her to poetic words
D. comical introduction to a problem encountered by every dramatic performer
E. pragmatic assessment of the power of words for beginning drama students
Vocabulary in context questions will ask you the definition of a word as it is used in the context of a passage. You'll never see vocabulary in context questions with paired passages - only individual passages. Usually the words in these questions are much less difficult than the words in Sentence Completion questions. They require an understanding of nuance in the meanings of common words rather than a wide-ranging vocabulary.
Example of a vocabulary in context question:
In line 34, the word “follow” most nearly means
D. join in
E. listen carefully
Analogy questions will ask you to make a comparison between a condition or relationship described in the passage and a condition or relationship that is not mentioned in the passage. Basically, you have to detect the underlying similarity between something in the passage and a separate hypothetical situation. Analogy questions are a subset of inference questions.
Example of an analogy question:
The “experts” (line 53) would most likely argue that which of the following is guilty of the “sin” mentioned in line 58?
A. A veterinarian who is unwilling to treat a sick animal
B. A cat owner who believes his cat misses its siblings
C. A dog owner who is unwilling to punish her dog for misbehaving
D. A zoologist who places the interests of people before those of animals
E. A horse trainer who fails to recognize that his horse is hungry
Author Technique Questions
Author technique questions will ask you about the author’s tone in the passage or the mood the passage conveys to the reader.
Example of an author technique question:
The first paragraph of the passage establishes a mood of
A. jaded dismissal
B. nervous apprehension
C. dramatic anticipation
D. initial concern
E. mundane routine
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Distribution of Question Types
Here's a table that outlines the distribution of every passage-based question type that we found on the SAT Reading section. I also included Sentence Completion questions (and how many were double blank and single blank) so you can get a better idea of the composition of the Critical Reading section as a whole:
|Question Type||Average Number of Questions||Percentage of Passage Based Questions||Percentage of Total Questions|
|Vocabulary in Context||5||10%||8%|
|All Passage Based Questions||48||100%||72%|
|Single Blank Sentence Completion Questions||11||N/A||16%|
|Double Blank Sentence Completion Questions||8||N/A||12%|
|All Sentence Completion Questions||19||N/A||28%|
|All Critical Reading Questions||67||N/A||100%|
Big Picture QuestionsOut of the 48 passage-based reading questions that are on the SAT Critical Reading section, I found that an average of about 8 questions per test were Big Picture questions. This means approximately 17% of the passage-based questions you’ll encounter on SAT Critical Reading will be based on an understanding of the main points of passages (or 12% of the total questions in the section). The SAT has more Big Picture questions than the ACT, so this can make the reading section a bit more challenging.
Little Detail Questions
Little detail questions are pretty common on the SAT, with an average of 13 questions per test. This means that about 27% of the passage-based questions in the Critical Reading section will be comprised of little detail questions or 20% of the total questions. These questions tend to be the most direct and the least challenging of the bunch, so it’s encouraging to know that they are so common.
At an average of 11 questions per test, inference questions also make up about 23% of passage-based questions and 17% of total questions on the Critical Reading section, with slightly fewer questions per test on average than Little Detail questions. This means that inference skills are going to be pretty important on the SAT. This is especially true since they come into play on other question types, like analogies and sometimes big picture questions, as well.
Function questions are less common than little detail and inference questions, coming in at around 9 questions per test or approximately 19% of passage-based questions and 13% of total questions. They are about as common as big picture questions, so they’re definitely still a significant part of the test. This means it's going to be important to understand the structure of the passages and the reasons behind the author's phrasing.
Vocabulary in Context Questions
Vocabulary in context questions are even less common. There are about 5 of them per test, so around 10% of passage-based reading questions and 8% of total questions. The current SAT concentrates its vocabulary content in the Sentence Completion questions, so it doesn’t ask too much about vocabulary in passage-based reading.
Analogy questions are very rare - you can expect maybe 1 or 2 of them per test. If your skills with inference questions are strong, you should be able to figure out analogy questions as well. It's still good to be prepared for analogy questions because they are kind of weird if you haven't seen them before. See my article on analogy questions for more information about how to solve them.
Author Technique Questions
Author technique questions are even rarer than analogy questions. They only come up about once per test if at all. It is sometimes useful to understand tone and mood for the Critical Reading section even if you don’t come across a specific question about them, but these are clearly not core concepts on the test.
Sentence Completion Questions
It's important to remember that Sentence Completion questions still make up about a third of the Critical Reading section on the current SAT. They will be gone next year on the new 2016 SAT! Single blank sentence completion questions are slightly more common than double blank questions; on every test I looked at there were consistently 11 single blank and 8 double blank questions.
I got a blank space baby, and I'll write your name - a philosophy that probably didn't get TSwift very far on the SAT.
How Does This Information Affect Your Approach to SAT Reading?
Now that you know the frequency of question types, you may be wondering how you can adapt your Critical Reading strategy to the composition of the test.
Here are some tips you should consider based on the data:
It’s important to come up with a passage reading strategy that will allow you to absorb details while also understanding the main points the author of the passage is making. Since a significant portion of questions in Critical Reading are big picture, it is especially critical to understand passages holistically.
On the SAT, passages are relatively short, so it can be beneficial to skim them before reading the questions. Even though reading questions often give you line numbers, it's a lot easier to figure out questions that deal with inferences, the function of a certain part of the passage, and the main purpose of the passage if you read the passage quickly beforehand. A good skimming strategy is to read the first and last paragraphs and the first and last sentences of each body paragraph. This way you’ll know the main ideas and the gist of the author’s argument.
Inference, function, and big picture questions together make up over half of the passage-based questions on the test. This means that fully understanding the main points made in the passage before you read the questions will help you to answer them much more efficiently.
Pay Attention to Details
Little detail questions make up a significant part of the passage-based reading questions, so you should also be prepared to get very specific with your answers. Sometimes the questions students miss are the ones that seem easy. They’ll breeze right by them and make a silly mistake. Don’t let that happen to you!
This is also important because inference skills are critical on the test. With most inference questions, it comes down to finding the right keywords in the passage and matching up details to draw conclusions. This requires an eye for small details as well as awareness of the overall structure of the passage.
Don’t Worry about Rarer Question Types (Unless You’re Shooting for a Perfect Score)
If analogies scare you (and they are some of the more difficult questions), don’t worry too much about them. The same goes for author technique questions. You don’t need to spend your time practicing question types that will likely only show up once or twice on the test if at all.
Practice answering big picture, little detail, inference, and function questions first and foremost. Then, if you master those, you can work through the rarer question types.
Some questions are rare birds. But mainly I just think the expression on this bird's face is HILARIOUS.
There are a few different types of questions that you can expect to see on the passage-based reading section of SAT Critical Reading. These include:
Vocabulary in context
Little detail and inference questions are the most common, followed by function and big picture questions. Vocabulary in context, analogy, and author technique questions are relatively rare.
Based on the frequency of question types, you should:
- Practice skimming passages strategically
- Pay attention to passage details
- Save the rare question types for last in terms of studying
Now that you know exactly what kinds of questions to expect, you’ll be extra prepared for everything the Critical Reading section throws at you!
Read my article on the fundamental rule of SAT reading to understand the core strategy behind answering any reading question and my article on the hardest SAT reading questions to see what you might be up against.
Still trying to decide whether to take SAT or ACT Reading? Learn about the differences here.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.