The Three Nonfiction Passages
The Three Nonfiction Passages
The following section deals with the three nonfiction passages. First, we’ll give you a sample Social Science passage (the one that directly follows Prose Fiction on the test), and then a rundown of the questions that may be asked on it. As these questions are similar to the questions asked on the other two sections, Humanities and Natural Science, we will use our sample Social Science passage as a template for the others, explaining to you exactly how to answer general question types found on all three passages. Following the Social Science section, we will discuss the specifics of the Humanities and Natural Science passages, using sample passages and questions.
The Social Science Passage
In many ways, you can think of the Social Science passage as the standard nonfiction passage on the Reading Test because it can cover all of the question types and because it represents a middle ground between the Humanities and Natural Science passages. In this section, you’ll read a sample Social Science passage and learn about all the possible question types associated with Social Science:
  1. Specific Detail
  2. Inference
  3. Main Idea and Argument
  4. Cause-Effect
  5. Point of View
  6. Comparison
  7. Vocabulary
These questions types are also found on the Humanities and Natural Science passages, so the descriptions we give of them here also apply to those passages.
The Sample Passage

The following passage is adapted from an essay on Malcolm X.


         During 1963 the nation became aware of a civil rights leader
    making a dramatic impact on the black community. Malcolm X, the
    charismatic, ferociously eloquent preacher and organizer for the
Line    Nation of Islam, had been preaching his message to (usually poor)
(5)    black communities since the early 1950s. Malcolm X was a “black
    Muslim,” a member of a small but crucial religious organization
    that proved instrumental in giving birth to the modern Black
    Power Movement. The Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammed,
    believed that whites had systematically and immorally denied
(10)    blacks their rights and that blacks therefore had no reason to
    act peacefully or lovingly towards whites. Instead of supporting
    the philosophy of non-violence embraced by Martin Luther King,
    Jr., the Nation of Islam believed that whites should repay blacks
    for slavery and allow them to set up their own nation within
(15)    America. Until that day arrived, the Nation encouraged blacks to
    defend themselves against white supremacy “by any means
    necessary.”
         The membership and influence of the Nation of Islam grew
    tremendously during the late 1950s and early 1960s, in large part
(20)    due to the dedication and speaking skills of Malcolm X. Like
    King, Malcolm X mobilized the people, leading them in rallies,
    protest marches, and demonstrations. Though he was widely known
    among the black underclass and in civil rights circles, it was
    not until his famous “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” speech on
(25)    December 1, 1963, that he truly blasted his way into the
    consciousness of most Americans. X gave the speech in reference
    to the November 22 assassination of President John F. Kennedy,
    and described the killing as “chickens coming home to roost.” The
    media, which had negatively portrayed the Nation of Islam in
(30)    general and Malcolm X in particular, jumped on the speech
    immediately, claiming it as an example of Malcolm X’s divisive
    hatred and blatant disrespect for the U.S. government. In the
    face of public reaction, officials within the Nation silenced X
    for 90 days . The speech not only brought Malcolm X to the
(35)    forefront of the civil rights struggle but also highlighted and
    helped solidify a strand of civil rights activism that found
    inadequate the non-violent policies the movement had so far used.
         Malcolm X is a highly controversial figure in black history.
    Many see him as a spouter of hatred and divisiveness. Certainly
(40)    it is true that a fair portion of X’s rhetoric—his references to
    “white devils” and “Uncle Tomming Negro leaders”—was angry and
    inflammatory, and did little to promote the cause of integration.
    However, X represented an element of black consciousness that
    white people refused to face: the incredible rage that most black
(45)    people felt after suffering so many years of oppression.
         For all of his fame, it is interesting to note that his
    mobilization and participation in the civil rights movement was
    actually fairly slim . He respected some civil rights leaders
    (King, for example), though for much of his life he believed that
(50)    the idea of integration was merely playing into the hands of the
    white man. For the most part, Malcolm X’s role in the civil
    rights movement was merely to preach, to pass on the crucial
    message of black rage to white America, and to become a role
    model for those who began the Black Power Movement a few years
(55)    later. He is vitally important not because of what he actually
    did, but because of what he said and how he said it.
         Malcolm X’s own biography reveals that he was more nuanced
    and interesting than the simple role of black rage that he was
    sometimes assigned by both whites who held him up as an example
(60)    of rage gone wild, and blacks who saw him as a warrior willing to
    express that which most blacks could not. After years of service,
    X eventually broke with the Nation of Islam. Then, after a
    life-changing visit to Mecca in 1964, he broke with his own
    previous thought and began preaching a message of cross-cultural
(65)    unity, and founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity. With
    his fire-and-brimstone oratory, broad base of black community
    support, and knack for attracting media attention, X’s new path
    might have forged major interracial inroads. But before he could
    follow this new path of more general inclusion, X was
(70)    assassinated on February 21, 1965, shot as he was giving a speech
    in New York. The perpetrators have never been found, though many
    presume the Nation of Islam to have been responsible. X’s
    autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, is an abiding
    document of both his own personal journey and of his time.
The Questions
Below, we’ll give you a rundown of the questions you’ll likely encounter on the Social Science passage. All of the questions below pertain to the above passage on Malcolm X.
Specific Detail
Specific detail questions on the nonfiction passages are as straightforward as they are on the fiction passage. They ask you to identify a specific detail or piece of evidence from the passage. For example,
According to the passage, some critics of Malcolm X censured him for being:
A. an “Uncle Tomming Negro leader.”
B. an example of rage gone wild.
C. a warrior for African-Americans.
D. a civil rights leader.
If you read the section dealing with specific detail for Prose Fiction, you probably have a pretty good idea of how to answer this question. Getting the right answer is really a matter of careful reading, but you can use the question to help you eliminate answers that are clearly wrong. For instance, because the question asks you for criticisms of Malcolm X, it is probably a safe bet to eliminate choices C and D, which give positive interpretations of his career. Choosing the right answer from choices A and B is really a matter of understanding the material. If you read the passage with some care, you probably remember that Malcolm X used choice A as a criticism for black leaders whom he considered panderers to white supremacists. In the last paragraph of the passage, the writer notes that some white people “held him up as an example of rage gone wild”—a pretty clear criticism of Malcolm X; thus B is the correct answer to the question.
Inference
You may remember that inference questions ask for implied information. The answers to inference questions won’t be stated explicitly in the nonfiction passages; instead, you must ferret out the answer from the evidence provided by the passage. For example,
One can reasonably infer from the passage that the Nation of Islam is widely thought responsible for Malcolm X’s assassination because:
A. X broke with the group politically and philosophically.
B. X gave a controversial speech after Kennedy’s assassination.
C. X visited Mecca in 1964.
D. X began to write an autobiography.
You should look to the last paragraph, where Malcolm X’s assassination is described. Ask yourself what this paragraph focuses on. The paragraph mentions that Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam (choice A) and that he visited Mecca (choice C). You can safely eliminate choice B because his controversial “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” speech occurred well before his break with the Nation of Islam; moreover, the author explicitly states the Nation of Islam’s response to the speech in line 33-34. Now you must choose between the remaining three answer choices: A, C, and D. If you can’t figure out the correct answer, consider which answer choices make sense and which one best answers the question. Choice C, which points to Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca, would probably not make sense as an answer choice, as this pilgrimage is a central element of the Islamic faith. Like choice C, choice D also does not seem to offer the proper detail. The passage offers no connection at all between Malcolm X’s autobiography and his assassination. Choice A, meanwhile, fits the bill: Malcolm X not only split from the Nation of Islam, but also began to preach a message opposed to the group’s—a message of unity and nonviolence rather than of separate nations and cultures. Choice A is the correct answer to the question because it best describes why the Nation of Islam would assassinate Malcolm X.
Main Idea and Argument
On the nonfiction passages, you’ll encounter quite a few main idea questions. Some of the questions will deal with the passage as a whole, while others will deal with sections of the passage. In both cases, these questions will ask you to identify the main ideas or arguments presented within the passage.
Here’s an example of a main idea question:
The main point made in the third paragraph (lines 38-45) is that:
A. the “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” speech propelled Malcolm X to the forefront of the civil rights debate.
B. Malcolm X’s rhetoric promoted hatred and divisiveness.
C. Malcolm X was an important role model for the future leaders of the Black Power Movement.
D. although his message was controversial, Malcolm X successfully gave a voice to black people who had been oppressed for generations.
This question refers you to a specific paragraph and asks you for that paragraph’s main point. For questions that direct you to a specific section, you should glance back at that section to ensure that you don’t confuse it with another. If you don’t glance back, you may mistake the paragraph for the one before or the one after and choose the wrong answer, such as A (which deals with the second paragraph) or C (which deals with the fourth). Also make sure that you understand the point of the whole paragraph. If you read just the first couple sentences, you may think the correct answer to this question is B. But the rest of the paragraph goes on to talk about Malcolm X’s impact despite that controversial side of him, and ultimately the point of the paragraph is D. Choice D is the best answer because it incorporates both aspects of the paragraph: the first part of it, which discusses his controversial method; and the second part, which talks about why he was an important civil rights figure.
Many main point questions will cover the entire passage. These questions will generally be posed in one of the following three ways:
  • The main idea of the passage is that:
  • One of the main ideas of the passage is that:
  • Which of the following best states the main point of the passage?
Here’s where having read the passage carefully (but quickly) will work to your advantage. You should be able to answer general questions like these without referring back to the passage if you did a good job of reading the first time. Reading with an eye to answering specific questions may be an effective strategy for most questions, but you will inevitably encounter general questions like these on the Reading Test. If you choose the strategy of reading for answers, you will have to reread the passage in order to answer these questions. Ultimately, you’ll waste more time than you’ll save.
Another kind of main idea question asks you to identify the main purpose of the passage—in other words, to determine why the author wrote it. For example:
The author’s purpose in writing this passage seems to be:
A. to portray Malcolm X as the man responsible for the civil rights movement.
B. to reveal an overlooked event in Malcolm X’s life.
C. to give a relatively balanced account of the positive and negative sides of Malcolm X’s career.
D. to expose the Nation of Islam’s role in the assassination of Malcolm X.
You should be able to answer this question without referring back to the passage because it deals with the general theme and argument. When you come to a question like this, ask yourself what the author has accomplished with the passage. If you form your answer before looking at the answer choices, you’re less likely to be swayed by a wrong but convincing answer choice. The author of this passage describes both negative and positive aspects of Malcolm X’s career. For example, the author mentions his early rage and unwillingness to integrate, but balances that with X’s crucial representation of African-Americans. Choice C seems the best answer to the question, but you can always double-check by eliminating the other answer choices. Choice A is wrong because the author states in line 47-48 that X’s “participation in the civil rights movement was actually fairly slim.” Choice B is also wrong; the author never mentions an overlooked event in his life. Choice D is wrong even though the author suggests the Nation of Islam’s culpability in X’s death; this suggestion is not the focus of the entire passage, and it is only briefly mentioned in the last paragraph. So you can safely select choice C as the best answer.
Cause-Effect
As with their Prose Fiction counterparts, cause-effect questions on the nonfiction passages will ask you to identify either the cause or the effect of a particular situation. You are more likely to see these questions on Social Science and Natural Science passages than on Humanities passages because the “science” passages often describe sequences of events.
Cue words in the question will let you know whether you must identify the cause or the effect of the relationship. Words such as “because” warn you that the question seeks the cause of an event, while words such as “resulted in,” “led to,” and “caused” let you know you’ll need to identify the effect of a situation.
Here’s an example of a nonfiction cause-effect question:
According to the passage, Malcolm X came to the forefront of the American civil rights struggle because:
A. of his “Chickens Coming Home to Roost” speech, which generated a media frenzy.
B. he was silenced by the Nation of Islam for 90 days.
C. he rejected King’s nonviolent message.
D. he founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity.
As with almost all questions on the ACT Reading Test, answering this question correctly requires a careful reading of the passage. From the cue word “because,” you know that the question asks you for the “cause” half of the relationship. If you’re unable to answer this question without referring back to the passage, you should at least have an idea of where to look. The second paragraph deals with Malcolm X’s increasing fame. There are a couple of sentences within this paragraph that clearly indicate A as the correct answer to this question: “it was not until his famous ‘Chickens Coming Home to Roost’ speech on December 1, 1963, that he truly blasted his way into the consciousness of most Americans” and “[t]he speech . . . brought Malcolm X to the forefront of the civil rights struggle.”
Point of View
Point-of-view questions on the nonfiction passages differ somewhat from those on the Prose Fiction passage. As opposed to the fiction point-of-view questions, which ask you to identify the point of view of the narrator (a fictional invention), the nonfiction point-of-view questions ask you to identify how the writer (a real person) views his or her subject. As you read a passage, consider whether the writer’s argument seems to support or attack the passage’s subject, and pay attention to the language the writer uses. The writer’s tone (is it angry? is it sympathetic?) will be a good indication of his or her feelings about the subject.
Here’s an example of a point-of-view question:
The attitude of the author of the passage toward Malcolm X is apparently one of:
A. anger.
B. ambivalence.
C. disapproval.
D. respect.
The relatively objective tone of this particular Social Science passage makes this point of view question difficult—more difficult, at least, than answering a point-of-view question for a passage written by an obviously biased author. Still, you should be able to pinpoint the author’s tone even here, especially with assistance from the answer choices. In this passage, the author pretty clearly does not feel negatively about Malcolm X, although she may disagree with some of his tactics, so you can eliminate choices A and C, which indicate negative sentiments. Now you are left with a positive feeling (choice D) and a mixed one (choice B). Which one more accurately describes the author’s feelings for Malcolm X? While the author is fairly objective in her writing, her attitude cannot be described as mixed or ambivalent. Although she does mix praise for Malcolm X with some condemnation, her overall tone is one of respect, so the best answer is D.
As you can see in the example above, the answer choices for a point of view question can seem similar to one another, but there are always crucial differences. For example, words like “anger” and “disapproval” both express negative sentiments. If “anger” and “disapproval” were the two most promising answer choices for a question, you would have to know more than whether the writer approves or disapproves of the subject. You would have to identify the degree of passion in the writer’s negativity. If the writer cares deeply about the subject, then “anger” may be the correct answer. If the writer is intellectually opposed to the subject, then “disapproval” may be correct.
Comparison
As the name implies, comparison questions ask you to make comparisons, usually between different viewpoints or data. Comparisons can be tricky questions to handle because you need to assimilate information on both sides of the comparison and then see how the sides compare. You’ll see these types of questions more frequently on the Social Science and Natural Science passages than on the Humanities passage because the “Science” passages usually contain a lot of factual information. You probably won’t encounter more than a couple of these questions on the entire test.
The question will contain cue words or phrases that indicate it’s a comparison question. “Compares” and “analogy” are two words that frequently appear in comparison questions.
Here’s an example of a comparison question:
The author’s comparison of Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr. focuses primarily on:
A. their stances on integration and violence against whites.
B. their leadership of the civil rights movement.
C. their roles in the Nation of Islam.
D. their influences on future black leaders.
Two key points in the passage can help you answer this question: lines 11-15 and lines 20-22. If you refer to those sections, you’ll be able to select choice A as the best answer to the question. You can also go through the list and eliminate incorrect answers. Choice B is incorrect because the author explicitly states that X’s role in the civil rights movement was limited. Choice C is incorrect because the author never connects King to the Nation of Islam (to which King did not belong). Choice D doesn’t work because the author never discusses King’s influence on future leaders.
Vocabulary
Vocabulary questions ask you to decipher the meaning of a word given its context. Usually, these words will have multiple meanings, so you must decide the function of the word in the specific context.
You will immediately recognize these questions from their formulaic phrasing. They provide you with a line number along with an italicized word or short phrase in quotation marks, and then they ask you to provide the meaning of the word in context. For example,
As it is used in line 37, the word inflammatory most nearly means:
A. revolutionary.
B. flammable.
C. violent.
D. agitating.
To answer this particular vocabulary question (a rather difficult one), you must also know what the answer choices mean. This is where having a good vocabulary will help you on the ACT. In line 37, the author discusses how X’s language was “angry and inflammatory.” In the surrounding lines, you get a sense that X’s speech was designed to provoke anger and disorder. Thus the correct answer to this question is D because “agitating” provides that sense of provocation. If you cannot figure out the answer directly, you should try to eliminate the other choices. Choice A, “revolutionary,” is related to “inflammatory,” but it is incorrect. You can think of it as a subset of inflammatory: revolutionary speech tends to be inflammatory, but inflammatory speech is not always revolutionary. “Revolutionary” contains a political connotation that “inflammatory” and “agitating” lack, so it is not as good an answer as D. Choice B, “flammable,” applies to physical objects and means that something is capable of being lit on fire. While you may be tempted to choose this answer because both the tested word and the answer choice contain the root “flam,” there is a crucial difference between their definitions. Choice C, “violent,” is incorrect because it lacks the element of provocation present in “inflammatory.”
The Humanities Passage
The Humanities passage will generally deal with a topic of cultural interest. You can think of it as a “softer” version of the Social Science passage, which tends to have more of an analytical and political angle. Still, the general approach to answering Social Science questions should apply to Humanities questions.
The Sample Passage

The following passage is adapted from the chapter “How I Came to Play Rip Van Winkle” in The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson (© 1890, 1891 by the Century Company, New York).


         The hope of entering the race for dramatic fame as an
    individual and single attraction never came into my head until,
    in 1858, I acted Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin; but as
Line    the curtain descended the first night on that remarkably
(5)    successful play, visions of large type, foreign countries, and
    increased remuneration floated before me, and I resolved to be a
    star if I could. A resolution to this effect is easily made; its
    accomplishment is quite another matter.
         Art has always been my sweetheart, and I have loved her for
(10)    herself alone. I had fancied that our affection was mutual, so
    that when I failed as a star, which I certainly did, I thought
    she had jilted me. Not so. I wronged her. She only reminded me
    that I had taken too great a liberty, and that if I expected to
    win her I must press my suit with more patience. Checked, but
(15)    undaunted in the resolve, my mind dwelt upon my vision, and I
    still indulged in day-dreams of the future.
         During these delightful reveries it came up before me that
    in acting AsaTrenchard I had, for the first time in my life on
    the stage, spoken a pathetic speech; and though I did not look at
(20)    the audience during the time I was acting—for that is dreadful—I
    felt that they both laughed and cried. I had before this often
    made my audience smile, but never until now had I moved them to
    tears. This to me novel accomplishment was delightful, and in
    casting about for a new character my mind was ever dwelling on
(25)    reproducing an effect where humor would be so closely allied to
    pathos that smiles and tears should mingle with each other. Where
    could I get one? There had been many written, and as I looked
    back into the dramatic history of the past a long line of lovely
    ghosts loomed up before me, passing as in a procession: Job
(30)    Thornberry, Bob Tyke, Frank Ostland, Zekiel Homespun, and a host
    of departed heroes “with martial stalk went by my watch.”
    Charming fellows all, but not for me, I felt I could not do them
    justice. Besides, they were too human. I was looking for a
    myth—something intangible and impossible. But he would not come.
(35)    Time went on, and still with no result.
         During the summer of 1859 I arranged to board with my family
    at a queer old Dutch farmhouse in Paradise Valley, at the foot of
    Pocono Mountain, in Pennsylvania. A ridge of hills covered with
    tall hemlocks surrounds the vale, and numerous trout-streams wind
(40)    through the meadows and tumble over the rocks. Stray farms are
    scattered through the valley, and the few old Dutchmen and their
    families who till the soil were born upon it; there and only
    there they have ever lived. The valley harmonized with me and our
    resources. The scene was wild, the air was fresh, and the board
(45)    was cheap. What could the light heart and purse of a poor actor
    ask for more than this?
         On one of those long rainy days that always render the
    country so dull I had climbed to the loft of the barn, and lying
    upon the hay was reading that delightful book The Life and
(50)    Letters of Washington Irving. I had gotten well into the volume,
    and was much interested in it, when to my surprise I came upon a
    passage which said that he had seen me at Laura Keene’stheater as
    Goldfinch in Holcroft’s comedy of The Road to Ruin, and that I
    reminded him of my father “in look, gesture, size, and make.”
(55)    Till then I was not aware that he had ever seen me. I was
    comparatively obscure, and to find myself remembered and written
    of by such a man gave me a thrill of pleasure I can never forget.
    I put down the book, and lay there thinking how proud I was, and
    ought to be, at the revelation of this compliment. What an
(60)    incentive to a youngster like me to go on.
         And so I thought to myself, “Washington Irving, the author
    of The Sketch-Book, in which is the quaint story of Rip Van
    Winkle.” Rip Van Winkle! There was to me magic in the sound of
    the name as I repeated it. Why, was not this the very character I
(65)    wanted? An American story by an American author was surely just
    the theme suited to an American actor.
The Questions
As we stated above, your approach to questions on the Humanities passage should be essentially the same as your approach to Social Science questions. For that reason, in this section we’ll skip most of the commentary on the question types and go straight to the examples.
To start with, we’ll give you a rundown of the types of questions that appear most frequently on the Humanities passage, in decreasing order:
  1. Specific Detail
  2. Inference
  3. Vocabulary
  4. Main Idea
  5. Comparison
Specific Detail
Specific detail questions on the Humanities passage are exactly the same as on the rest of the test. Because you should already have a good grasp of how to answer these questions, we’ll just give you some examples of questions that could accompany the passage above.
According to the passage, Washington Irving saw the author perform:
A. Asa Trenchard in Our American Cousin.
B. Goldfinch in The Road to Ruin.
C. Rip Van Winkle in The Sketch-Book.
D. Job Thornberry.
The author considers the following to be attractions of Paradise Valley EXCEPT:
F. the fresh air.
G. the untamed scenery.
H. the long rainy days.
J. the inexpensive board.
As you already know, the best way to answer these questions is to read the passage carefully enough the first time around that you either know the answer, or can quickly find the answer in the passage. If you made marginal notes and underlines during your preliminary reading, you will be able to refer easily to the relevant sections of the passage for these questions.
The correct answers to these questions are B and H, respectively.
Inference
By now, you should have a good idea of how to answer inference questions. An inference question on this sample Humanities passage could look like this:
It can be reasonably inferred from the passage that the character of Rip Van Winkle is:
A. charming.
B. very human.
C. like Washington Irving’s father.
D. mythical.
This inference question is slightly complicated because Rip Van Winkle is mentioned in the last paragraph of the passage, but you need to refer to the third paragraph in order to answer the question. In the third paragraph, the author describes the types of characters he is unable to play and the type of character that he would like to play. The inference you must make to answer this question is that Rip Van Winkle represents an ideal character for the author and therefore must fit the description in Paragraph 3: “a myth.” The correct answer to this question is D.
Vocabulary
The Humanities passage often contains a number of vocabulary questions, so be on the lookout. Vocabulary questions on the passage above could look like this:
As it is used in line 19, the word pathetic most nearly means:
A. moving.
B. pitiful.
C. contemptible.
D. weak.
As it is used in line 44, the word board most nearly means:
F. a rectangular piece of wood.
G. a group of people with managerial powers.
H. to walk onto a ship or aircraft.
J. to lodge and eat at an inn or residence.
These vocabulary questions deal with words that have multiple meanings. They ask you to decide which meaning best suits the context. When you see vocabulary questions like these, go to the indicated line number without even looking at the answers. Read the relevant sentence, ignoring the tested word and coming up with a different word to fill its place. This new word will be a synonym for the tested word. If you can’t come up with a word by looking at the individual sentence, read the sentences around it as well. Once you have your synonym, go back to the question and compare your synonym to the answers. When you’ve found a match, you have your answer. If you’re at a loss for words when using this strategy, you can substitute the answer choices (as long as you know what they mean) into the sentence to see whether they make sense.
If you employ the strategy above, you should see that choices A and J, respectively, make the most sense in the sentences and thus are correct.
Main Idea
Main idea questions tend to accompany Humanities passages that are more analytical or journalistic in tone than the sample passage above. With anecdotal passages like this, it’s unlikely that you’ll be asked to identify the main point of the passage or of a paragraph—the anecdote itself is usually the point. If you do face a main idea question, use the same strategy that we covered under the “Social Science” passage.
Comparison
Though some Humanities passages may be accompanied by more than one comparison question, this particular passage is not very fact-heavy, so it likely would not have any comparison questions. If a comparison question did appear with this sample passage, it might look like this:
In the second paragraph of the passage, the author compares art to:
A. a profession.
B. a sweetheart.
C. a star.
D. a daydream.
The comparison in this paragraph is actually a metaphor, in which the author doesn’t explicitly say that art is like something, but says that it is something that it clearly isn’t. You don’t need to know this literary term or any other to answer this question. The first sentence of the paragraph (“Art has always been my sweetheart”) should make the answer to this comparison question pretty clear. The correct answer is B.
Natural Science
On the continuum of Reading Test passages, the Prose Fiction passage would be on one extreme, the Social Science and Humanities passages in the middle, and the Natural Science passage at the other extreme end. The Natural Science passage is heavy on scientific facts, argument, cause-effect logic, and details.
The Sample Passage

The following passage is adapted from an essay on Lamarckian evolutionary theory.


         For many centuries, scientists and scholars did not question
    the origin of life on Earth. They accepted the authority of the
    Book of Genesis, which describes God as the creator of all life.
Line    This belief, known as creationism, was supported by observations
(5)    made by scientists about the everyday world. For instance,
    organisms seemed well adapted to their environments and ways of
    life, as if created specifically to fill their roles; moreover,
    most organisms did not seem to change in any observable manner
    over time. About two centuries ago, scientists began accumulating
(10)    evidence that cast doubt on the theory of creationism. As
    scientists began to explore remote parts of the natural world,
    they discovered seemingly bizarre forms of life. They also
    discovered the fossils of animals that no longer existed. These
    discoveries led scientists to develop new theories about the
(15)    creation of species.
         Count George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon was an early pioneer of
    these new theories, proposing that the species he and his
    contemporaries saw had changed over time from their original
    forms. Jean Baptiste Lamarck was another early pioneer. Lamarck
(20)    proposed ideas involving the mechanisms of use and disuse and
    inheritance of acquired traits to explain how species might
    change over time. These theories, though in many ways incorrect
    and incomplete, paved the way for Charles Darwin, the father of
    the theory of evolution.
(25)         Although he built on the work of his mentor Leclerc, Lamarck
    often receives credit for taking the first step toward modern
    evolutionary theory because he proposed a mechanism explaining
    how the gradual change of species could occur. Lamarck elaborated
    on the concept of “change over time,” saying that life originated
(30)    in simple forms and became more complex. In his 1809 publication
    of Philosophie Zoologique, he describes the two part mechanism
    by which change was gradually introduced into species and passed
    down through generations. His theory is referred to as the theory
    of transformation or, simply, Lamarckism.
(35)         The classic example used to explain the concept of use and
    disuse is the elongated neck of the giraffe. According to
    Lamarck’s theory, a giraffe could, over a lifetime of straining
    to reach food on high branches, develop an elongated neck.
    Although he referred to “a natural tendency toward perfection,”
(40)    Lamarck could never offer an explanation of how this development
    could occur, thus injuring his theory. Lamarck also used the toes
    of water birds as an example in support of his theory. He
    hypothesized that water birds developed elongated, webbed toes
    after years of straining their toes to swim through water.
(45)         These two examples attempted to demonstrate how use could
    change an animal’s trait. Lamarck also believed that disuse could
    cause a trait to become reduced in an animal. The wings of
    penguins, he believed, are smaller than those of other birds
    because penguins do not fly.
(50)         The second part of Lamarck’s theory involved the inheritance
    of acquired traits. Lamarck believed that traits changed or
    acquired over an individual animal’s lifetime could be passed
    down to its offspring. Giraffes that had acquired long necks
    would have offspring with long necks rather than the short necks
(55)    their parents were born with. This type of inheritance, sometimes
    called Lamarckian inheritance, has since been disproved by the
    discovery of hereditary genetics.
         An extension of Lamarck’s ideas of inheritance that has
    stood the test of time, however, is the idea that evolutionary
(60)    change takes place gradually and constantly. Lamarck studied
    ancient seashells and noticed that the older they were, the
    simpler they appeared. From this, he concluded that species
    started out simple and consistently moved toward complexity or,
    as he said, “closer to perfection.”
The Questions
Since Natural Science passages contain so many facts, many of the questions on this passage will test whether you know these facts. These questions will come in many guises besides the standard specific detail format. For example, some questions will ask you to build on information in the passage by making you identify cause-effect relationships or comparisons. Here’s a breakdown of the question types commonly asked on the Natural Science passage, in order of decreasing frequency:
  1. Specific Detail
  2. Inference
  3. Cause-Effect
  4. Comparison
  5. Main Idea
  6. Vocabulary
  7. Point of View
Despite the scientific jargon that permeates this passage, in answering the questions you should treat the passage as you would the two other nonfiction passages. In this section, we’ll give you examples of questions that could be asked on the sample passage above, so you can start getting familiar with the Natural Science section.
Specific Detail
Specific Detail, the most common question type on the ACT Reading Test, is also a biggie on the Natural Science passage. For the passage above, you could see questions like these:
The theory that describes God as the creator of all life is called:
A. creationism.
B. Lamarckism.
C. the theory of transformation.
D. the Book of Genesis.
According to the passage, the giraffe is a classic example of Lamarck’s theory because of its:
F. webbed toes.
G. elongated neck.
H. small wings.
J. coloration.
According to the passage, Leclerc proposed the theory:
A. of the mechanisms of use and disuse.
B. of inherited traits.
C. that giraffes developed elongated necks over time.
D. that species changed over time from their original forms.
As we’ve said many times by now, the best method for answering these questions correctly is simply to refer back to the passage. If you’ve made marginal notes and underlines, you’ll have an easier time referring back to the passage and getting the right answer.
The correct answer (choice A) to the first question is conveniently located in the first three lines of the passage. For the second question, look to paragraph 5, where the author discusses the example of the giraffe. The first sentence of paragraph 5 reveals choice G to be correct. When answering the third question, you should refer to the discussion of Leclerc. In the first mention of him (in paragraph 3), you’ll discover that choice D is the correct answer to the question.
Inference
Inference questions on the Natural Science passage are the same as they are elsewhere on the test. For example,
It is reasonable to infer from this passage that Lamarck’s most lasting work on a theory of evolution is his hypothesis that:
A. species inherit traits acquired by their parents.
B. the forms of animals change over time.
C. giraffes develop long necks from straining to reach high tree branches.
D. species evolve gradually and constantly over time into more complex forms.
The answer to this question is in the first sentence of the last paragraph: “An extension of Lamarck’s ideas of inheritance that has stood the test of time, however, is the idea that evolutionary change takes place gradually and constantly.” The phrase “stood the test of time” indicates that this particular aspect of Lamarck’s work is still relevant today. Thus the correct answer to this question is D.
Cause-Effect
Cause-effect questions appear pretty frequently on Natural Science passages because of the nature of their topics. Most Natural Science passages, including the sample one above, discuss cause-effect relationships that appear in nature. For example,
According to the passage, Lamarck proposed that the changing form of animals was a result of:
A. giraffes stretching their necks to reach high branches.
B. a natural tendency toward perfection and the inheritance of acquired traits.
C. organisms being created to fill specific roles.
D. hereditary genetics.
This particular cause-effect question also tests your understanding of one of the main points of the passage, as the main point happens to be a cause-effect relationship. If you understood the passage, you should be able to identify the correct answer as B. Choice A deals specifically with Lamarck’s example of giraffes, while the question calls for a general explanation for all animals. Choice C is the belief of creationism, and Choice D would not be discovered until after Lamarck’s time.
Comparison
You will probably see one comparison question with the Natural Science passage. As we stated before, comparison questions usually accompany passages that contain a lot of factual information, and the Natural Science passage fits the bill.
According to the passage, the elongated neck of the giraffe is analogous to:
A. the small wings of the penguin.
B. the large wings of most birds.
C. the webbed toes of water birds.
D. the inheritance of elongated necks.
To answer this question, ask yourself what the giraffe’s elongated neck can be compared to. In paragraph 5, the author names both the giraffe’s neck and the water bird’s toes as examples of the concept of use, so the best answer is C. To make sure, you can eliminate the other answers. Choice A deals with the concept of disuse, so it is not analogous to the giraffe’s neck. Choice B is never discussed in the passage. Choice D is not an analogous situation; it is a separate aspect of Lamarck’s theory.
Main Idea
Main idea questions are always pretty straightforward. The tricky part is making sure that you read carefully enough to understand the main point of the passage or of a paragraph within it. Try this example:
The main point of the passage is to:
A. describe Lamarck’s ideas on evolution and their relevance to modern theories of evolution.
B. explain how animals change through the mechanisms of use and disuse and through the inheritance of acquired traits.
C. discuss alternative theories to creationism.
D. show how Lamarck built upon the work of Leclerc.
If you read the passage carefully, you should be able to eliminate choices C and D, as they are clearly not the main focus of the passage. You may get stuck trying to decide between choices A and B, but you should remember that the question asks for the passage’s main point, and not for Lamarck’s main point. Remembering that, you should be able to identify the correct answer, A.
Vocabulary
You will not see many vocabulary questions accompanying the Natural Science passage. The vocabulary questions that do appear on this passage may ask you to identify an unfamiliar scientific word from its context. You can employ the strategies described for vocabulary questions on the Humanities and Social Science passages to answer vocabulary questions here.
Point of View
Point-of-view questions are extremely rare on the Natural Science passage. If you see one, it will most likely ask you to identify the point of view of the passage’s author. For example,
With which of the following statements would the author most likely agree?
A. Most scientists today believe in creationism.
B. Leclerc, not Lamarck, should be credited with taking the first step toward modern evolutionary theory.
C. Lamarck’s theory that life evolves from simple to complex forms is still important today.
D. Today, giraffes have long necks because early giraffes did a lot of stretching.
The author of this sample passage does not seem to hold strong views on -Lamarck, but it is still possible to eliminate wrong answers here and correctly answer the question. Choices A and B are incorrect because there is little focus on them in the passage: both creationism and Leclerc are mentioned, but only briefly. Choice C looks like the right choice because the author states in the last paragraph that this aspect of Lamarck’s theory “has stood the test of time.” You can make sure that Choice C is correct by eliminating D, which Lamarck, not the author, believes.
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