SAT Reading Function Questions

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Function questions are common on SAT Reading and are usually easy to recognize. Though the phrasing varies, all Function Questions ask essentially the same thing: “Why did the author say X?” (where X stands for the specific phrase or sentence from the passage that is cited in the question).

For example, on Official SAT Practice Test 1, Question 19 is a Function Question. It reads:

“The authors refer to work by Camerer and others
(line 56) in order to”

The question asks us WHY the authors referred to the work by Camerer (and others). In other words, the passage authors discuss that work in order to accomplish what? What’s the purpose of that reference? What’s its function?

As already mentioned, the exact phrasing of this question type varies. For instance, Question 52 on Official SAT Practice Test 5 is also a Function Question, even though it reads differently:

“The questions in lines 74-78 primarily serve to”

(Note that in the above example, you should still disregard the word “primarily”, just as you would on other SAT Reading question types.)

How Are Function Questions Different?

Unlike many other SAT Reading question types, Function Questions do not merely ask WHAT a passage citation MEANS. As we’ve established, Function Questions instead ask WHY the author chose to put that particular language in that particular part of the passage.

This is an important distinction, so I’ll say it again: typical SAT Reading questions require you to identify the answer choice that accurately restates a passage citation’s meaning. The answer to a Function Question, on the other hand, states the citation’s purpose, its function.

WARNING: Don’t Be A Mind Reader

Since SAT Reading Function Questions ask WHY the passage author said something, you WILL be tempted to SPECULATE about the author’s motivations. For example, you might search the passage for tonal clues that suggest the writer’s hidden agenda, political or otherwise.

When not working on the SAT, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with using your imagination to hypothesize about an author’s veiled intentions, his or her potential ulterior motives. I often “read between the lines” creatively in my personal reading. Additionally, if you’re like most students, you have been trained in school to engage in this type of speculation while reading. Thus, it may feel natural to do so on the SAT. However, this is NOT what you’re being asked to do on SAT Reading Function Questions. In fact, you must resist doing any such guess-work on any SAT Reading question!

In this sense, SAT Reading Function Questions are the same as other questions on the Reading section. Though you’re seeking to find out WHY the citation is there, as opposed to merely determining WHAT it means, the key to unravelling the mystery remains the same: HYPER-LITERAL READING.

Solving Function Questions

Now that you understand how SAT Reading Function Questions are designed and what NOT to do, the question remains: Exactly HOW do we go about determining why an author said something without falling into the trap of speculation? That is, how can we QUICKLY and ACCURATELY determine a citation’s purpose while also sticking strictly to Hyper-Literal Reading?

Tactic 1: Focus Context

The vast majority of Function Questions ask about supporting details, and the purpose (or “function”) of supporting details is always the same: to support whatever point the author is making in that part of the passage. In other words, to correctly answer a Function Question, you must evaluate not just the citation, but also its context.

For example, consider the following isolated statement, which provides details about someone’s breakfast, presented with no context:

“I ate five blueberry pancakes, seven pieces of apple-smoked bacon, and two servings of country-style hash browns for breakfast this morning.”

Imagine a Function Question regarding this statement:

“The author refers to what he ate for breakfast in order to”

You’re being asked to identify the sentence’s purpose, but without looking at the context, you’d find it impossible to know for certain. You’d be relegated to speculating:

  • “Maybe the author provides those details because he’s a big fan of breakfast food.”
  • “Maybe he’s an aspiring waiter, practicing for his big job interview at IHOP.”
  • “Perhaps he is trying to make the reader hungry.”

See the problem? Without considering the context, there’s no sure-fire way to determine the larger point that the details about breakfast are meant to support. Sans context, there’s no reliable method for determining the citation’s purpose.

Now let’s add some context and see how that purpose suddenly becomes crystal clear:

“I’m a glutton! I ate five blueberry pancakes, seven pieces of apple-smoked bacon, and two servings of country-style hash browns for breakfast this morning.”

Now we can determine WHY the author referred to what he ate for breakfast. Those details support the author’s assertion about his habitual overeating.

Note that this could have gone differently. That is, by changing the context, we will change the purpose of the supporting details. For example:

“After fasting two days for Lent, I was very hungry. I ate five blueberry pancakes, seven pieces of apple-smoked bacon, and two servings of country-style hash browns for breakfast this morning.”

Now we have an entirely different reason for the author’s reference to what he ate for breakfast. No longer is the purpose to support the point that he’s a glutton. On the contrary, the author refers to his breakfast in order to support his claim about being famished due to his religious devotion. Exact same supporting details, but very different answer to our Function Question!

Tactic 2: Stay Local

The foregoing examples show us that, on Function Questions, context is paramount. To review:

  • The passage citation from the question usually turns out to be supporting details.
  • Our task is to ascertain the purpose, or “function”, of those details. In other words, we must figure out what larger point the supporting details are supporting. The way to do this is not to speculate, but rather to analyze the citation’s context.

But this raises a question: How much context should we consider? One sentence? A few sentences? The entire paragraph? Two paragraphs? The whole passage?

To answer this question, it’s important to understand that SAT Reading Function Questions tend to be narrowly focused. For example, if a question asks why a writer itemized his breakfast in the third paragraph’s body, the correct answer won’t be the equivalent of, “To support the main point of the passage!” That’s far too broad.

While it’s true that every sentence in a passage should in one way or another support the passage’s Big Idea, Function Questions usually test your ability to be more precise. To use an analogy from science, on this question type, you want to make sure to use a high resolution microscope (and crank up the magnification).

The microscope analogy is actually very useful on SAT Reading. To help you wrap your mind around the ideas of resolution and magnification as applied to reading analysis, think of reading passages as having potentially four levels, as follows (Note – a given passage may have more or fewer levels; this is just an example to convey the general concept):

  • Main Point (example: “Religion promotes well-being.”)
    • Sub-Points (example: “My Catholic church encourages self-discipline.”)
      • Paragraph Topic Sentences (example: “Last month, I fasted for Lent, even though it made me SUPER hungry.”)
        • Supporting Details (example: “Check out the huge meal I ate after breaking my fast!”

Should the supporting details at the bottom ultimately help to drive home the main point way up there at the top? Sure. But on SAT Reading Function Questions, that’s not the connection you need to make. Your resolution is too low. Instead, the correct answer will most often articulate the relationship between two adjacent lower levels, such as supporting details and a paragraph topic sentence.

Thus, the needed context is almost always “local” – it’s right next door to the citation. Looking one to three sentences above or below the citation is usually sufficient. (Occasionally, the relevant “context” is actually within the citation itself!) Additionally, looking farther afield can easily hurt you. For one thing, analyzing unnecessary context slows you down. It also increases your chances of a miss, since extraneous context (the dreaded TMI), only clouds your analysis.

Tactic 3: First, Look Up

So we know that, to answer the question of WHY a passage author said something, we must generally rely on the context closest to the text cited in the question, usually looking no further than three sentences away (often fewer). Even just knowing this much is very helpful – it saves us from wasting time by analyzing distant, irrelevant context. It also improves our accuracy by enabling us to focus on the passage text that contains the answer to the question. However, we can go one step further in pinpointing our analysis on SAT Reading Function Questions: First, look up.

Many paragraphs are organized such that their main idea is stated near the top, in the opening sentence or two, followed by supporting details. Often, writers plainly state their key point in a paragraph’s very first sentence (called a Topic Sentence). Then, lower down in the paragraph’s body, they buttress that point with evidence, explanation, elaboration, illustration, etc. (Though this applies more to non-fiction, the general pattern often holds in fiction as well.)

Because of standard paragraph organization, our first move on SAT Reading Function Questions should be to LOOK UP.

(WARNING: There are sometimes exceptions! On SAT Reading Function Questions, our first move should be to analyze the context just ABOVE the text cited by the question. However, once in a while authors defy standard paragraph structure. Sometimes, writers will even organize paragraphs backward (supporting details first, followed by the big idea in the paragraph’s conclusion). If you don’t find the relevant context above the question’s citation, your second move should be to look below.)

Example Questions from Official SATs

Hopefully, you already have The Official SAT Study Guide. If not, you need to get a copy, asap. It’s the only book that contains authentic, official SATs. That matters, because you should never, ever use fake practice tests.

I repeat, if you’re serious about improving your SAT scores, you must shun fake practice tests and instead use only real, official SATs, written by the College Board. The Official SAT Study Guide is the only place to get official SATs in book form.

Official SAT Practice Test 3, Reading Question 25

The question reads:

“In the second paragraph (lines 12-32), the incident involving the local rancher mainly serves to”

The “incident” cited in the question is buried in the paragraph’s middle. Basically, it’s just a story about how the rancher informed Ken that the types of birds Ken was using for his experiment, which were ground birds, actually do not like being on the ground. This surprised Ken.

The question asks WHY the passage author wrote about this incident. In other words, what point was the passage author trying to make with this story?

To find out, we’re going to apply the above tactics:

  • Focus Context
  • Stay Local
  • First, Look Up

Keeping those tactics in mind, and given that the “incident” appears in the paragraph’s body, where’s the first place we should look to determine the larger point that the story is intended to illustrate?

Correct – our first stop should be just a few lines above (lines 12-16), which just happen to plainly state the paragraph’s main idea. The paragraph’s opening sentence reads:

“Ken settled on the Chukar Partridge as a model species, but he might not have made his discovery without a key piece of advice from the local rancher in Montana who was supplying him with birds.”

(emphasis mine)

The paragraph’s opening sentence is a standard topic sentence. It clearly expresses the paragraph’s key idea: the rancher’s advice had a big impact on Ken’s experiment. The details of the story about the rancher (“the incident”), which appear lower in the paragraph, simply elaborate on this key idea. These details explain exactly how the rancher’s insight affected the experiment. In other words, “the incident involving the local rancher” provides details that support the paragraph’s main idea, which itself is plainly stated in the paragraph’s topic sentence.

Thus, we should expect the correct answer to paraphrase or summarize the paragraph’s key idea as stated in its topic sentence, since that’s what the story about the local rancher “serves to” support.

Evaluating the answers with this in mind, it’s easy to see which one satisfies our expectation: Answer C. It claims that the incident involving the local rancher serves to:

“show how an unanticipated piece of information influenced Ken Dial’s research.”

Hopefully, you can now see how focusing on context, staying local, and first looking up helps you solve SAT Reading Function Questions quickly and accurately.

In the next example, the correct answer is more general. Don’t worry, the tactics I’ve discussed still apply. However, instead of PARAPHRASING the KEY IDEA, as the answer above does, the correct answer in the next example merely DESCRIBES the LOGICAL RELATIONSHIP between the key idea and the supporting details.

Official SAT Practice Test 1, Reading Question 46

This question reads:

“What function does the discussion of water in lines 35-40 serve in Passage 1.”

In this case, identifying the question type is especially easy, since the word “function” appears in the question itself. Just remember that Function Questions aren’t always so obviously worded. Any question that in essence asks WHY the author said something is a Function Question.

The text cited by the question comprises a full paragraph. Note that this entire paragraph is simply a list of examples (a type of supporting detail), about the potential uses for water in space. To identify the larger point that these examples support, we’ll first try looking up. In this case, that means checking out the previous paragraph. That paragraph’s first sentence reads:

“In this scenario, water mined from other worlds could become the most desired commodity.”

“In this scenario” refers to what the author had just been discussing: the possibility that space miners might create an “off planet” economy. So, the author’s point is that if space mining really became a thing and a space economy developed, water might well be an extremely valuable product in that economy. The rest of this short paragraph just elaborates on this topic sentence.

Now let’s look again at the lines cited in the question (lines 35-40). Notice that these examples of potential uses for water in space clearly support the author’s clearly stated point in this part of the passage: if space mining became a reality, water could become extremely valuable.

Thus, when we evaluate the answer choices, we’re expecting the correct one to paraphrase the topic sentence of the previous paragraph (lines 29-30), since supporting this claim is the purpose of the cited text (lines 35-40).

In most cases, we WOULD find such an answer. In other words, usually, the correct answer would say something like, “It contains scenarios illustrating how water could potentially become surpassingly valuable in an off-earth economy.”

However, in this case, the correct answer (Answer C) is stated more generally: rather than RESTATE the actual point that the examples are supporting, the correct answer here simply DESCRIBES the logical RELATIONSHIP between the supporting examples and the claim they are supporting.

Now let’s look at another example:

Official SAT Practice Test 1, Reading Question 19

Here’s the question:

“The authors refer to work by Camerer and others
(line 56) in order to”

Before reading my solution to this Function Question, work the problem yourself. Do that now. I’ll wait.

Welcome back!

If you’re like many students, you chose Answer D: “support a conclusion.”

That answer is incorrect. To find out why, and to understand the rationale for the correct answer, we’ll walk through the tactics for SAT Reading Function Questions:

Focus Context. Stay Local. First, Look Up.

The question cites the passage authors’ reference to work by Camerer and others. That reference starts on line 56. We’re asked to find out WHY the authors referenced this work. Asked another way: the authors referred to Camerer’s work “in order to” do what?

Since this is a function questions, we should assume that the work of Camerer (and others) is a supporting detail. We’ll FOCUS CONTEXT to discover what larger point this supporting detail is supporting. And our search for the relevant context will NOT be far and wide. Instead, we’ll concentrate our search on the text adjacent to the citation. That is, we’re going to STAY LOCAL.

To start, we’ll LOOK UP. The first sentence of the paragraph is only two sentences above the cited text, so let’s begin there.

As it turns out, this paragraph’s topic sentence is actually a question:

“Why do gift givers assume that gif price is closely linked to gift-recipients’ feelings of appreciation?”

Aha! This is a major clue! Any time a paragraph starts with a question, it’s usually a dead giveaway to that paragraph’s primary purpose (something important to remember on Main Point, Paragraph Questions). In such cases, the purpose of the paragraph is usually to either answer the question outright or at least to posit potential answers.

Which is it in this case? Let’s keep reading and analyze the next sentence, the one immediately adjacent to the citation (the reference to “work by Camerer and others”):

“Perhaps givers believe that bigger (i.e., more expensive) gifts convey stronger signals of thoughtfulness and consideration.”

Because the passage authors say “perhaps”, we know their intention is not to answer the question outright. Rather, they are merely suggesting one possible answer. Their use of “perhaps” proves that they think this explanation is plausible, but they don’t know for sure if it’s correct.

How about the details of the work by Camerer and others? Do those details support the potential explanation for the question posed at the top of the paragraph?

Absolutely! This should be plain enough simply by reading the sentence in question. But if you’re left with any doubt, in the following sentence (starting on line 60), the passage authors further clarify the details’ purpose (or “function”) by spelling out their intended take-away. That is, the passage authors straight tell you the point of their reference to Camerer’s work:

“In this sense, gift-givers MAY be motivated to spend more money on a gift in order to send a ‘stronger signal’ to their intended recipient.” (emphasis mine)

Notice that this sentence paraphrases the sentence directly ABOVE the citation, the one that originally offered a potential explanation for the question posed at the paragraph’s beginning. Notice too that, like the explanation above the citation, the one below is framed not as a certainty but merely as a POSSIBILITY (“gift givers MAY be motivated”).

This is what I call a “context sandwich”. As I’ve mentioned, on most SAT Reading Function Questions, the purpose of the citation will be answered by the context ABOVE. That’s why I say, “First, look up.” And if that’s all you’d done on this question, you’d still have had enough information to correctly answer the question. However, once in a while, a citation’s purpose is expressed BELOW. (In this case, we get both. That doesn’t happen often, but it’s nice when it does!)

On this question, whether you’re looking at the context above, the context below, or both, you can see why Answer D (“support a conclusion”) is wrong. Here, “conclusion” means a determination or final decision (https://www.wordnik.com/words/conclusion#define). But the local context (“perhaps”;”may”) proves that the passage authors have not reached a conclusion. They are merely proffering a POTENTIAL, not definite, explanation for the question raised at the top of the paragraph.

(Note – the same reasoning applies to Answer B: “introduce an argument”. The passage authors’ present the “stronger signals” theory as just that: a theory. They offer it only as a potential explanation. Describing it as an “argument” is too strong, too definitive, since the authors’ language (“perhaps”/”may”) expresses a lack of certainty.)

……………………

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