SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Function and Development Questions on ACT Reading

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Jul 25, 2015 8:00:00 AM

ACT Reading

 

feature_thethinker.jpgFunction questions (also sometimes known as “meaning in context” questions) make up approximately 20% of all ACT Reading questions (based on my survey of four publicly available ACTs). The ACT Reading will also occasionally have "development" questions, which are sort of like larger-scale versions of function questions (they ask about the structure of the passage or passages).

Both function and development questions require you to judge the effect of a phrase in a certain place (as opposed to little picture and vocab in context questions, which are just concerned with meaning). So how do you get asked function questions on the ACT, and what strategies can you use to answer them? Keep on reading to find out!

feature image credit: The Thinker by Japanexperterna.se, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

What Are Function Questions?

Function questions are those questions that ask you to describe what the effect is of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph in the context of a passage. The wording of function questions makes them seem as if they are asking “The author [wrote a thing] in order to…”

Figuring out the right answer to these questions can be problematic, because the way function questions are phrased often makes it seem as if they're asking “Why did the author do this thing?” Unless you're the author, your immediate reaction is probably going to be "How should I know? I'm no psychic!" (unless you are able to read the author's mind, in which case this test just got a whole lot different for you). A better way to answer function questions would be to rephrase them like this: “What effect does [this thing] have in the context of [the lines, paragraph, or passage]? Regardless of whether or not I am a psychic?”

Another name sometimes used for these questions is “meaning in context,” which is fine…except that they’re not exactly asking about meaning. Rather than asking you what a particular phrase MEANS (which would be an inference question), function questions ask “what does [that phrase] DO” or “what is the effect of this meaning in context?” For example, let's make up a scenario where the public transportation in my town was basically shut down for two months due to massive amounts of snow, and just as the trains were starting up again on their normal schedule, there was another snowstorm, prompting me to sing (sarcastically) "It's the most wonderful time of the year." The MEANING of the words "most wonderful" in this context would be "worst" (as in "It's the worst time of the year"); the FUNCTION of the words "most wonderful" would be "to suggest that the speaker actually feels the opposite is true."

Like primary purpose questions, function questions usually have answer choices in the form of “verb a noun” (as in "illustrate the narrator's frustration with the city infrastructure" or "convey the joy the narrator felt in the unseasonable snowfall"); the main difference between the two is that function questions ask about relatively small amounts of text (phrases or lines), rather than entire paragraphs (which are asked about with big picture questions). In fact, having a good understanding of the big picture/main point of a passage can often assist you in answering function questions.

Take the following example: you're asked "The phrase “live and die depending on her whimsy” primarily serves to..." If you know that the main point is, for instance, about desert life, you’re unlikely to assume the phrase “live and die depending on her whimsy” illustrates that there is an insane and murderous empress ruling over every desert on Earth. Instead, it's far more likely that the function of the statement is to support the idea that in the desert, even a small change in the amount of rainfall can have drastic effects on desert life.

Here are a few examples of the most common ways you’ll see function questions presented on the ACT (adapted from ACTual ACT questions):

  • “The quotation by Finck and Cranor in lines 32–41 is used in this passage to support the idea that:”
  • “The author uses the fourth paragraph (lines 27–33) primarily to:”
  • “The main purpose of the second paragraph (lines 6–18) is to:”
  • “The main function of lines 64–66 in terms of the eighth paragraph (lines 59–66) as a whole is to:”
  • “It is reasonable to infer that the primary reason the author included the information in the eleventh paragraph (lines 59–64) is to:”
  • “In relation to the first paragraph’s earlier description of the nightmare, the narrator’s comments in lines 10–13 primarily serve to:”

 

Sidebar: Development Questions

Development questions involve the same skill set as you use for function questions, but generally ask about larger chunks of text. Instead of asking “what does this paragraph DO,” development questions seems to ask “what happens in this paragraph?” In order to lower the possibility of interpretation (and more than one correct answer), ACT Reading usually frames development questions as being about the "author's approach. It's a little hard to explain what I mean in the abstract, so here’s an example:

Which of the following best describes the author’s approach to presenting the story of the narrator’s discovery about himself?

F. Revealing the narrator’s self-awareness about a trait through a blend of personal reflection and scenes from the narrator’s youth and adulthood
G. Starting immediately with a statement of the discovery in the narrator’s voice and continuing with scenes that reveal how the discovery came about
H. Describing the physical details of scenes and summarizing their significance in a concluding statement in the narrator’s voice
J. Using dialogue in the midst of scenes fraught with tension to indicate what the narrator is experiencing internally

For paragraphs, it's possible to ask about the function (you can ask “what’s the main function of this paragraph”), but it's more difficult to do this for entire passages without the questions turning into primary purpose questions. Development questions differ from primary purpose questions because they're not about authorial intent; instead, development questions are closer to the flip side of function questions. If the above example were a function question, rather than a development question, it might go something like this:

The author describes the physical details of scenes and summarizes their significance in order to...

A. Present the story of the narrator's self-discovery.

Compare with answer choice H and the original question:

Which of the following best describes the author’s approach to presenting the story of the narrator’s discovery about himself?

H. Describing the physical details of scenes and summarizing their significance in a concluding statement in the narrator’s voice

Here are other ways I've seen development questions asked on ACT Reading:

  • “Which of the following best describes the structure of the passage?”
  • “The narrator develops the third paragraph (lines 19–29) mainly through:”
  • “In terms of developing the narrative, the last two paragraphs (lines 67–87) primarily serve to:”
  • “In terms of the passage as a whole, one of the main functions of the third paragraph (lines 13–19) is to suggest that:”

 

Strategies for Conquering ACT Reading Function Questions

Some of the advice below works best for certain ways of approaching the passage, while other advice is useful for everyone, regardless of your passage reading strategy. In the end, you should mix and match strategies in a way that works for you - these are just suggestions to help get you started.

 

Understand What The Question Is Really Asking

For me, this is the key component needed to consistentIy answer function questions correctly. This isn't to say that you don't need to know what other ACT Reading questions are really asking, of course - it's more that function questions have the weirdest wording. Often, it seems like you need to read the mind of the author (or character) in order to answer these questions.

I can understand why the ACT words the questions the way they do: questions that say “What does the mentioning of the two events listed in lines 77-79 do” are too open to interpretation, while questions like “The author uses the events listed in lines 77–79 primarily to" can only have one right answer. Understanding the motivation behind the wording doesn't make the wording any less confusing at first glance, though.

So what's the best way to grapple with the wording of function questions? Learn to translate the questions into ones that are actually answerable (i.e. that don't require mind-reading abilities). Here's a sample function question:

The author most likely includes the information in lines 53–57 to suggest:

Wrong way to rephrase it: Why does the author include the information in lines 53-57? The answer to this question (unless you know the author and/or can read minds) will probably be along the lines of "Because it was his birthday? Because he felt like it? I have no idea."

Right way to rephrase it: What does the information in lines 53-57 suggest/do? This is a question that can be answered (in this case, the information in lines 53-57 illustrates Armstrong’s highly developed skills.).

 

Corollary: Answer In Your Own Words

For most questions on ACT Reading, it's helpful to come up with the answer in your own words before you look at the answer choices. This strategy is particularly helpful with function questions because the answer choices for these questions tend to be complex, and so coming up with your own answer before looking at the answer choices can help prevent you from getting confused. True, your answer for “what best describes the transition the author presents in lines 80-84” will probably not be as nicely as the correct answer choice. However, the answer choice you come up with should only include relevant and accurate information, while the wrong answers may have irrelevant information or interpretations that “COULD be true, I guess."

Why do the wrong answer choices include wrong or irrelevant information? Because this is one of the ways ACT Reading tries to trick you – the people writing the questions know that you’re used to trying to see things from multiple perspectives as part of school (which is ordinarily a good thing), when in fact there is only ONE right answer on the ACT. Figuring out the answer in your own words forst, then, makes it a lot easier to find that one correct answer. But how do you find the function of a phrase, line, or sentence in a passage in the first place?

 

 

Look For Context

On ACT Reading, sometimes questions give you the specific lines where the information being asked about is located, which is nice (since the passages are so long). Alas, for function questions, the lines that the question gives you are not necessarily the only lines you’ll need to answer the question - sometimes, you just need more context.

If you’re having trouble answering a function question, your best bet is to take a look at the sentences before and after the phrase/sentence/lines you’re given in the question and see if that helps make it clearer. On occasion, though, it may end up that you need even more context to answer a particular function question (like knowing the bigger picture/main point/perspective of the text/author). In these cases, if you don't already know that context and are having difficult answering the question, mark it and come back to it after you’ve answered the relevant big picture questions (questions about the paragraph/section the lines in question are in, or even questions about the whole passage).

 

Answer Questions In The Order That Works For You

This is a strategy that depends heavily on how you read the passage. You may also decide that this strategy works well for certain passage types better than others. For instance, you might be able to get away with looking at the questions first and skipping around Natural Science passages, but feel like you need to read Prose Fiction passages all the way through before you start answering questions. Basically, don't lock yourself into one way of doing things.

That being said, if you read thoroughly first, then answer questions, I really recommend answering big picture questions first, then function and inference questions. It's better to answer questions about larger amounts of text while that text is still fresh in your mind, and starting out with big picture questions first might also give you information/context that is useful when it comes to answering the function questions. If you read quickly enough that you can read all the passages thoroughly  and have still have plenty of time to answer the questions, just answering the questions in order is certainly a valid choice, because it lowers the chance that you'll accidentally fill in an answer in the wrong place or miss a question.

Because there is so much text to get through on ACT Reading, however, I do not recommend the "read everything through" strategy (and yes, this is coming from someone who reads 60-100 pages/hour).

If you start out by reading through all the questions, then going back to the passage, I recommend starting with little picture and vocab in context questions before getting to function questions. The answer to these more focused questions provide you with information about the author and topic being covered, which can assist you in answering function questions; if you do end up needing to know the big picture in order to answer a particular function question, you can always circle it and come back to it later.

If you skim through first, then questions, then back to passage, it's best to answer both big and little picture questions before getting to function questions. Why? Well, unless the phrase, sentence, or lines being asked about were in part of the passage you read during your skim (at the beginning or end of a paragraph or passage), you probably didn’t read the necessary information during your skimming. If you're going to skim, you might as well make the most of it by answering questions that would be better served with a quick skim (questions about the passage as a whole and questions about specific details you might have mapped during your skimming).

 

Eliminate Answers

The fundamental rule for ACT Reading is that you must eliminate 3 wrong answers. For function questions, the answer choices are often complex, which can make eliminating just one answer choice seem daunting. After all, how can you figure out if the answer is right when there are so many parts of it to check?

First of all, if you've successfully answered the question in your own words, you might not even have to worry about eliminating answers – only one answer choice should match yours. If it does turn out you need to eliminate answers, however, you're in luck - complicated answers are actually easier to eliminate, because if any part of the answer choice does not match with the passage, then you can cross it out.

Example:

Which of the following best describes the structure of the passage?

A. A dialogue between two people in which both relate their dreams in an almost equal amount of detail
B. An account of the narrator’s perspective on the woman revealed primarily through the narrator’s report of their conversations
C. A character sketch of two people as related by a narrator who knows both of them and their thoughts
D. A detailed narration of several of the narrator’s dreams accompanied by a description of the woman’s reactions to them

 

Let's say you think the answer is probably B, an account of the narrator’s perspective on the woman revealed primarily through the narrator’s report of their conversations. In order for that to be true, it must pass the following obstacles:

  • Is it an account of the narrator’s perspective? If not, ELIMINATE
  • Is it about the narrator’s perspective of “the woman”? If not, ELIMINATE
  • Is the information revealed primarily through the narrator’s report (or someone else’s)? If not, ELIMINATE
  • Is the report of their conversations? If not, ELIMINATE

As you can see, there are many chances for elimination as you consider the answer choices. For this question, the correct answer, B, passes this test: yes, it is an account of the narrator’s perspective on the woman, and it is revealed primarily through the narrator’s report, which is about their conversations.

 

Function Questions: A Demonstration

And now, before I leave you to your practice questions, a full breakdown of answering a function question on ACT Reading.

First, the question:

The main function of lines 64–66 in terms of the eighth paragraph (lines 59–66) as a whole is to:

F. give a sense of proportion to the numbers provided earlier in the paragraph.
G. point out the limitations of the evidence provided by the Iowa scientists.
H. supplement the paragraph’ s description of the comets with additional details about their size and capacity.
J. provide readers with a sense of how old the planet really is.

 

Before I even take a look at the lines (and the paragraph) cited in the question, I’m going to rephrase this question in a way that is answerable:

What effect do lines 64-66 have in the 8th paragraph?

...Well, that wasn’t as drastic a change as I expected. Oh well. Time to take a look at the paragraph!

Based on their images, the Iowa scientists estimated 20 comets an hour—each about 30 feet or so across and carrying 100 tons of water—were bombarding the Earth. At that rate, they would produce water vapor that would add about an inch of water to the planet every 10,000 years, Frank concluded. That may not seem like much, but when talking about a planet billions of years old, it adds up.

Out of this paragraph, here are lines 64-66 (since they don’t specify that you should begin at the beginning of the sentence, I’m including all of line 64 in all its glory):

planet every 10,000 years, Frank concluded. That may not seem like much, but when talking about a planet billions of years old, it adds up.

My first thoughts:

So what do lines 64-66 say? Basically that while the information given doesn’t seem impressive on its own, it actually is when considered over a long period of time. What does that do in terms of the paragraph as a whole? Well, what does the paragraph look like without those lines?

Based on their images, the Iowa scientists estimated 20 comets an hour—each about 30 feet or so across and carrying 100 tons of water—were bombarding the Earth. At that rate, they would produce water vapor that would add about an inch of water to the

It’s basically just giving information about tiny comets hitting the Earth (with water). If you don’t have lines 64-66, you don’t get the sense that this creates a significant amount of water over time, so the function of those lines is to put the amount of water the comets could have brought to Earth into perspective, I guess.

I’ve reworded the question to make it easier to answer and answered in my own words considering the context of the paragraph. Next: eliminating answers.

The main function of lines 64–66 in terms of the eighth paragraph (lines 59–66) as a whole is to:

F. give a sense of proportion to the numbers provided earlier in the paragraph.

Yeah, that seems right – my answer was that those lines “put the amount of water the comets could have brought to Earth into perspective,” which matches up pretty well with that answer. Let’s just look over the rest of the answers to double check…

The main function of lines 64–66 in terms of the eighth paragraph (lines 59–66) as a whole is to:

G. point out the limitations of the evidence provided by the Iowa scientists.

No, no limitations are pointed out. In fact, lines 64-66 actually bring the information from the first part of the paragraph into a larger context. ELIMINATE.

The main function of lines 64–66 in terms of the eighth paragraph (lines 59–66) as a whole is to:

H. supplement the paragraph’s description of the comets with additional details about their size and capacity.

Hmm…it has additional details, but it’s not about the size of the comets at all, so even if capacity is somewhat related (because of the amount of water they could add to the Earth) this answer must be ELIMINATED.

The main function of lines 64–66 in terms of the eighth paragraph (lines 59–66) as a whole is to:

J. provide readers with a sense of how old the planet really is.

I mean, the age of the planet is sort of mentioned (billions of years old), but there’s nothing in lines 64-66 that provide “a sense of how old the planet really is.” I guess you could try to twist this answer so it works, except F already is a clear answer choice because this question is asking about the MAIN function. So even if A function is that you get a sense of how old the planet is, it’s not the main function. ELIMINATE.

The correct answer is F.

 

body_cometvapor.jpgComet activity, 21 June by European Space Agency, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Function Questions: Your Turn To Practice!

The following questions are all on the same passage, taken from an official (and currently public and free) ACT:

body_ACTfunction_1-1.jpg

1. The main purpose of the last paragraph is to:

A. reveal the enduring impact of Mr. Marsh’s lessons on the author.
B. acknowledge that the author came to doubt some of Mr. Marsh’s teachings.
C. describe a typical class as taught by Mr. Marsh.
D. present a biographical sketch of Mr. Marsh.

 

2. The author mentions Melody Maker, the top 20, and articles about musicians primarily to suggest that his:

A. early interest in music has remained with him to the present.
B. time spent playing music should instead have been spent reading.
C. fascination with pop music and musicians gave focus to his life for a time.
D. commitment to study enabled him to perfect his drumming technique.

 

3. Viewed in the context of the passage, the statement in lines 55–56 is most likely intended to suggest that:

A. schools should require students to take philosophy courses.
B. students can become passionate when learning about science in school.
C. schools need to keep searching for ways to tap into students’ deeply held interests.
D. students should resolve to take school courses that interest them.

 

4. The author calls pen and paper “rudimentary tools” (line 80) as part of his argument that:

F. the use of computers has made the use of pen and paper obsolete.
G. students should become skilled with pen and paper before moving on to better tools.
H. while writing with pen and paper can be pleasant, it can also be physically painful.
I. although seemingly simple, pen and paper allow people to perform great feats.

 

 

Answer key (scroll down when ready):

 

1. A 2. C 3. C 4. J

 

 

In Conclusion

  • Function questions on ACT Reading ask you “what effect does this [phrase, sentence, or series of lines] have, in context,” or, more simply put, “what does this [phrase, sentence, or series of lines] DO?”
  • Development questions involve the reverse of function questions and ask "What is the structure of this passage/paragraph?"
  • The most important part of answering function questions correctly is making sure you understand what the question is asking.
  • Answer the question in your own words before looking at the ACT’s answer choices.
  • If the lines cited in the question don't provide enough context, look to the surrounding sentences.
  • Depending on your passage reading approach, you may wish to answer function questions after answering other types of questions first.
  • Eliminate three wrong answers

 

What’s Next?

Want more practice with real ACT questions? Go to our guide and find links to free ACTs and information about what other official tests are out there.

Interested in more ACT Reading skills articles like this one? We’ve got a whole series of articles that cover each ACT Reading skill - be sure to read my articles on main point, little picture, vocab in context, inference, and paired passage questions.

Not sure how to finish all 40 questions on ACT Reading without running out of time? Learn about the three different ways to approach the passage on the ACT and figure out what works for you.

Are these articles all very well and good, but you need more structured help to reach your ACT goal? Then why not try out our very own PrepScholar test prep platform FREE for five days?

 

Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points? 

Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this Reading lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

Check out our 5-day free trial:

Get 4 More Points on Your ACT, GUARANTEED

 

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

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.



Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

You should definitely follow us on social media. You'll get updates on our latest articles right on your feed. Follow us on all 3 of our social networks:

Twitter and Google+



Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!