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. 

Vocabulary in Context

Despite how it may seem, vocabulary questions on the SAT and ACT are not testing your vocabulary as much as they are testing your reading skills. For this reason, I would rarely recommend studying vocab words if you want to get better at vocab questions. Instead, I would recommend that you memorize the steps I’m about to give you and get good at using them.

Vocab in Context (VIC) is on the reading section, right? Well that makes sense once you realize that the test writers use VIC questions to test your reading skills. Since this is all about context (how the word is being used), the vocab technique is designed to get you to notice and comprehend what is going on around the word.

Step One: Cover the word/ phrase up with your finger, and get yourself to generate your own word that works in the sentence and communicates the correct meaning.

Step Two: Go to the answer choices. The right answer should be a synonym for whatever you’ve come up with. Pick that one.

Step Three (if Step One doesn’t work out because the context is too confusing): Read each of the answer choices plugged in the sentence. The answer must actually work in the context. Let your ears help you here—does it sound right or is something off? 

Step Four (if you’re feeling SOL and nothing is working): Figure out if the sentence has a positive, negative, or neutral tone. The answer has to be in the same tone, so eliminate the words that don’t match the tone in that part of the passage. 

Example Problem (SAT Test 1, question #45). Please get your book and follow along:

45. As used in line 19, “demands” most nearly means

  • A) claims.
  • B) offers.
  • C) inquiries.
  • D) desires.

Step One: So I read the sentences around the word and come up with “wishes.” What I’ve come up with makes sense in the context, sounds right, and could replace “demands” in the sentence.

Step Two: 

  • A) offers (offers means gives which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • B) claims (claims means states or asserts which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • C) inquiries (inquiries means looking into something which is not synonymous with wishes).
  • D) desires (desires means wants, which is very close to the meaning of wishes. Desires also sounds right and works in the context, so I’d pick this one).

Step Three (if Step Two didn’t bear fruit):

  • A) …firms may be meeting earthly offers for precious metals… (this sounds off to me because I’ve never heard anyone talk about “meeting an offer for something”)
  • B) …firms may be meeting earthly claims for precious metals… (this doesn’t make sense)
  • C) …firms may be meeting earthly inquiries for precious metals… (meeting an inquiry for something doesn’t sound right and it also doesn’t make sense)
  • D) …firms may be meeting earthly desires for precious metals… (this sounds fine to my ears because I’ve heard the expression “meet a desire for,” so I’ll pick this one)

Down to Two, What to Do

Every student has experienced that moment on a Reading section when they’re down to two ridiculously similar answers and they can’t seem to pick which one is better. Figuring out how to handle this “down to two” problem is at the heart of getting a better score. 

Before we jump into exactly what to do in the “down to two” situation, I want to review a few things about right answers. *This is very important, so please read it carefully and completely!*

Because every question on the SAT/ ACT needs to have an objectively right answer, the test writers are very limited in the ways that they can create right answers. Since right answers have to be objectively, incontrovertibly right, they can only be one of two things: a restatement of what the passage says (just using different words) or an identification of something the passage clearly illustrates. I think of these as Type 1 (restatement) and Type 2 (identification).

A Type 1 right answer uses synonyms to repeat what the passage has said. These types of right answers are easier to recognize than Type 2 because if you can understand what the passage says, you can recognize when the ideas are put a different way.

Simplified Example: The passage says that the beekeeper harvests honey on the 5th and 9th months of the year. The question asks, “When does the beekeeper harvest honey?” The right answer says, “In May and September.” Here, the content in the passage says the same thing as the answer- they just use different words to do it.

Real Test Example (see practice test 1, reading section, question 9): 

9. Why does Akira say his meeting with Chie is “a matter of urgency” (line 32)?
A) He fears that his own parents will disapprove of Naomi.
B) He worries that Naomi will reject him and marry someone else.
C) He has been offered an attractive job in another country.
D) He knows that Chie is unaware of his feelings for Naomi.

Here, we use the lines given in question #10 to help us. We find that quote B) gives us the answer. Lines 39-42 read, “Normally I would approach you more properly but I’ve received word of a position. I’ve an opportunity to go to America, as a dentist for Seattle’s Japanese community.” Answer C) in question #9 is a restate of this quote, making it a classic Type 1 right answer.

A Type 2 right answer typically names/ identifies something that the passage shows or illustrates. Type 2 is a much harder right answer to recognize because your brain has to grasp the content on two levels: what the passage says and what that means/is.

Simplified Example: The passage is a fiction story and it describes a child skipping home from school after an amazing first day in which she made a lot of new friends and feels awesome about herself. The question asks, “How is Sarah feeling when she comes home from school?” The right answer says, “Joyful.” Here, the passage clearly paints a picture of what joy is like.

Real Test Example  (see practice test 1, reading section, question 36): 

36. Woolf indicates that the procession she describes in the passage
A) has come to have a more practical influence in recent years.
B) has become a celebrated figure in English public life.
C) includes all of the richest and most powerful men in England.
D) has become less exclusionary in its membership in recent years.

This question goes with question #37, so we can use the provided lines to focus our search. For the purposes of this lesson, I am only going to examine the quote that contains the answer, which is quote C). Quote C) reads, “For there, trapesing along at the tail end of the procession, we go ourselves.” The right answer to question 36 is clearly not a Type 1 restatement. But if we ask ourselves, “What is quote C) demonstrating?”, we realize that it is demonstrating that the procession now includes women. If a march that used to not allow women now DOES allow women, that is what answer 36 D) identifies: the march has become less exclusionary (allowing more people than were previously allowed).

The reason I think it is SO important to understand the two kinds of right answers is because they help tremendously when you’re down to two and trying to pick.

Here are my suggestions for what to try (not in order of importance):

1.For the two options you’re debating between, ask yourself, “Is this a Type 1 or a Type 2 right answer?” If option “A” is a T2 and option “C” seems like it’s relying more on inference, pick option “A.” 

2. Ask yourself, “Which one can I get directly from the text?”

3. Ask yourself, “Am I making a logical jump here or do I really have proof of this?” Right answers require discernment rather than speculation. 

4. Go Narrow! Think about the exact meaning of every word in each answer choice. One of the two options has at least one word that makes that answer wrong. Example: Imagine a random question with two answer options. A. analyze a culture  B. describe a tradition

When I “Go Narrow” on this question, I ask myself, “What does analyze mean and is it really analyzing? What is a culture and is this a culture or is that too broad?” Then I ask myself, “What does describe mean and is this really a description? What does tradition mean and is what they’re talking about actually a tradition?” 

Going narrow is about finding the tricky places the SAT has hidden an error in one of the options. Since the test is VERY nit picky and detail oriented, training your brain to “Go Narrow” and hunt for small errors is important.

5. Re-read the question and put it in your own words if you’re confused. What are they really asking you? 

6. Rephrase the question to make it seem less subjective. If they write, “….most clearly means,” I always translate that in my head as “what does X mean?” The text must contain the answer to that question, so which answer choice the text directly support?

7. If one answer has something that seems like it may be wrong and the other answer is just super vague but not exactly wrong, pick the vague one.

Add all of these tips to your mental toolbox. Obviously you don’t have time to use all 7 techniques every time you’re in the “down to two” situation, so you will need to practice to become skilled at knowing when to use what when.