The Content of the Reading Test
When we say “the content of the Reading Test,” we are
actually referring to two different things. The first type of content
refers to the subject matter of the passages. The second type refers
to the sorts of questions asked about the passages.
The Reading Test consists of four passages: Prose Fiction,
Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science—always appearing
in that order. Prose Fiction is the only fiction passage on the
test; the other three are nonfiction. All four passages are given
equal weight in scoring.
Later in this chapter, we will present and analyze sample
passages covering the four content areas. For now, read below for
brief descriptions of each passage type.
The Prose Fiction passage is the only fiction piece on
the Reading Test. Prose Fiction passages are usually excerpts from
novels or short stories. You should approach this passage as you
would an assignment for your high school English class, not as you
would a book you read in your spare time. When you read fiction
for pleasure, you may be tempted to read simply for the story. Yet
while the plot is an important element of most fiction, and one
on which the questions will test you, it is certainly not the only
In addition to the plot of the passage, pay attention
to character development. Since plot and character are usually essential
to a story, your ability to identify and comprehend them are probably
pretty strong already. You should also pay attention to tone, style,
and mood when reading the passage. Ask yourself questions like:
“Who is the narrator?” “Does the narrator exhibit any sympathies
or biases?” “What are the relationships between the characters?”
These questions will help you keep on top of the passage as you read.
The Social Science passage can cover a variety of subjects
ranging from anthropology to economics to politics. All of the subjects
that appear in the Social Science passage essentially deal with
the ways societies and civilization work, and most of them have
a political context.
When reading the passage, you should pay attention to
the key names, dates, and concepts mentioned, and you want to underline
this information as you read over the passage. Because the subject
of this passage is often historical, you should also pay attention
to cause-effect relationships and the chronology of events.
Social Science writing is often research-based and, as
a result, relatively formal in tone. Despite the relative objectivity
implied by words like “research” and “science,” the authors of Social
Science passages often express strong and controversial views on
their subjects. You should try to decipher the author’s standpoint—if
he or she has one—from the general argument of the passage and individual
Humanities passages cover cultural matters, particularly
art and literature. These passages tend to be written analytically
or journalistically. On rare occasions, you might encounter a Humanities
passage that is an excerpt from a personal essay.
In some respects, the Humanities passage closely resembles
the Social Science passage. They both deal with either historical
or contemporary figures and events, so they are both full of specific
information. The difference between the two types of passages lies
in their emphasis. Whereas the Social Science passage usually provides
a political context for figures and events, the Humanities passage
focuses on their artistic or literary significance.
As in the Social Science passage, the writer of the Humanities
passage will often have a slant or bias, and your reading of the
passage should be sensitive to that.
Natural Science passages discuss, unsurprisingly, scientific
topics. These passages present scientific arguments or experiments
and explain the reasoning behind them and their significance.
These passages are usually heavy on facts and scientific
theories. You should keep an eye out for cause-effect relationships
and comparisons when reading Natural Science passages.
The 40 questions found on the Reading Test can be broken
down into several types according to what they test. Most broadly,
the questions can be categorized by the way in which they force
you to interact with the passage. One type will ask you to deal
with the passage in a very straightforward way, and to identify
details, facts, and specific information that is clearly stated
in the passage. The second type will ask you to take a further step, and
to use the information in the passage to figure out larger issues
such as the main idea, relationships, point of view, etc.
More specifically, the different types of questions test
your ability to:
Identify specific details and facts
the meaning of words through context
inferences from given evidence
character and character motivation
the main idea of a section or the whole passage
the author’s point of view or tone
comparisons and analogies
Some of the question types apply primarily—and sometimes
solely—to certain passages. For instance, understanding character
questions appear only on the Prose Fiction passage, since it’s the
only passage that will have characters. On the other hand, you won’t
find a main idea question on the Prose Fiction passage, since works
of fiction generally don’t present arguments.
The list above is designed to give you a general impression
of the questions asked on the Reading Test. We will cover each question
type in far more detail later in the section, when we provide sample
passages and questions.