Small Detail Questions (ACT Reading)

One of the most common question types on ACT Reading is Small Detail (aka Literal Comprehension). These questions ask what the passage says about some particular detail. The questions often start with “The passage indicates” or “According to the passage.” This is your clue that the test writers want you to go into the passage to find a detail they are asking about. 

Because Literal Comprehension (LC) questions are so common, it is imperative that you learn to do them efficiently. I often see students read multiple paragraphs in search of a small detail answer, but you cannot afford to do that. Literal Comprehension questions are generally easier than other question types, so having a streamlined process helps free up time for the more challenging questions. 

Here’s what I want you to do.

STEP ONE: As someone who reads the passages before going to the answers, my first step is to read the passage well before I even get to the question. A perfect performance on this test begins from the moment you open the test papers, which obviously includes reading the passages in an intentional, focused manner. Personally, I mark keywords in the body paragraphs to help me stay focused. I also don’t linger for very long on any one sentence that I find confusing. You need to balance reading the passage with saving enough time to get through the questions, and there is no exact formula for how to do this. In summation, STEP ONE is set yourself up for success by reading the passage intelligently

STEP TWO: Read the question, and pinpoint the keywords in it that are central to what is being asked. Many students pick keywords that are not specific enough. 

For example, imagine the question is, “The passage indicates that Jorge’s son went to which store on Monday afternoon in 1992?”

Too vague would be picking the keywords “Jorge’s son” and “1992.” If you just pinpoint those two words, you will be rereading way too much of the passage. With this question, it would be hard to get too specific. For my keywords, I would pick, “The passage indicates that Jorge’s son went to which store on Monday afternoon in 1992?” 

Now, get this: You must be prepared to recognize the synonyms of the keywords in addition to the keywords themselves. This is just the way the test writers make finding the answer difficult. So, I am looking for Jorge’s son AND the son’s name; store AND shop, market, etc; Monday afternoon AND the mention of Monday morning (just in case they don’t explicitly state that it becomes afternoon). 

Yes, this is a lot. But with practice, juggling all of the keywords becomes easy.

STEP THREE: If you remember where the answer is located, go there and read the content. Even if you remember the answer, double check to make sure you’re right. Reducing your errors is about being humble and always knowing that you could be getting something wrong- best to just check. 

If you have no idea where the answer is, then use your keywords and go for a word search. You do not need to read the content: just let your eyes skim over the passage, looking for anywhere that you’re keywords pop up. If you see just one of your keywords, don’t stop. You want to see a significant number of your keywords before you slow down. Once you find a place where you see many of your words, this is where you’ll start looking for the answer.

DO NOT just read downwards from where the keywords appear. Instead, read in a four line radius. So, if the words appear in line 21, back up to line 19 and start reading from there. If the words are in line 21, read lines 19-23. I can’t tell you how frequently I see students waste time by just reading down from where the keywords are, thereby missing the answer that they are so close to finding.

If you think that what you’ve read is on topic and might contain the answer, then go back to the answer choices and compare them to what you’ve read. If nothing is matching up, don’t force it. 

Just pick up with the word search and carry on looking for the keywords to pop up further in the passage. It is normal for keywords to appear in a few places, and you might have to read two different four line radii to find the answer they’re looking for.  

As always, when you’re reading the answer options, make sure to understand the specifics of what each answer choice is saying. You need to be precise-there is no way around it. And, do your due diligence and read all four answer options. If your answer is right, the other three won’t be. Checking all of the answers is a great way to catch a mistake if you’ve made one.