SAT Reading: Literary Passage

The SAT Reading 📚 section is everyone’s most dreaded section with complicated answer choices that sound exactly the same. But don’t worry! Once you get used to the structure and pattern, you’ll notice answer choices can become very clear, and you’ll be able to pinpoint the right answer. So let’s dive into it!
SAT Reading Literary Passage

Overview: Literary Passage

The SAT Reading 📚 section is everyone’s most dreaded section with complicated answer choices that sound exactly the same. But don’t worry! Once you get used to the structure and pattern, you’ll notice answer choices can become very clear, and you’ll be able to pinpoint the right answer. So let’s dive into it!

Remember that you’ll have 65 minutes to answer 52 multiple-choice questions, with 10-11 questions per passage, which means you should spend around 10 minutes per passage to leave yourself enough time. ⏰

Imagine diving into a treasure trove of captivating stories, profound ideas, and thought-provoking texts. That’s precisely what awaits you in the SAT literary passage section! In this section, you’ll encounter a variety of passages that cover a wide range of topics and writing styles. These passages may be excerpted from famous works of literature, historical documents, or contemporary articles. The key is to not only understand the literal meaning of the text but also to delve deeper into its underlying themes, arguments, and literary devices.

Types of Questions

Let’s walk through common question types you may see asked after the literary passage:

  1. Synthesis questions: These questions ask you to read a paired passage and answer based on information provided in both passages. It may also include reading and interpreting an infographic.
  2. Global questions: These require you to identify explicit and implicit themes of the passage. This means that you’ll have to find the author’s central idea and purpose, hence the name “global question.”
  3. Global questions will also ask you about summary details, so you should pay attention to the overall summary as well!
    1. You’ll notice that global questions don’t reference a specific line number or paragraphs. Instead, they only ask for the central idea 💡 or theme. This means that you should avoid choosing answer choices that summarize secondary ideas.

    2. Also, note that Science and Historical Document passages will have a thesis statement, but Literature passages will not.

  4. Command of evidence questions: Command of evidence questions are the typical “which line provides evidence?” questions. Some of you might hate it 😡, some of you might love it 🥰. This is because the questions usually come in a pair, and this question relies on your answer to the last question. So if you answered it wrong, this might misguide you to the wrong answer for the evidence question. On the bright side, if you can’t figure out the last question using the evidence question, the answer must be within the lines provided as answer choices. But this isn’t always the case.
    1. Sometimes it’ll simply ask you to cite evidence that best supports, disputes, strengthens, or weakens a claim that was introduced at some point.

    2. Needless to say, you should always make sure your previous answer seems to match your answer to the evidence question. Avoid answers that provide evidence for the wrong answer in the previous question.

🤫Tips and Strategies

🧐 1. Read Actively

Imagine yourself embarking on an exciting journey through the pages of each passage. As you dive in, bring an active mindset along for the ride. This means actively engaging with the text by highlighting key details, underlining important points, and making insightful notes in the margins. Think of it as having a conversation with the passage, where you mark the spots that pique your interest or seem significant. By doing so, you’ll not only stay focused but also create a personalized roadmap to navigate through the passage effortlessly. These annotations will serve as signposts, guiding you back to essential information when answering the questions later.

🫡 2. Understand the Structure

Imagine the structure of a passage as the backbone that holds everything together. Just like getting to know the layout of a new neighborhood helps you navigate more easily, familiarizing yourself with the structure of different literary genres will make it easier to analyze passages effectively. Take a moment to explore the elements of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Dive into the world of plots, characters, arguments, and poetic devices. By understanding these building blocks, you’ll be equipped with the tools to unravel the passage’s inner workings. It’s like having a map that guides you through the twists and turns of the author’s narrative.

😏 3. Answer Questions Strategically

To maximize your success and save precious time, start by tackling questions that refer to specific lines or paragraphs in the passage. These questions are like signposts that direct your attention to specific details within the text. By answering them first, you can stay grounded in the passage and rely on the information right in front of you. Once you’ve tackled these targeted questions, you can move on to the broader ones that require a comprehensive understanding of the entire passage. This strategic approach helps you navigate through the questions efficiently, preventing confusion and ensuring that you allocate your time wisely. So, embark on your SAT quest with a well-thought-out plan, and conquer those questions one step at a time!

😮‍💨 4. Practice, Practice, Practice

Just like any skill, mastering the SAT literary passage section requires practice. Think of it as honing your reading comprehension abilities through regular exercise. Familiarize yourself with different types of literary passages by engaging in targeted practice sessions with sample questions and full-length practice tests. By exposing yourself to a variety of passages, you’ll not only improve your reading comprehension skills but also become comfortable with the format and style of the SAT literary passage section. So, make practice a regular part of your SAT preparation routine!

😋 5. Understanding Characterization

As you read through the passage, you should keep in mind a few things about the characters:

How are the characters being described by the author?

Ask yourself: who are the main characters? How are they described? The author can use several ways to describe a character, through direct and indirect characterization. 

  • With direct characterization, the author describes a character by straightforwardly just telling the reader. This is usually done through the use of adjectives. 

    • Example: “Emily is an energetic person who always cheers 📣 people up.” Here, the adjective energetic is used to describe Emily’s cheerful nature. Emily is described straightforwardly, and there is no necessary inferring needed. 

  • Indirect characterization is used when the author describes a character through the character’s actions, thoughts, and motives.

    • Example: “Emily’s lighthouse smile lights 🔆 up even the darkest hallways of the school.” In this example, you can see that Emily is continuing to be energetic, but now you can visualize 👀 her impact on others. Also, since it is not stated directly, inferring is needed most of the time. 

What are the characters’ opinions on each other?

Does one character have a strong like or dislike towards a specific person or object? What is it? And what can you tell from the decision or actions the character makes?

Try to keep in mind the relationship the characters hold within the passage as well!

What is the theme of the story? Lastly, what is the theme of the story?

Is there a turning point or moral? This basically refers back to the English teacher mode.

Exactly, What Does This Section Look Like?

Passage Example #1

Here is the sample passage from a past PSAT we are going to be working with! It’s a little shorter than typical SAT passages for simplicity’s sake. 

[In this excerpt from a short story, the narrator describes an afternoon visit to the farm of Mrs. Hight and her daughter, Esther.]

Mrs. Hight, like myself, was tired and thirsty. I brought a drink of water, and remembered some fruit that was left from my lunch. She revived vigorously, and told me the history of her later years since she had been struck in the prime of her life by a paralyzing stroke, and her husband had died and left her with Esther and a mortgage on their farm. There was only one field of good land, but they owned a large area of pasture and some woodland. Esther had always been laughed at for her belief in sheep-raising when one by one their neighbors were giving up their flocks. When everything had come to the point of despair she had raised some money and bought all the sheep could, insisting that Maine lambs were as good as any, and that there was a straight path by sea to the Boston market. By tending her flock herself she had managed to succeed; she had paid off the mortgage five years ago, and now what they did not spend was in the bank. “It has been stubborn work, day and night, summer and winter, and now she’s beginning to get along in years,” said the old mother. “She’s tended me along with the sheep, and she’s been good right along, but she should have been a teacher.”]

Passage and Questions from Kaplan Prep Book

Character Analysis – Passage #1

Let’s answer the character questions we provided for you earlier in this study guide!

How are the characters being described by the author?

In the passage, we can note that Mrs. Hight has suffered a stroke, is a widow, and owns a farm. 

With Esther, the daughter of Mrs. Hight, we learn that she raised sheep and succeeded in paying off the mortgage and keeping the farm alive. 🐑

What are the characters’ opinions on each other?

In the passage, we can learn from Mrs. Hight’s words that Esther is a caring daughter and that Mrs. Hight is grateful for her daughter. Mrs. Hight also highly regards her daughter, resulting in a positive relationship.

What is the theme of the story?

In the passage, we can infer that the theme is related to determination. Esther was determined to keep the farm even though unforgivingly difficult conditions, and in the end, her hard work paid off, despite being laughed at by the townspeople. 

Passage Example #1 Questions

First things first, identify keywords and line references within the questions. I know this sounds dumb, but keep it as a rule of thumb: the answer is always in the question. 

Now let’s look at two questions!

Question #1

The main purpose of the passage is to 

A. suggest some of the essential attributes of a character.

B. show that people’s lives are determined by events beyond their control.

C. identify the major causes of Mrs. Hight’s unhappiness.

D. recount an incident that changed the narrator’s life.

Okay, when College Board is asking about purpose, you can usually loosely tie it with the theme. Essentially, the question is asking about the theme of the passage and how that relates to the main purpose. And we already figured out the theme! 

But before looking at the answer choices, try to remember the theme. Do you remember now 🧠? Well, it was related to Esther’s determination. Now look to see if this matches any of the four answer choices. Does it? At first, it might not seem like it, but if you read the passage closely, you’ll remember that the passage was mostly about Esther. Then, you can connect that to the fact that Mrs. Hight highly regards her daughter. Is this coming closer to the answer?

If it doesn’t, don’t worry! We’ll keep working through it. Since Mrs. Hight has a positive opinion about her daughter and since the passage mostly speaks about Esther, we can carefully conclude that the purpose was to describe Esther’s determination. Now, you should get a good feel of the answer!

Answer: A

Congratulations 🙌! You just finished the first practice question! You may have had a different train of thought for this question, which is totally fine! 

For example, the process of elimination could have been used!

Question #2

2. Mrs. Hight’s description of Esther’s sheep-raising efforts in

[“She’s tended me along with the sheep, and she’s been good right along, but she should have been a teacher.”] reveals her daughter’s

A. desire to succeed no matter what the cost.

B. humility and grace in accepting defeat.

C. considerable regard for her neighbors’ opinions.

D. calm determination in meeting difficulties.

Now some character-analysis time! In this question, the College Board wants to know how well you can analyze Esther’s “sheep-raising efforts.” And if you remember the short character analysis, Esther is a determined person!

We can also remember that Esther was “laughed at” by her neighbors, but she never gave up, and Mrs. Hight puts it as “she’s been good right along.”

Through these character analyses, we can tell that the keyword to describe Esther is determination. And voila, the same word is in one of the answer choices 😏.

Answer: D

Passage Example #2

[The following, adapted from an English novel published in 1907, describes the family environment and early childhood of Rickie Elliot, a boy with a mild physical disability.]

Some people spend their lives in a suburb, and not for any urgent reason. This had been the fate of Rickie. He had opened his eyes to filmy heavens, and taken his first walk on asphalt. He had seen civilization as a row of semi-detached villas, and society as a state in which men do not know the men who live next door. He had himself become part of the gray monotony that surrounds all cities. There was no necessity for this – it was only rather convenient to his father. 

Mr. Elliot was a barrister. In appearance he re-sembled his son, being weakly and lame, with hollow little cheeks, a broad white and of forehead, and stiff impoverished hair. His voice, which he did not transmit, was very suave, with a fine command of cynical intonation. By altering it ever so little he could make people wince, especially if they were simple or poor. Nor did he transmit his eyes. Their peculiar flatness, as if the soul looked through dirty window panes, the unkindness of then, the cowardice, the fear in them, were to trouble the world no longer. 

He married a girl whose voice was beautiful. There was no cares in it yet all who heard it were soothed, as though the world held some unexpected blessing. She called to her dogs one night over invisible waters, and he, a tourist up on the bridge, thought “that is extraordinarily adequate.” In time he discovered that her figure, face and thoughts were adequate also, and as she was not impossible socially, he married her. “I have taken a plunge,” he told his family. The family, hostile at first, had not a word to say when the woman was introduced to them; and his sister declared that the plunge had been taken from the opposite ank. 

Things only went right for a little time. Though beautiful without and within, Mrs. Elliot had not the gift of making her home beautiful; and one day, when she bought a carpet for the dining room that clashed, he laughed gently, said he “really couldn’t,” and departed. Departure is perhaps too strong a word. In Mrs. Elliot’s mouth it became, “My husband has to sleep more in town.” He often came down to see them, nearly always unexpectedly, and occasionally they went to see him. “Father’s house,” as Rickie called it, only had three rooms, but these were full of books and pictures and flowers; and the flowers, instead of being squashed down into the vases as they were in mummy’s house, rose gracefully from frames of lead which lay coiled at the bottom, as doubtless the sea serpent has to life, coiled at the bottom of the sea. Once he was let to lift a frame out – only once, for he dropped some water on a creton. “I think he’s going to have taste,” said Mr. Elliot languidly. “It is quite possible,” his wife replied. She had not taken off her hat and gloves, nor even pulled up her veil. Mr. Elliot laughed, and soon afterwards another lady came in, and they went away.]

Passage and Questions from Kaplan Prep Book

Passage Example #2 Questions

Okay, let’s look at some questions now! Try to identify what type of question is being asked: is it a global question or a command of evidence question?

Question #1

1. Mr. Elliot is described as being

A. monotonous and opportunistic.

B. superficial and condescending.

C. tasteful and classy.

D. weak and generous. 

This is a global question because it asks for a general description. And it’s asking for Mr. Elliot’s personality and characterization. In the passage, his characterization wasn’t positive 🙁, which means the answer choice has to contain something negative. And there is only one answer choice that contains two negative adjectives. Though A, C, D all seem to describe Mr. Elliot, some positive adjectives don’t quite fit Mr. Elliot’s personality. 

Answer: B

Question #2

2. According to the passage, the family’s life in the suburbs is described as 

A. an impersonal and unfortunate situation chosen to accommodate Mr. Elliot.

B. a dull environment from which Mr. Elliot wanted to escape. 

C. an impoverished but friendly upbringing for Rickie.

D. oppressive to Mrs. Elliot, but something she endured in order to please her husband. 

In this question, details from the passage are required. And if you refer to the first paragraph, you can tell that all the information about the suburbs 🏘 is packed in that paragraph. If you read closely, you can quickly tell that Rickie’s attitude toward the suburbs is pretty negative. But it states that the family lives in the suburbs because it is “convenient” for Mr. Elliot. So, in this case, we can easily tell what the answer choice is. 

Answer: A

The process of elimination can also work. C doesn’t work because we know Rickie has negative feelings about the suburbs. We also know that Mrs. Elliot didn’t necessarily try to please her husband, which eliminates D. Though B can be pretty tempting, we know that Mr. Elliot has already escaped the suburbs by living apart from his family. So, that option can be crossed out as well. 

Question #3

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

A. “Some people spend their lives in a suburb, and not for any urgent reason.” (Paragraph 1)

B. “He had opened his eyes to filmy heavens, and taken his first walk on asphalt. He had seen civilization as a row of semi-detached villas, and society as a state in which men do not know the men who live next door.” (Paragraph 1)

C. “He had himself become part of the gray monotony that surrounds all cities.” (Paragraph 1)

D. “There was no necessity for this – it was only rather convenient to his father.” (Paragraph 1)

If you answered the previous question correctly, you would know because one of the answer choices is how you answered it! But if you didn’t answer #2, or if you didn’t answer correctly, we can look at this a little closer 🔎. 

This is obviously a command of evidence question, so we have to refer back to #2. Do any of #3’s answer choices point in supporting B, C, or D of #2? No. By this, we’ve figured out the correct answer to #2. Now, since we know A is the correct answer, we can look at the 4 answer choices. Based on the answer from #2, A and B don’t really make sense. If you look closely, C doesn’t match the response of #2. So then, we’re left with one answer. 

Answer: D


That’s it! You survived through the first bit of the SAT reading section! Remember to never over-complicate things. It’s just all about making connections between the question, the passage, and the answer! 

Especially with the reading section, your pacing is crucial, so if you get stuck, just skip the question and refer to it later. And in the end, just trust your guts!

Good luck to everyone who is taking the SAT! 🎉


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