Function Questions | An SAT Reading Lesson

Function questions are some of the most challenging in the SAT reading section. These questions are becoming more common on the test because they require you to look at the passage on 2 levels. First you need to comprehend what the author has said. Second, you need to know why the author has said it.

Step 1-Identifying Purpose and Function questions

If you see the words purpose, function, serves to, in order to, main effect, primarily to, the author usesto, you are dealing with a purpose/function question. If you have a set of answers that each starts with a function word, you are dealing with a function/purpose passage.

Step 2-Understanding Function words and phrases

Most Function Questions will have answers that start with a function word. These words describe the intended action of the piece of information. See the list at the bottom of this lesson for the most recent function words. Make sure that you understand what each means.

Step 3-Summarize and Match the Abstractions

Answer choices will consist of a function word and an abstraction of what is happening in the passage. To solve this, you need to have strong reading skills to understand the topic, tone, and details and how these work together to express meaning.

Learn how to identify and solve function questions in the SAT Reading Passages

Passage excerpt for function questions:

Language can even affect how quickly children figure out whether they are male or female. In 1983 Alexander Guiora of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor compared three groups of kids growing up with He­brew, English or Finnish as their native language. He­brew marks gender prolifically (even the word “you” is different depending on gender), Finnish has no gender marking and English is somewhere in between. Accordingly, children grow­ing up in a Hebrew-speaking environment figure out their own gender about a year earlier than Finnish-speaking children; Eng­lish-speaking kids fall in the middle. (How Language shapes Thought by Lera Boroditsky, 2011)

In this passage we have a topic sentence followed by a study comparing 3 groups of children. Then a statement identifying how their language influenced how early they started to recognize their gender. So, we want an answer that matches closely those key idea with a neutral tone because the paragraph is expressed neutrally.

Step 4-Use process of elimination to remove any function words that are not relevant and any abstractions that don’t match the paragraph.

QUESTION: What is the function of paragraph 6?

a) to provide a criticism of language that influences gender choices in children

b) to demonstrate how language can influence children’s ability to conceptualize themselves

c) to defend the suggestion that a gender-neutral language is best for all children

d) to highlight the advantages of children learning multiple languages in order to maintain self-esteem


  • A- wrong because there is no criticism in the passage. The tone of this answer is too negative. Also the passage is about children identifying their gender, not choosing a gender
  • B-CORRECT answer. The passage is mainly an example. Examples are used to support or demonstrate theories. The phrasing “children’s ability to conceptualize themselves” is an abstraction of “children figure out whether they are male or female”
  • C-There is no indication that gender-neutral language is better or worse in the passage. The passage is making a comparison and noting difference, not judging those differences
  • D-This is too positive (best) and we noted that the passage is neutral. Also, the passage is not defending any ideas. It is presenting information obtained in a study.

Reasons you might struggle with function questions.

1) You are not clear on the exact meaning of the function words and their tones. You can sort most function words into positive, neutral, and negative categories and use that as a starting point to determine whether the answer is accurate. For example, “discredit” is extremely negative whereas “challenge” is more neutral.

2) Your reading skills are not strong enough to move from the concrete ideas of the passage to more abstract ideas in the answer choices. If this is the case, you need to do more reading practice with similar passages to familiarize yourself with the topics, vocabulary and structures of the passages.

List of Function Question phrasing and answer choices in recent SAT tests.

Ensure you understand exactly what all of these function words mean and how they can be different from one another. (I label my tests by the date and the title of the literature passage for clarity)

Nov 2019 Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon

  • Q2 Purpose of the Passage (explain, present, describe, analyze)
  • Q10 Serve to (underscore, echo, illustrate, correct a misconception)
  • Q11 Serve to (emphasize, signal, shift, offer an analogy)
  • Q12 Primary Purpose of first paragraph (reminisce, stress, emphasize, discuss)
  • Q21 Purpose of the Passage (Challenge, describe, discuss, discredit)
  • Q22 serves to paragraph (describe, discuss, explain, indicate)
  • Q27 serves to (last paragraph) (summarize, explain, convey, address a criticism)
  • Q32 paragraph serves to (extend the scope, shift the discussion, provide examples, introduce)
  • Q49 one important function of the sentence (describe, underscore, emphasize, explain)

October 2019 Artists Life

  • Q4 parenthetical information serves to (convey, hint, emphasize, suggest)
  • Q15 The author…primarily in order to (provide context, demonstrate, question, emphasize
  • Q21 Primary purpose of the passage (discuss, identify, refute, provide a catalog)
  • Q37 Main Purpose of the question (defend, criticize, concede, challenge)
  • Q38 serves to support point that…(   )
  • Q42 Main purpose of the passage (provide, describe, discuss, explain)
  • Q44 serves to (illustrate, explain, describe, challenge)

Oct 2019 Oh Pioneers

  • Q3 the simile serves which function (expands, contrasts, highlights, reinforces)
  • Q11 the author…to.. (emphasize, support, ensure, correct a perception)
  • Q14 remark serves to (suggest, caution, point out, emphasize)
  • Q22 Primary purpose of the passage (evaluate, describe, identify, explain)
  • Q28 Main function of the paragraph (describe, restate, illustrate, highlight)
  • Q32 Main purpose of the passage (criticize, contrast, offer and alternative explanation, place in context)
  • Q38 Main purpose of citing the study (offer quotations, note irrational conclusions, compare, suggest)
  • Q42 the author most likely (give a sense, indicate, provide, suggest)
  • Q44 One function of paragraph (describe, suggest, discuss)

August 2019 Dance of Happy shades

  • Q7 Main effect of the questions (reveal)
  • Q13 Main purpose (present research, argue, assert, explain)
  • Q36 Subject’s main purpose is (attempt, provide, suggest, discuss)
  • Q38 Paragraph serves to (summarize, criticize, outline, question)
  • Q45 Purpose of the Passage (suggest, describe, contrast, chronicle)

June 2019 Americannah

  • Q7 the description serves to (highlight, demonstrate, emphasize, suggest)
  • Q11 Primary purpose ( describe, highlight, analyze, define)
  • Q23 the author includes a list in order to (present evidence, describe features, contrast, highlight)
  • Q37 Primary Purpose (reveal, propose, debunk, expose)
  • Q42 Main Purpose of the passage ( predict, compare, highlight, discuss)
  • Q43 First paragraph serves to (contextualize, illustrate, identify, uphold)
  • Q44 Use of parenthetical comments serves to (note, define, provide, supply)

May 2019 The Master

  • Q9 the last paragraph serves (sketch, provide, create, describe)
  • Q10 the words serve to (establish a parallel, identify, emphasize a contrast, provide a metaphor
  • Q11 Main purpose of the Passage (analyze, compare, promote, discuss)
  • Q22 Purpose of the Passage (explain, explore, discuss, defend)
  • Q27 the author uses the word to (describe, emphasize, characterize, suggest)
  • Q35 the quote primarily to ( reinforce, underscore, develop, introduce)
  • Q36 phrase serves to create
  • Q43 Main purpose of the passage (describe, present, discuss, reconcile)
  • Q44 Main purpose of the discussion (explain, describe, illustrate, discuss)

April 2019 The Namesake

  • Q22 Primary Purpose of the Passage is to describe
  • Q33 Purpose of the first paragraph (present, summarize, dispel myths, provide details)
  • Q34 Primary Purpose of lines…provide support for the claim
  • Q37 Purpose of the analogy (contrast, highlight, emphasize, illustrate)
  • Q52 how the last paragraph functions (identifies, summarizes, challenges, presents)

March 2018 Beautiful things that Heaven Bears

  • Q11 Main purpose of the passage (assert, present, show how, chronicle)
  • Q24 fourth paragraph serves to (note a distinction, suggest, imply, describe
  • Q29 primary purpose of both passage (describe, dispute, explore, compare)
  • Q39 In order to (expose, dramatize, articulate, report)
  • Q43 Primary purpose of the passage (discuss, describe, present, analyze)
  • Q44 Primarily to suggest
  • Q48 Main Purpose (question, suggest, emphasize, urge)

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