The Content of the Reading Test
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 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.
Prose Fiction
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 element.
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.
Social Science
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 statements.
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
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 Questions
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:
  1. Identify specific details and facts
  2. Determine the meaning of words through context
  3. Draw inferences from given evidence
  4. Understand character and character motivation
  5. Identify the main idea of a section or the whole passage
  6. Identify the author’s point of view or tone
  7. Identify cause-effect relationships
  8. Make 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.
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