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What's Actually Tested on the SAT Reading Section? SAT Reading Skills


"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."

Heed the wise words of Dr. Seuss, and get reading! The more you practice reading SAT passages, the better you'll perform on the SAT Reading section. This article goes over everything on the SAT Reading section, including the new evidence-based and data interpretation questions, so you know exactly what to expect.

First, how is the SAT Reading section formatted?


Format of the SAT Reading Section

Reading is the first section of the SAT. It's 65 minutes long, and asks a total of 52 questions. All of these questions are multiple choice and have four answer choices, A, B, C, and D. The questions are all based on passages—four individual passages and one set of paired passages

This chart shows the time, questions, and time per question on the Reading section.


Section Time in Minutes # of Questions Time per question
Reading 65 52 75 seconds


You'll answer 10 to 12 questions on each passage or set of paired passages, and one or more of the passages might be accompanied by a graphic, like a chart, bar graph, or scatterplot. These passages will ask data interpretation questions that relate to the graphic.

In addition to knowing how many questions you'll get on Reading and how long you have to answer them, you can also have a general sense of what the passages will be like. Read on for a full overview of the types of passages on the Reading section of the SAT. 


Types of SAT Reading Passages 

While you can't predict exactly where your passages will come from, you can know the genre from which each was selected. You'll get just one passage from U.S. or World Literature. Two will be from the field of History or Social Studies, and two with deal with Science.

Each passage, or set of paired passages combined, will have about 500 to 750 words. As mentioned above, one or two of them will also feature a graph, table, or chart related to the content of the passage. 

Paired passages often discuss the same topic or theme, but approach it from a different perspective. Questions that go with paired passages will often ask you to compare or contrast, or to consider what one author would think about the other author's point of view.

Beyond familiarizing yourself with the structure of the Reading section, you can prepare by learning about the different question types. We've identified eight. 



Eight question types, you say? Owl have to start studying!


8 Types of SAT Reading Questions

College Board would probably never say its questions can be categorized by type. It suggests that students should take a holistic approach and just try reading the passages the best they can. 

This kind of free-for-all approach won't take you very far, though. Through carefully analyzing the test, we've found eight specific question types that appear throughout the Reading section. Below you'll find a description of each type, along with examples of each borrowed from College Board's official SAT practice tests


#1:  Big Picture / Main Point 

Big picture questions ask you about the overall purpose or message of the passage. What's the passage about? What's it trying to accomplish? Is the passage trying to inform, review, contradict, prove, parody, or hypothesize? What's the point, anyway? 

Here's an example of a big picture/main point question selected from College Board's SAT Practice Test #2. It actually refers to a set of paired passages, so it requires you to understand the main point of two passages.

The main purpose of each passage is to

A) compare brain function in those who play games on the Internet and those who browse on it.
B) report on the problem-solving skills of individuals with varying levels of Internet experience.
C) take a position on increasing financial support for studies related to technology and intelligence.
D) make an argument about the effects of electronic media use on the brain.


#2:  Little Picture / Detail 

These questions will usually refer to a specific line or two within a passage and ask you about a specific detail. Every fifth line in the passage is numbered, so you should be able to locate a detail quickly. These questions might relate to function or author technique, which you'll learn about below, but they tend to refer to a particular line or phrase. 

This example of a little picture/detail question is also taken from SAT Practice Test #2. Check it out if you want to see the passage and remaining questions!

Stanton uses the phrase “high carnival” (line 15) mainly to emphasize what she sees as the

A) utter domination of women by men.
B) freewheeling spirit of the age.
C) scandalous decline in moral values.
D) growing power of women in society.


#3:  Inference 

These questions ask you to interpret the meaning of a line, paragraph, or the whole passage. These won't be too subjective or ambiguous, as there can only be one correct answer

It can reasonably be inferred that “the strong-minded” (line 32) was a term generally intended to

A) praise women who fight for their long-denied rights.
B) identify women who demonstrate intellectual skill.
C) criticize women who enter male-dominated professions.
D) condemn women who agitate for the vote for their sex.


#4:  Vocabulary in Context 

Vocabulary questions ask you about the meaning of a specific word. Sometimes these words are actually pretty common, but they might be being used in an unusual way within the context of the passage. Like detail questions, vocabulary in context questions will refer you to a specific line within the text, like in the following example. 

As used in line 36, “best” most nearly means

A) superior.
B) excellent.
C) genuine.
D) rarest.


As you're reading, remember that every word, phrase, and sentence has its own important function.


#5: Function 

Function questions tend to be similar to detail questions, but they specifically refer to how a phrase or sentence works within a passage. They want to know what effect a detail has on the passage, like in the below sample question. 

The analogy in the final sentence of Passage 2 has primarily which effect?

A) It uses ornate language to illustrate a difficult concept.
B) It employs humor to soften a severe opinion of human behavior.
C) It alludes to the past to evoke a nostalgic response.
D) It criticizes the view of a particular group.


#6:  Author Technique 

In addition to reading the text closely, you'll also want to think about how the author wrote. For these questions, you might describe the author's tone, style, voice, attitude, or perspective. As you read above, you'll typically get asked to compare author techniques in questions that follow paired passages. They tend to show up after single passages, as well. 

If the passage consists of prose, as in a passage from US or Word Literature, then these questions will ask about the narrator's style, purpose, or technique, as in the following example. 

During the course of the first paragraph, the narrator’s focus shifts from

A) recollection of past confidence to acknowledgment of present self-doubt.
B) reflection on his expectations of life as a tradesman to his desire for another job.
C) generalization about job dissatisfaction to the specifics of his own situation.
D) evaluation of factors making him unhappy to identification of alternatives.


#7: Evidence Support

Evidence support questions don't stand on their own. Rather, they refer back to any of the previous question types and ask you to provide evidence for your answer.

Let's say you answer an inference question. Then you might get an evidence support question that asks you which lines within the passage provided the reason behind your answer. These evidence-support questions are common throughout the Reading section. Here's an example of an author technique question, followed by an evidence support question. 

1. In the passage, the author anticipates which of the following objections to criticizing the ethics of free markets?

A) Smith’s association of free markets with ethical behavior still applies today.
B) Free markets are the best way to generate high profits, so ethics are a secondary consideration.
C) Free markets are ethical because they are made possible by devalued currency.
D) Free markets are ethical because they enable individuals to make choices.


2. Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

A) Lines 4-5 (“Some... ethical”)
B) Lines 7-10 (“But... about”)
C) Lines 21-22 (“Smith... outcome”)
D) Lines 52-54 (“When... way”)


#8: Data Interpretation 

The final question type you'll encounter on the Reading section is data interpretation. These questions refer to graphics, like graphs and charts, and ask you to interpret the information presented therein. Often, data interpretation questions ask how the graphic relates to the passage.

The graph in the example below accompanies a Science passage about ocean waves. There are actually three questions that ask about the graph, but I'll just show you two of them. 


1. Which concept is supported by the passage and by the information in the graph?

A) Internal waves cause water of varying salinity to mix.
B) Internal waves push denser water above layers of less dense water.
C) Internal waves push bands of cold water above bands of warmer water.
D) Internal waves do not rise to break the ocean’s surface.


2. How does the graph support the author’s point that internal waves affect ocean water dynamics?

A) It demonstrates that wave movement forces warmer water down to depths that typically are colder.
B) It reveals the degree to which an internal wave affects the density of deep layers of cold water.
C) It illustrates the change in surface temperature that takes place during an isolated series of deep waves.
D) It shows that multiple waves rising near the surface of the ocean disrupt the flow of normal tides.


You can see how these types of questions draw on certain reading comprehension skills, like your ability to interpret details and find the main point, to understand vocabulary in context, to analyze the sequence and flow of ideas, and to interpret the author's technique and purpose. Furthermore, the evidence support questions make sure that you're backing up your answers with evidence direct from the text. 

Being able to recognize the question type will help you draw on the right skills to answer it. It will also help you root out wrong answers and effectively use process of elimination to find the one 100% correct answer.



Let's talk about some other key strategies you can use to succeed on the Reading section of the SAT.



Alright, cadet—ready to start basic training?


How to Study for SAT Reading

First off, you don't want to have any surprises on test day. Knowing exactly what to expect, in terms of the types of passages and questions, how much time you have, and what skills you need to demonstrate, is a great way to start preparing for the Reading section. So if you've made it this far in the article, then you've already completed an important first step in your SAT Reading prep!

Read on for a few more tips for prepping for this first and longest section of the SAT.


Speed Up Your Reading

With five passages and 52 questions in only 65 minutes, the Reading section of the SAT asks you to cover a lot of ground and maintain focus for over an hour. Since you’ll get the Reading section in one big chunk, you’re responsible for balancing your time among five passages. You’ll have to read deeply yet efficiently and find that balance between working fast while still catching important details.

If this feels scary to you, don’t despair! There are lots of reading strategies you can practice before sitting for the real test. Rather than trying to catch each and every word, for instance, you might pay most attention to the introduction, conclusion, and transitions between paragraphs, and skim the rest. Other students find it helps them to read the questions first, so they know what to look for.

There are a few different strategies for reading the passages, so you should learn about them and try out each one. Everyone’s different, so you should choose the strategies that work best for you. The more you practice with timed tests, the more efficient you’ll become. Then when you actually sit down to take the real SAT, you’ll feel confident about managing your time and getting to all 52 questions before the proctor calls time.


Search for Evidence

The SAT is meant to test you on skills, not knowledge. You don’t have to know anything about a topic before answering questions on it on the Reading section. In fact, having pre-existing knowledge could even get in your way.

Rather than asking you to recall facts and figures, the Reading questions are entirely based on passages. As such, your answers should be based directly on the words in front of you. When you choose your answers, make sure that you can point to specific lines as evidence that your answer’s the right one.

The new evidence-based questions on the SAT are, in some sense, a blessing in disguise. They serve as a useful reminder that all of your answers should be based on the words in front of you. Evidence-support questions explicitly ask you to provide the lines that served as the basis of your answer to a previous question.

Even if a Reading question’s not followed by one of these evidence support items, it’s a good idea to do the same sort of mental check. Ask yourself, what am I basing my answer off of? If you think you’re answering based on anything other than the words in the passage in front of you, then you might want to double check your thinking.


Use Process of Elimination

While some questions will be easier than others, most have at least one answer that’s obviously wrong. Using process of elimination to zero in on the most reasonable answer can be a helpful strategy in the Reading section, especially in situations where you feel unsure.

While some questions may feel subjective because they ask you to make an inference or evaluate an opinion, they will always only ever have one 100% correct answer. All of the other answer choices, even if they seem reasonable upon first read, will be problematic in some way.

If the right answer doesn’t pop out to you right away, try to use process of elimination to look for these errors in logic. It should help you narrow down your choices by at least one or two. If you really have no idea or are spending too much time on an answer, at that point, you could at least make an educated guess. The rights-only scoring means that you won’t lose any points with a wrong answer, so you have a better choice of upping your score than you would if you left it blank.



Remember that words can be chameleons. They might look totally different in different contexts.


Study Multiple Meaning Words

You’ll find “words in context” questions after every passage on the Reading section. As you saw in the example above, these questions ask you to define or give a synonym for a word from the passage. The catch? You have to understand “how the word is being used” in a specific line.

All of the answer choices might be reasonable synonyms for the word under consideration. You need to understand the connotation of the word in its particular context.

You won’t encounter particularly obscure or high level vocabulary terms. Instead, the words will be relatively common, but they’ll likely have different meanings in different contexts. You can prepare for these questions by studying relevant vocabulary lists and sharpening your ability to divine the meaning of a word based on context clues.


Brush Up on Literary Terms

While you won’t encounter a ton of high level literary terminology—again, the Reading section is meant to test skills, not knowledge or memorization—you should be familiar with the basics. Review key terms like style, tone, attitude, and theme.

Even more importantly, make sure you understand how to describe those parts of a work of prose or nonfiction. To answer these types of questions, you’ll need to be able to pick up on the theme, central argument, or overall tone of a piece of writing.


Practice Data Interpretation

As you saw above, one or more of the passages will be accompanied by a graphic. You’ll be asked to interpret data from a graph, chart, or table. You might get a bar graph, line graph, scatterplot, pie chart, or table, and you’ll need to know how to read it.

Again, you won’t need preexisting knowledge on the topic, but rather the ability to comprehend information before you. You’ll find these data interpretation questions on College Board’s official practice tests and Khan Academy’s online program. You’ll also find them in prep materials from books or PrepScholar’s online program.

If you feel like you’re running low on materials, you might try practicing with ACT Science questions. These will all represent scientific data, but they will give you practice interpreting data from graphics and relating it to accompanying passages. In fact, this skill will help you on the entire SAT, as you’ll find data interpretation questions on the Reading, Writing, and Math sections.


Read Widely

Finally, as the wise Dr. Seuss encouraged us, read daily and read widely to enhance your critical reading and comprehension skills. The Reading section doesn’t just give you prose passages as you might be used to in English literature classes. It also gives you scientific and historical texts that are nonfiction or argument-based.

Practice reading from a variety of genres to get used to different styles. Taking timed SAT practice tests will also help you sharpen your reading skills and get used to switching quickly between subjects and writing styles.

While it’s more difficult to measure, your reading skills will only improve through frequent practice. And being a skilled reader is what doing well on the Reading section of the SAT is all about!


What's Next?

Are you a big reader or looking to study the humanities or social sciences in college? If you're aiming for a top score, then you should check out these strategies by a perfect scorer for how to score an 800 in Reading.

With 52 questions in only 65 minutes, how are you going to balance your time between reading and answering questions? This article breaks down the best approach for reading the passages.

Are you planning to take the optional essay section? This guide goes over exactly how to write an SAT essay, step by step.



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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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