Writing Multiple-Choice Questions
tackling Improving Paragraphs
Enough with the sentences, already! Let’s sink our teeth into the paragraphs.
Unlike the sentence-level items, Paragraph Improvement items come in sets, which are best understood as minitests (or “testlets”) within a larger test. All the items in the set are tethered to a poorly written passage. So before we do anything else, we need to address a long-standing debate in test preparation—over which much ink, if not actual blood, has been spilled—about how to handle passage sets. Here’s the question that has unstaunched a thousand lips:
When confronted with passage sets, what should you do first: read the passage or go directly to the items?
In the case of Paragraph Improvement sets, answering the items requires having first read the passage. (The exceptions are discussed later.) So, in most cases, use the following step method to handle Paragraph Improvement sets.
Step 1: Read the passage quickly to get the general idea. Circle or mentally note any errors you happen to see.
Step 2: Read all the item stems in the set.
Step 3: Decide which items are easiest and tackle those first. Leave the others for last.
Of course there is also an item-specific step method, which we will discuss later on.
Tackling the Passage in Slow Motion
Paragraph Improvement passages are poorly written by intent. As you saw in Essential Concepts, the passages are lacking, or “broken,” in a limited number of ways. Most of the ways in which the passages are broken pertain to connections within, between, and among paragraphs—hence the name, “Paragraph Improvement.”
In order to demonstrate the three-step set method, let’s attempt the following set in slow motion.
Step 1: Read the passage quickly to get the general idea. Circle or mentally note any errors you happen to see.
For the purposes of this demonstration, we’ll substitute bolding for circling.
      (1) (2) . (3) (4) (5) takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special. (6) That Japanese food is generally low in fat and calories, and offers many options for vegetarians and vegans, adds to its popularity.

      (7) (8) . (9) (10) . (11) Anyone with a standard set of cooking utensils and knowledge of basic cooking terms can easily follow the recipes in any Japanese cookbook.

      (12) Since Japanese restaurants tend to be fairly expensive, one would think that fans of the cuisine would be excited about the possibility of making it at home. (13) Unfortunately, many traditional Japanese recipes call for costly ingredients that often can only be found at Asian grocery stores. (14) As these ingredients become more widely available at lower prices, we are sure to see a proportional increase in the number of people cooking Japanese food at home.

The main gist of the passage is that while Japanese restaurants have become increasingly popular, home preparation of Japanese cuisine has not. The passage explains why this is the case, and why it may not be the case for much longer.
  • First bolding: Sentence 1 is a nice opening sentence. However, as we read sentence 2 and then 3, things get a bit choppy. Since Paragraph Improvement primarily tests connections, you not only should be attuned to choppiness but also prepared to see at least one item that refers to this choppy bit of the passage.
  • Second bolding: Something’s missing here. Actually is the tip-off—a connecting word that compares sentence 6 to a phantom sentence. The paragraph jumped from Japanese restaurants to Japanese cooking, and it’s stated that Japanese cooking is surprisingly simple—but in comparison to what? Much like Japanese food, this is fishy.
Step 2: Read all the item stems in the set.
As you’ll soon see, pacing is crucial to success on timed standardized tests. If two people have identical content knowledge, identical familiarity with item types, and are armed with identical step methods and strategies, but only one of them knows how to pace herself, the one who understands pacing will get the higher score.
Paragraph Improvement sets are testlets, so treat them as you would any larger SAT section in which all items have equal value: do the easier ones first; leave the tougher ones for last.
Whereas some SAT item types are organized into sets based on a statistically determined order of difficulty (more on this later), Paragraph Improvement sets are not. Therefore, “easy” and “difficult” are entirely relative to you, the test-taker.
To choose the easy ones, you must read all the stems. Note that we said stems, not items—don’t waste time reading all the answer choices; the stems will give you enough information.
Here are the stems:
1. In context, what is the best way to revise and combine sentences 2 and 3 (reproduced below)?
Americans are already fond of Chinese food. Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
2. In context, what is the best word to add to the beginning of sentence 5?
3. What would be the best phrase to add to the end of sentence 5 to improve the transition to sentence 6?
4. What would be the best subject for a sentence inserted after sentence 7?
5. Which phrase best describes the purpose of the passage?
Step 3: Decide which items are easiest and tackle those first. Leave the others for last.
You don’t have to spend time categorizing the exact order in which you’ll tackle the items in the set. Doing it one-by-one is fine: Pick the easiest item, complete it, pick the next easiest item, complete it, and so on till you’re done or time runs out. Keep in mind that it won’t take you very long to read the stems. The time you’ll save and points you’ll gain tackling questions according to your order of difficulty will more than compensate for the minute or so you’ll invest.
In order to give you an idea of the thought processes involved in this step, we’ll categorize all five items at once in the following chart. Also, since this categorization is an individual one, these are merely one person’s reasons. You don’t need to agree with them—follow your own strengths and experiences. What we want you to absorb is the importance and efficiency of doing easy items first.
Order Item Reason
1st 5 Since I’ve read the passage for the main idea, and I think I got it, I might as well take care of this item first. I’ve already done all the work I need.
2nd 4 Again, I just read this passage. I don’t think it will take much for me to insert a relevant idea in here.
3rd 2 This item turns on only one word. I’ll bet I can determine quickly which one works best. A low investment for a point!
4th 1 I’ll try this next because the two sentences are reproduced right there for me to use. I noticed the choppiness the first time through.
5th 3 This item will turn on a phrase. This may take more time; I’ll leave it for last.
Remember that all the items are categorized at once for instructional purposes only. Decide one-by-one which item to tackle as you move through the set.
As noted, Paragraph Improvement sets have a variety of items—more, in fact, than are represented in this example. There isn’t much point in dumping a list of subitem types on you, especially given that:
  • You will become familiar with these items as you practice.
  • All items can be tackled according to the step method that follows.
  • There will be fewer Paragraph items than either Sentence Error IDs or Sentence Improvements, and all items are worth the same amount.
Tackling the Items in Slow Motion
Paragraph Improvement items will have the familiar stem-plus-answer- choice format. Many will look a lot like Sentence Improvement items. In fact, most of what we’ve said about Sentence Improvement items applies to their Paragraph Improvement cousins. One exception is that Paragraph Improvement items do not always repeat underlined portions as choice A. Paragraph Improvement answer choices also tend to group more loosely than their Sentence Improvement cousins, but they still group.
The items that don’t resemble Sentence Improvements tend to ask about the main idea of the passage, or provide topics or sentences not in the original passage that might be included, and ask you whether or where you’d insert them.
Use the following method every time you attempt a Paragraph Improvement item:
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully.
Step 3: If directed to the passage, go back and reread.
Step 4: Generate a potential fix or answer without looking at the answer choices.
Step 5: Compare your potential fix or answer to the answer choices and eliminate all that do not match.
Step 6: If applicable, check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence or the passage.
Since we’re dealing primarily with the connections within, between, and among paragraphs—which are units of meaning far more complex than sentences—apply this method flexibly. Sometimes, for example, you’ll need to read more than one sentence prior to and subsequent to the sentences referenced in the stem. But the basic idea remains the same: determine local context. You’ll undermine your efforts by ignoring this method, but don’t shackle yourself by being too literal about it.
Let’s apply this method in slow motion to the items that follow. We’ll adhere to the order of items determined above: 5, 4, 2, 1, and 3. The first two are done for you. Then we’ll help you with the next two. The last one is up to you.
      (1) Japanese cuisine continues to grow in popularity in the United States. (2) Americans are already fond of Chinese food. (3) Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special. (4) That Japanese food is generally low in fat and calories, and offers many options for vegetarians and vegans, adds to its popularity.

      (5) Americans’ enjoyment of Japanese cooking is still largely limited to an occasional night out at a Japanese restaurant. (6) Actually, Japanese cooking is surprisingly simple. (7) Anyone with a standard set of cooking utensils and knowledge of basic cooking terms can easily follow the recipes in any Japanese cookbook.

      (8) Since Japanese restaurants tend to be fairly expensive, one would think that fans of the cuisine would be excited about the possibility of making it at home. (9) Unfortunately, many traditional Japanese recipes call for costly ingredients that often can only be found at Asian grocery stores. (10) As these ingredients become more widely available at lower prices, we are sure to see a proportional increase in the number of people cooking Japanese food at home.

Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
5. Which phrase best describes the purpose of the passage?
Step 2: Read the stem carefully.
This is a “main idea” stem.
Step 3: If directed to the passage, go back and reread.
Step 3 is not applicable to this item.
Step 4: Generate a potential fix or answer without looking at the answer choices.
Determine the main idea of this passage: while Japanese restaurants have become increasingly popular, home preparation of Japanese cuisine has not, but this will soon change.
Step 5: Compare your potential fix or answer to the answer choices and eliminate all that do not match.
Here are the answer choices:
(A) To encourage people to eat at Japanese restaurants more often.
(B) To record America’s increasing interest in ethnic food.
(C) To predict a future increase in Japanese cooking in American homes.
(D) To discourage people from eating unhealthy food.
(E) To promote the purchase of expensive cooking equipment.
C matches our potential answer. Typical distractors (also found in Critical Reading passage sets) fall into a few categories:
Since there is usually only one main idea item, don’t worry too much about these distractor types.
Step 6: If applicable, check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence or the passage.
Step 6 is not applicable to this item.
Let’s look at item 4.
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
4. What would be the best subject for a sentence inserted after sentence 7?
Step 2: Read the stem carefully.
You are asked to provide a potential topic for a sentence, not the sentence itself.
Step 3: If directed to the passage, go back and reread.
To gain context, reread this portion and keep the main idea in mind:
      (1) Actually, Japanese cooking is surprisingly simple. (2) Anyone with a standard set of cooking utensils and knowledge of basic cooking terms can easily follow the recipes in any Japanese cookbook.

      (3) Since Japanese restaurants tend to be fairly expensive, one would think that fans of the cuisine would be excited about the possibility of making it at home.

Step 4: Generate a potential fix or answer without looking at the answer choices.
In the second paragraph the passage makes a claim that Japanese cooking is easier than most Americans think. Specifically, sentence 7 claims that anyone who can cook can easily follow the recipes in any Japanese cookbook. Well, that’s a pretty strong claim to make without some proof. This would be the place to insert such proof. Since persuasive writing depends on clear assertions backed up by examples, don’t be surprised to see similar items on the test.
If you find it hard to come up with a potential answer on the actual test, don’t waste time! Go to the answer choices. However, the more often you do this, the more at the mercy of the distractors you’ll be. When you practice, be strict about predicting an answer, as that is the only way you’ll build up that much-needed skill.
Step 5: Compare your potential fix or answer to the answer choices and eliminate all that do not match.
Here are the answer choices:
(A) The rising popularity of other ethnic cuisine
(B) An example of a simple Japanese recipe
(C) A summary of the points made so far
(D) Data on the profitability of Japanese restaurants
(E) Information on where to buy Japanese cooking utensils
B is what you need. Note how the distractors stem from a misapprehension of the main point of the passage or a distortion of specific points in the passage.
Why would the SAT include these distortions? Students are often so pressed for time that they will grab at any distractor that repeats information from the passage, like a drowning person grabs at a flotation device. This is exactly what you must avoid. The strategic point behind all this practice effort is: the more familiar you are with the content and structure of the SAT, and with the methods and strategies that “rationalize” the test and organize your approach, the less likely you are to panic and fall for the distractors.
Step 6: If applicable, check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence or the passage.
Step 6 is not applicable to this item.
Guided Practice
Now try the next two on your own.
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
We’ll do this for you:
2. In context, what is the best word to add to the beginning of sentence 5?
Step 2: Read the stem carefully.
Step 3: If directed to the passage, go back and reread.
Read what you think is necessary to generate a potential answer. We’ll discuss our choice of what to read in the explanation.

(1) Japanese cuisine continues to grow in popularity in the United States. (2) Americans are already fond of Chinese food. (3) Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special. (4) That Japanese food is generally low in fat and calories, and offers many options for vegetarians and vegans, adds to its popularity.

      (5) Americans’ enjoyment of Japanese cooking is still largely limited to an occasional night out at a Japanese restaurant. (6) Actually, Japanese cooking is surprisingly simple. (7) Anyone with a standard set of cooking utensils and knowledge of basic cooking terms can easily follow the recipes in any Japanese cookbook.

      (8) Since Japanese restaurants tend to be fairly expensive, one would think that fans of the cuisine would be excited about the possibility of making it at home. (9) Unfortunately, many traditional Japanese recipes call for costly ingredients that often can only be found at Asian grocery stores. (10) As these ingredients become more widely available at lower prices, we are sure to see a proportional increase in the number of people cooking Japanese food at home.

Step 4: Generate a potential fix or answer without looking at the answer choices.
Write down your potential answer.
Step 5: Compare your potential fix or answer to the answer choices and eliminate all that do not match.
Here are the answer choices:
(A) Yet,
(B) Moreover,
(C) Predictably,
(D) Fortunately,
(E) Undoubtedly,
Step 6: If applicable, check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence or the passage.
Do this if you think it is applicable. We’ll discuss our decision in the explanation.
Guided Practice Explanation
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
2. In context, what is the best word to add to the beginning of sentence 5?
Step 2: Read the stem carefully.
You’re adding a word to the beginning of a sentence—a connection word is required.
Step 3: If directed to the passage, go back and reread.
Notice how the phrase in context keeps coming up? That’s why we suggest that you read “around” the sentence or sentences referenced in the stem. You will have already gathered the main idea from your initial reading. By reading around the referenced sentences, you’ll zero in on the local context in question and be in a good position to suggest a potential fix or answer.
In this case, you’re asked to link the first word in the first sentence of the second paragraph to the entire first paragraph. You should reread the first paragraph as well as this sentence.
      (1) Japanese cuisine continues to grow in popularity in the United States. (2) Americans are already fond of Chinese food. (3) Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special. (4) That Japanese food is generally low in fat and calories, and offers many options for vegetarians and vegans, adds to its popularity.

      (5) Americans’ enjoyment of Japanese cooking is still largely limited to an occasional night out at a Japanese restaurant. (6) Actually, Japanese cooking is surprisingly simple. (7) Anyone with a standard set of cooking utensils and knowledge of basic cooking terms can easily follow the recipes in any Japanese cookbook.

Step 4: Generate a potential fix or answer without looking at the answer choices.
The first paragraph states that Japanese cuisine is becoming increasingly popular. Then sentence 5 shifts the argument. Despite what has just been stated, there is an important qualifier: it turns out that this popularity is limited to restaurants; Japanese home cooking isn’t catching on in the same way. This is the local context.
Some connection words that show contrast and fit this sentence are however, yet, nevertheless, and still.
Step 5: Compare your potential fix or answer to the answer choices and eliminate all that do not match.
Here are the answer choices:
(A) Yet,
(B) Moreover,
(C) Predictably,
(D) Fortunately,
(E) Undoubtedly,
A works. B shows continuation, not contrast. At this point in the passage, there’s nothing predictable about Japanese home cooking’s relative lack of popularity at all, so C is out. Nor is there anything fortunate about it, from the author’s point of view—quite the contrary—so D is incorrect. For E, consider if such a claim can be made. The word doesn’t fit. Often one answer choice is way out in left field. Eliminate the “left-field” choice and guess from among the remaining answer choices.
Step 6: If applicable, check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence or the passage.
It’s applicable—do it!
More Guided Practice
Try the next one on your own.
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
We’ll do this for you:
1. In context, what is the best way to revise and combine sentences 2 and 3 (reproduced below)?
Americans are already fond of Chinese food. Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully.
Pay particular attention to the excerpt from the passage.
Step 3: If directed to the passage, go back and reread.
Read what you think is necessary to generate a potential answer. We’ll discuss our choice of what to read in the explanation.
      (1) Japanese cuisine continues to grow in popularity in the United States. (2) Americans are already fond of Chinese food. (3) Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special. (4) That Japanese food is generally low in fat and calories, and offers many options for vegetarians and vegans, adds to its popularity.

      (5) Americans’ enjoyment of Japanese cooking is still largely limited to an occasional night out at a Japanese restaurant. (6) Actually, Japanese cooking is surprisingly simple. (7) Anyone with a standard set of cooking utensils and knowledge of basic cooking terms can easily follow the recipes in any Japanese cookbook.

      (8) Since Japanese restaurants tend to be fairly expensive, one would think that fans of the cuisine would be excited about the possibility of making it at home. (9) Unfortunately, many traditional Japanese recipes call for costly ingredients that often can only be found at Asian grocery stores. (10) As these ingredients become more widely available at lower prices, we are sure to see a proportional increase in the number of people cooking Japanese food at home.

Step 4: Generate a potential fix or answer without looking at the answer choices.
Write down your potential answer.
Step 5: Compare your potential fix or answer to the answer choices and eliminate all that do not match.
Here are the answer choices:
(A) Americans are already fond of Chinese food, and have discovered that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
(B) Americans are already fond of Chinese food, and now discover that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
(C) Already fond of Chinese food, Americans are now discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
(D) Already fond of Chinese food, having discovered that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special, Americans like it.
(E) Americans are already fond of Chinese food; however, they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
Step 6: If applicable, check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence or the passage.
More Guided Practice Explanation
Step 1: Cover up the answer choices.
1. In context, what is the best way to revise and combine sentences 2 and 3 (reproduced below)?
Americans are already fond of Chinese food. Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
Step 2: Read the stem carefully.
You’re asked to revise and combine. Again, we’re dealing with connections—this time within a paragraph (and between sentences). This will be similar to Sentence Improvement.
Step 3: If directed to the passage, go back and reread.
If a stem contains an excerpt, the answer to the item is most likely contained in that excerpt. In this case, go with the excerpt, but check back with the entire paragraph in step 6.
Step 4: Generate a potential fix or answer without looking at the answer choices.

Americans are already fond of Chinese food. Now they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.

You need a connection between these two sentences that links Americans’ fondness for Chinese food to the burgeoning popularity of Japanese cuisine. The author is stating that what happened to Chinese food is now happening to Japanese food: Americans like Chinese food; they’re liking Japanese food more and more.
Try the following connection:

Already fond of Chinese food, Americans are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.

We swapped Americans are with already fond of Chinese food in the first sentence and connected it with the second sentence by substituting Americans for they in the second sentence. In the original, they refers to Americans, so we fused the sentences by substituting the pronoun’s antecedent for the pronoun itself. Once those two changes are made, the rest of the sentence—discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special—follows unchanged.
It’s okay if you didn’t come up with this potential fix, but pay attention to how we came up with this fix. The essential concepts will lead you to potential fixes; practice will make generating fixes second nature.
Step 5: Compare your potential fix or answer to the answer choices and eliminate all that do not match.
Here are the answer choices:
(A) Americans are already fond of Chinese food, and have discovered that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
(B) Americans are already fond of Chinese food, and now discover that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
(C) Already fond of Chinese food, Americans are now discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
(D) Already fond of Chinese food, having discovered that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special, Americans like it.
(E) Americans are already fond of Chinese food; however, they are discovering that Japanese cuisine takes a similar set of basic ingredients and transforms them into something quite special.
Our choice is C, and note that these answer choices group, just as Sentence Improvement choices do.
If you had trouble coming up with a potential fix, or if you were pressed for time, let these groups guide you. At worst, you could eliminate some answer choices, guess, and move on.
Step 6: If applicable, check your selection by plugging the answer choice’s text into the original sentence or the passage.
As a check, plug this new sentence into the original paragraph to make sure context isn’t harmed in any way.
Sometimes, but not often, the most efficient and succinct solution will not work when substituted back into the larger structure of the paragraph or passage. So it’s always worth a quick check.
Independent Practice
After you complete the following item, look at the following page for an explanation.
3. What would be the best phrase to add to the end of sentence 5 to improve the transition to sentence 6?
(A) , because people do not like to eat ethnic food on a regular basis.
(B) , and this has led to many restaurant closings.
(C) , because Americans have long assumed that Japanese cooking is too difficult for them.
(D) , because the recent economic recession has forced people to reduce their spending.
(E) , and this means that Japanese cuisine may disappear from America entirely.
Independent Practice Explanation
Something crucial is missing here, as we noted when we first read the passage together. We need a reason for why Americans’ appreciation of Japanese food is confined to restaurants. The next sentence contains a clue: Actually . . . surprisingly simple needs to be contrasted with “something hard about Japanese cooking.” That’s your quick-and-dirty-but-good-enough potential fix: “something hard about Japanese cooking.” No need to get any fancier than what works.
Compare your potential answer to the choices. C jumps right out as the correct answer. Check it by plugging it back into the sentence and passage.
The other answers either contradict the main idea of the passage (B, E) or have no basis in the passage (D, A).
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