Big Picture Questions | An SAT Reading Lesson

What are “Big Picture” Questions?

Big Picture questions are testing your ability to understand the overall meaning and function of the passage. There are 6 types of big picture questions: Main Idea, Theme, Tone/Attitude, and Topic Shift.

**Purpose and Function questions are also Big Picture Questions, but this blogpost covers them.

Why are these questions challenging?

These questions require you to understand and consolidate much of the passage and be able to express the passage as a more abstract concept.

How can I identify a Big Picture question?

Questions that are phrased in the following ways are big picture questions (usually).

  • What is the Main Idea…
  • What is the Theme…
  • Over the course of the passage, the main focus shifts…
  • Which choice describes what happens in the passage…
  • Identify the passage’s Tone
  • What is the author’s Attitude…

Why is understanding the Big Picture important?

It is important because if you understand the big picture, you can more easily make a distinction between almost right and right answers in the Narrow Focus questions. The correct answers to Narrow Focus questions will align better with the Big Picture of the passage than wrong answers do. 

Main Idea

The Main Idea is the point or lesson the author is attempting to convey. Identifying the Main Idea requires you to combine the TOPIC, the FOCUS and the TONE. 

TOPIC= What is the passage about?

The topic is the NOUN that is mentioned throughout the passage. That is, it is the person, place, thing or idea that the author focuses on in the passage. Yes, the topic might shift throughout the passage (that is what shift questions are asking about). But try to identify the most commonly mentioned idea.

FOCUS=What is the author telling me about the TOPIC?

Obviously in 800 words, the author cannot write everything there is to know about the topic. Determine what the author is focused on.

TONE= What is  the feeling or attitude the author has about the TOPIC? 

For the most part the Tone will be neutral, but word choice and emphasis can indicate a slightly positive or slightly negative tone or attitude. Understanding that subtle difference can help you identify the correct answers to the other questions. 

This is easier to understand if we look at some examples.

Example 1

While much research has been conducted into the relative intelligence of birds such as ravens, there is a new study that examines chickadees and their lack of cognitive decline. Chickadees have an advanced spatial cognition developed from their habitat in cold weather locations that force the birds to cache food over the winter. Chickadees can live up to ten years, though few live beyond three due to predation. However, older chickadees have been found to maintain their mental acuity throughout their lives regardless of how old they get. This is unlike other species, including humans, that experience a cognitive decline with age. Understanding why and how these little birds keep their intelligence could provide new avenues of research into preventing human cognitive decline. 

Topic: Chickadees

Focus: Lack of cognitive decline

Tone: Positive 

Example 2

I’m sorry to inform you that wearing your lucky shirt to the basketball game will have no effect on the outcome of the game. Neither will growing or shaving your beard. If those habits sound familiar you might live with or even be a sports fan who engages in magical thinking. Magical thinking is the process of linking an object or action to a desired outcome and believing the presence or absence of the item or action will affect the outcome. Opponents might defend the practice as harmless. But is it? Certainly it harms no one if you do  or do not wear your lucky shirt. However if you continue to make associations with desired outcomes and specific actions you may be straying into OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) which can become debilitating without treatment. 

Topic: Magical Thinking

Focus: Potential problem with magical thinking

Tone: Negative

Example 3

It was quite late in the evening when the little Moss came snugly to anchor, and Queequeg and I went ashore; so we could attend to no business that day, at least none but a supper and a bed. The landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured us that Cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders. In short, he plainly hinted that we could not possibly do better than try pot-luck at the Try Pots.

But the directions he had given us about keeping a yellow warehouse on our starboard hand till we opened a white church to the larboard, and then keeping that on the larboard hand till we made a corner three points to the starboard, and that done, then ask the first man we met where the place was: these crooked directions of his very much puzzled us at first, especially as, at the outset, Queequeg insisted that the yellow warehouse—our first point of departure—must be left on the larboard hand, whereas I had understood Peter Coffin to say it was on the starboard. However, by dint of beating about a little in the dark, and now and then knocking up a peaceable inhabitant to inquire the way, we at last came to something which there was no mistaking. ( Ch. 15 Moby Dick by Herman Melville)

Topic: Looking for a hotel and food

Focus: Having trouble with directions

Tone: Hopeful to irritated

Combining the TOPIC, FOCUS and TONE produces a Main Idea that is useful for answering Big Picture Questions. It also helps with process of elimination in the Narrow Focus Questions.


Commit this to memory, friends; learn it by heart as well as by head, and I should have no need to argue to question before you of my right to vote.

For women are “people” surely, and desire, as much as men, to say the least, to establish justice and to insure domestic tranquility; and, brothers, you will never insure domestic tranquility in the days to come unless you allow women to vote, who pay taxes and bear equally with yourselves all the burdens of society; for they do not mean any longer to submit patiently and quietly to such injustice, and the sooner men understand this and graciously submit to become the political equals of their mothers, wives, and daughters—aye, of their grandmothers, for that is my category, instead of their political masters, as they now are, the sooner will this precious domestic tranquility be insured.

Women are surely “people,” I said, and were when these words were written, and were as anxious as men to establish justice and promote the general welfare, and no one will have the hardihood to deny that our foremothers (have we not talked about our forefathers alone long enough?) did their full share in the work of establishing justice, providing for the common defense, and promoting the general welfare in all those early days.

Isabella Beecher Hooker, March 30, 1883,  speech at the International Council of Women in Washington, D.C. 

TOPIC: Women’s Right to Vote

FOCUS: Women are people with the same responsibilities as men and so have the same rights to vote as men

TONE: Certain; Emphatic

Sample Question:

We can infer from the passage that Isabella Beecher Hooker believes that

  • a) Women have too many responsibilities 
  • b) They need men to grant them to vote
  • c) Women have the right to vote
  • d) They do more than men in society and so should have the right to vote

If we look at the TFT we can see that the author states that women have the right to vote based on the fact that they are people who contribute equally to society. She is not asking for the right to vote, but stating that she already has that right.

a) WRONG because she isn’t complaining about the responsibilities

b)WRONG because she isn’t asking for the right to vote but stating that she has that right already


d) WRONG She says that men and women have the same responsibilities so should have the same right to vote.

Another way to eliminate looking at tone

Her TONE is Certain=positive.

Choices A and D are negative and so are contrary to the tone of the passage.


Theme questions are just Main Idea for Literature (Fiction) passages. On the SAT, THEME is more straightforward than you might be expected to find in English class or on an AP Literature exam. So don’t overthink it.

Look at who or what is the focus of the passage (Look back at the Moby Dick passage in the Main Idea section). 

If you get a Theme question (these are rare), focus on what events or changes have happened in the passage and what those changes mean for the characters. 

Example 5

Jim, disabled by a falling spar at the beginning of a week of which his Scottish captain used to say afterwards, ‘Man! it’s a pairfect meeracle to me how she lived through it!’ spent many days stretched on his back, dazed, battered, hopeless, and tormented as if at the bottom of an abyss of unrest.

He did not care what the end would be, and in his lucid moments overvalued his indifference. The danger, when not seen, has the imperfect vagueness of human thought. The fear grows shadowy; and Imagination, the enemy of men, the father of all terrors, unstimulated, sinks to rest in the dullness of exhausted emotion. Jim saw nothing but the disorder of his tossed cabin. He lay there battened down in the midst of a small devastation, and felt secretly glad he had not to go on deck. But now and again an uncontrollable rush of anguish would grip him bodily, make him gasp and writhe under the blankets, and then the unintelligent brutality of an existence liable to the agony of such sensations filled him with a despairing desire to escape at any cost. Then fine weather returned, and he thought no more about It.

Lord Jim Ch. 2 by Joseph Conrad

Jim is hurt and lies in his bed in pain. He wishes he were dead and lies in pain. But then he recovers and the weather becomes nicer and he recovers and forgets about the pain and depression. 

So what does that mean? 

It compactly examines human’s typical response to pain. It overwhelms and encompasses us, but once gone, we forget all about it. Have you ever hurt yourself and the toothache or stubbed toe is all you can think of? But the next day the pain is gone and you barely consider the pain now that it is past. 

The Theme is how pain can encompass us and then be forgotten when life gets better.


Tone is the overall feeling of a piece of writing. This feeling is created through word choice and focus within the passage. Understanding tone (a big picture question type) is important for determining literal comprehension and inference answers (narrow focus question type). 

Positive/Negative/ Neutral

To determine the tone, start with deciding whether the author is POSITIVE, NEUTRAL, or NEGATIVE about the subject. Then if the tone is either positive or negative, decide if it is extremely positive or extremely negative. Once you have decided for yourself, look at the answer choices and eliminate everything that does not match with your selected tone.


 Buffy the Vampire Slayer sounds like a silly name, and it is, but don’t let the name fool you. This is a show that is filled with depth and heart. It has characters that you will love and hate as well as an unbelievable story that somehow reveals truths about life as a teen and young adult. Certainly some episodes are silly, such as when the entire town has a spell cast in it that makes everyone sing show tunes. However, one of the scariest episodes, Hush, has not one word of dialogue. So give the silly named show about a little blond girl who makes monsters shake in fear a chance next time you are looking for something to watch on Netflix.

     POSITIVE                         NEUTRAL                         NEGATIVE 

What is the tone of the passage?

a)   Hysterical                        This means out of control and is not likely to be a tone-eliminate

b)  Argumentative             Negative- eliminate

c)   Admiring                          Positive-keep

d)  Critical                               Negative-eliminate

e)  Objective                        Neutral-eliminate

Rather than looking for the right answer immediately, it is easier to get rid of the wrong answers first and then decide. This passage was positive/neutral. If it was extremely positive there would be more adjectives such as best, greatest and fantastic. The paragraph is not quite neutral because it is still filled with opinion statements rather than factual ones. 

Identifying the purpose can help you to decide the tone. In general, Informative and Instructional passages tend to be neutral and persuasive passages tend to be positive or negative. 


Attitude is the author’s feelings about the topic. The tone could be neutral, but the author’s attitude might be positive or negative. Attitude questions tend to focus on a single paragraph or idea within the passage. Look for ideas of agreement or disagreement within the passage.


Sometimes the topic of a passage will change from one idea to another. The SAT includes reading comprehension questions that test your ability to track that shift. This type of big picture question is easier if you have taken notes while reading the passage. You should be able to clearly note that the author’s focus changes. This is easier to understand with an example.


The essential oils industry is worth almost 19 billion dollars per year. Fueled by a desire to have a clean smelling home, to alleviate emotional fatigue, and to cure illness and disorders, the industry sells hope in a little brown bottle under the guise of aromatherapy. But are these scents harmless?

One common method of dispersing aromatherapy scents is through an ultrasonic diffuser. These small machines are filled with water and a few drops of essential oils. When turned on the machine emits a light mist that fills the room with the added scent. What appears to be simple evaporation is actually a mechanical process. A plate in the machine vibrates rapidly, creating microscopic particles of water and essential oils. These particles can enter the lungs and cause irritation. Your lungs are delicate organs and any irritation can cause damage in the long term. 

What is the shift in the passage?

The passage shifts from discussing essential oils to warning about a potential health hazard created by aromatherapy machines.

Girl with book in front of her face as she tries to make sense of SAT big picture questions. Links to list of practice articles.


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, and 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 uses…to, 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/Purpose 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 do this you need to be able to have strong reading skills to understand the topic, tone, and details and how these work together to express meaning.

Example part of a passage:

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 and identifying how their language influenced how early they started to recognize their gender. So, we want an answer that matches closely those key ideas 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 may struggle with big picture 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. 

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