SAT 2016

CHAPTER 5

THE SAT READING TEST

The Three Key Questions

Lesson 3: Ask, “What is the purpose of this passage?”

To comprehend a passage analytically, you must first categorize it in terms of which three categories?

A.   Fiction, nonfiction, or poetry

B.   Exposition, rhetoric, or narrative

C.   History, science, or humanities

The correct answer is B. Don’t worry so much about whether the passage is fiction or nonfiction, or if the topic is unfamiliar to you. You need a plan of attack for any passage the SAT throws your way. Strong analytical reading begins with asking, “What is the overall purpose of this passage?” Any well-written piece of prose has one of three possible purposes corresponding to the following categories:

•   Expository prose presents objective information and is organized around a guiding question, such as “What happened in the Battle of Bull Run?” or “What is polarized light, and what is it used for?” Examples of expository prose include news articles and science textbooks.

•   Rhetorical prose presents an author’s personal point of view and is organized around a thesis, such as “We have an exaggerated perception of gang violence,” or “Hiking is good for the soul.” Examples of rhetorical prose include Op-Ed essays, blog posts, and some magazine articles.

•   Narrative prose presents a fictional or nonfictional story and is organized around a protagonist and a transformative struggle, such as “Jean Valjean struggles to redeem himself,” or “King Lear struggles to establish a legacy.” Examples of narrative prose include memoirs, short stories, biographies, and novels.

As you read any SAT Reading passage, first ask, “What is its overall purpose: to present objective information (expository), to present a point of view (rhetorical), or to tell a story (narrative)?”

You can often determine overall purpose from the introduction or the first paragraph. For instance, if a passage is described as a discussion or description, it’s likely to be expository. If it is described as a speech or an essay, it’s probably rhetorical. If it is described as an excerpt from a memoir or novel, then it’s probably narrative.

But be careful. Authors often combine different modes of prose. For instance, an essay arguing for tougher gun laws (rhetorical purpose) might tell a heart-wrenching story (narrative element) to make the point. Similarly, a short story (narrative purpose) might include a lengthy description (expository element) of the town in which it is set.

Always confirm your theory about purpose by carefully reading the final paragraph. If the final paragraph focuses on describing an interesting fact, the passage is probably expository. If it focuses on a proposal, evaluation, or suggestion, the passage is probably rhetorical. If it describes a person’s resolution of a problem, the passage is probably a narrative. Most passages confirm their overall purpose in the final paragraph.

Lesson 4: Ask, “What is the central idea of this passage?”

What is the best way to determine the central idea of a passage?

A.   Read the first paragraph, which always summarizes the main idea.

B.   Read the topic sentence of the final paragraph.

C.   It depends on the passage type and structure.

The correct answer is C. Although the first and last paragraphs often contain key information, sometimes the first paragraph or two simply provide background information or summarize a misconception to be refuted. Sometimes a passage doesn’t get around to the central idea until the third or fourth paragraph.

Once you have determined the general purpose of the passage, focus immediately on finding the central idea. The purpose and central idea are intimately linked.

•   The central idea of any expository essay is a guiding question, such as “What is the carbon cycle?”

•   The central idea of any rhetorical essay is a thesis, such as “Perseverance is more important to success than skill is.”

•   The central idea of any narrative is the protagonist’s transformative struggle, such as “The narrator discovers how to be an artist.”

The central idea is often, but not always, revealed at the beginning of the passage and reinforced at the end of the passage. Sometimes your first guess about the main idea, based on the first paragraph, may be wrong and need to be revised.

Consider this excerpt and the question that follows:

Without some appreciation of common large numbers, it’s impossible to react with the proper skepticism to terrifying reports that more than a million American kids are kidnapped each year, or with the proper sobriety to a warhead carrying a megaton of explosive power—the equivalent of a million tons (or two billion pounds) of TNT.

And if you don’t have some feeling for probabilities, automobile accidents might seem a relatively minor problem of local travel, whereas being killed by terrorists might seem to be a major risk when going overseas. As often observed, however, the 45,000 people killed annually on American roads are approximately equal in number to all American dead in the Vietnam War. On the other hand, the seventeen Americans killed by terrorists in 1985 were among the 28 million of us who traveled abroad that year—that’s one chance in 1.6 million of becoming a victim …

The primary purpose of this passage is to

A)   warn against the dangers associated with daily living in the United States

B)   compare the costs of war-related activities to the costs of domestic activities

C)   discuss common misunderstandings about statistical data

D)   propose solutions to some problems in American domestic and foreign policy

Most students get this question wrong, because they focus too much on specific details and not enough on overall purpose and logical structure.

So what is the central idea in this passage? If you look at some of the passage details, such as the references to car accidents and kidnapping, you might be reminded of the dangers associated with daily living or the cost of domestic activities or even domestic policy problems. If you notice the references to warheads, the Vietnam War, and terrorism, you might be reminded of war-related activities or American foreign policy problems. For these reasons, choices A, B, and D might all seem like good answers.

But they are all wrong.

Consider choice A. Is kidnapping mentioned in order to warn against danger? No: the author says that the proper response to the terrifying reports that more than a million American kids are kidnapped each year is not fear and caution, but skepticism. In fact, his point is that if we hadsome appreciation of common large numbers, we would see that this statistic is preposterous.

How about choice B? The statement that the 45,000 people killed annually on American roads are approximately equal in number to all American dead in the Vietnam War seems to be comparing the costs of war-related activities to the costs of domestic activities. But is this the primary purpose of the passage? No, this statistic is mentioned only to make a broader point: that it is irrational to fear terrorism more than daily driving, and that this irrationality is due, in least in part, to our lack of feeling about probabilities.

Now look at choice D. Does the passage propose any solutions to the problems of kidnapping, terrorism, nuclear weapons, car accidents, or war? Certainly not in these first two paragraphs. More important, these paragraphs suggest a very different overall purpose.

The point of these first two paragraphs is that [w]ithout some appreciation of common large numbers and a feeling for probabilities, we will overreact to some dangers and underreact to others. In other words, there is some danger inherent in our common misunderstandings about statistical data. Therefore, the best answer is choice C.

How to attack purpose questions

Many SAT Reading questions ask about the purpose of particular words, phrases, or references. Here are some examples:

The author uses the word “debacle” (line 3) in order to emphasize her belief that …

The quotation in lines 42–51 primarily serves to …

To attack these questions, first remind yourself of the overall purpose and central idea of the passage, and remember that every portion of the passage must help convey the central idea of the passage.

Consider this question about the “innumeracy” passage that is the source of the earlier quote:

The author mentions the work of Drs. Kronlund and Phillips (lines 53–58) primarily in order to

A)   warn against the risks of certain medical procedures

B)   highlight a promising medical breakthrough

C)   demonstrate the fallibility of medical experts

D)   dispute a common medical theory

Even without reading lines 53–58, you can see which choices don’t fit with the overall purpose and central idea that we identified in the previous question. Since the primary purpose of this passage is to “discuss common misunderstandings about statistical data,” the reference to the work of Drs. Kronlund and Phillips must serve this primary purpose in some way. Choices B and D are not strongly connected to the understanding of statistical data. Choices A and C, however, are plausible answers because warning against risks often involves understanding the data that show the likelihood of those risks, and the fallibility of medical experts might include their inability to understand and interpret statistics (which is precisely the main theme of the essay).

Exercise 1

This passage is adapted from John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy ©1988 Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Paulos is a mathematician discussing the role of mathematics in American culture.

Images

Images

1

The primary purpose of this passage is to

A)   warn against the dangers associated with daily living in the United States

B)   compare the costs of war-related activities to the costs of domestic activities

C)   discuss common misunderstandings about statistical data

D)   propose solutions to some problems in American domestic and foreign policy

2

The author regards the “reports” (line 3) with an attitude of

A)   journalistic objectivity

B)   informed incredulity

C)   intense alarm

D)   lighthearted humor

3

The activities listed in lines 21–25 serve primarily as examples of

A)   underappreciated dangers

B)   intolerable risks

C)   medical priorities

D)   policy failures

4

The passage includes all of the following EXCEPT

A)   ad hominem

B)   verifiable statistics

C)   amusing illustration

D)   social assessment

5

In line 32, the author’s use of the word “penetrating” is an example of

A)   subtle euphemism

B)   deliberate hyperbole

C)   sincere acclamation

D)   ironic sarcasm

6

In line 32, “personalize” most nearly means

A)   customize decoratively

B)   describe insultingly

C)   represent humanely

D)   interpret out of context

7

The passage suggests that the “exotic malady” (line 35) is an example of

A)   a delusion that is slowly being dispelled

B)   a risk that is wildly overestimated

C)   a peril that is rapidly growing

D)   a disease that defies conventional treatment

8

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

A)   Lines 1–7 (“Without some … of TNT”)

B)   Lines 12–16 (“As often … War”)

C)   Lines 39–40 (“There’s a joke … relevant”)

D)   Lines 58–64 (“I once … quite well”)

9

The author mentions the work of Drs. Kronlund and Phillips (lines 53–58) primarily in order to

A)   warn against the risks of certain medical procedures

B)   highlight a promising medical breakthrough

C)   demonstrate the fallibility of medical experts

D)   dispute a common medical theory

Lesson 5: Ask, “What is the structure of this passage?”

Passage adapted from Cleveland Hickman, Larry Roberts, and Allan Larson, Integrated Principles of Zoology. ©2001 The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Images

Images

To read analytically, you must pay attention to the functional structure of the passage. In other words, think about how each paragraph serves the central idea.

Notice that, in the passage above, the notes indicate that the first paragraph describes a misconception, the second provides an example of that misconception, the third provides a refutation of that misconception, and the fourth describes an implication of the corrected theory. All of these paragraphs serve the central purpose of describing the history and implications of a biological theory.

The structure of a passage depends very much on its purpose.

Expository essays can be structured in many possible ways in order to answer the guiding question. They may include background information, illustrations of concepts, examples of general claims, relevant data, anecdotes, or discussions of implications. Of course, any of these elements may be omitted, supplemented, or rearranged.

Narratives have a fairly consistent structure: (1) the struggle is introduced, (2) the struggle is developed, and (3) the struggle is resolved, transforming the protagonist. The details may differ dramatically from narrative to narrative, but the overall structure probably will not.

Rhetorical essays can also be structured in many possible ways. A rhetorical argument is likely to describe a position, then refute it with a counterargument. A rhetorical narrative tells a story in order to highlight a particular point of view. Rhetorical essay can include paragraphs dedicated to logical analysis of a claim, explanation, illustration, discussion of implications, modification of a claim, and so on.

Exercise 2

This passage is adapted from Cleveland Hickman, Larry Roberts, and Allan Larson, Integrated Principles of Zoology. ©2001 The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Images

Images

1

The author regards the examples listed in lines 5–7 as

A)   scientific frauds

B)   astonishing discoveries

C)   faulty conclusions

D)   quaint traditions

2

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

A)   Lines 1–4 (“In ancient … material”)

B)   Lines 7–10 (“Warmth … organisms”)

C)   Lines 21–23 (“In 1861 … matter”)

D)   Lines 30–32 (“But when … proliferate”)

3

Louis Pasteur would most likely fault the “recipe” described in lines 15–20 for its lack of

A)   scientific controls

B)   quantitative precision

C)   fermentable material

D)   airborne microorganisms

4

In line 40, “mortal” most nearly means

A)   human

B)   earthly

C)   bitter

D)   fatal

5

The final paragraph suggests that Pasteur was mistaken about

A)   the chemical composition of living cells

B)   the possibility of life arising from nonliving matter

C)   when the earliest forms of life arose on Earth

D)   the existence of a common ancestor to all living things

6

In line 46, “basic” most nearly means

A)   innate

B)   quintessential

C)   easily understood

D)   rudimentary

7

In the final paragraph, the author characterizes the early earth primarily as

A)   idyllic

B)   mysterious

C)   perilous

D)   chaotic

8

Which best describes the content and organization of the passage as a whole?

A)   the account of a discovery followed by a discussion of its practical applications

B)   the description of a common belief followed by a presentation of the evidence refuting it

C)   the illustration of a complex theory followed by a consideration of its inadequacies

D)   the story of the struggles of a scientist followed by an appreciation of his legacy