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How to Relate Structure and Style to Content in PSAT/NMSQT Reading-Comprehension Questions

A few PSAT/NMSQT reading-comprehension questions ask you to relate how a passage is written — its structure or style — to what the passage says. Possible exam questions include these:

The examples in Paragraph 2 serve to . . .
The author describes Mary’s room (Lines 6–8) in order to . . .
In contrast to the first paragraph (Lines 1–5), the second paragraph . . .
The question “How many roads lie before me?” (Line 3) is intended to . . .

When you hit a question about style or structure, two techniques help:

  • If possible, state in your own words what the author accomplishes in that sentence or paragraph. If you see a list or examples, you may say, “She’s proving the point she made in the first sentence.” After reading a description, you may think, “She wants me to see how poor Ellen’s family is.”

    After you have that statement in your mind, the answer choice is probably clear. If not, try the next bullet point.

  • Mentally delete or change the indicated sentence or paragraph. Suppose they’re asking about a list of examples. Okay, glance over the passage. Without those examples, would the author’s case be weaker? Or, imagine that the author made a statement (“I create my own destiny”) instead of asking a question (“Do I create my own destiny?”).

    How does your reaction change? If the question concerns the relationship between two paragraphs, flip them around or imagine the passage without one of them. The effect of a deletion or change points you toward the significance of the original version. After you decide the role of the original sentence or paragraph, all you have to do is select an answer choice that matches your idea.

Get to work! Take a look at an excerpt from The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker (Wiley), and answer Questions 1 and 2.

It’s not surprising that several recent studies by national food companies have shown that an
overwhelming number of today’s recipe users are cooking illiterates — that is, they haven’t
learned to cook alongside their mothers or grandmothers, and they lack knowledge of what
many food professionals consider basic food terminology and skills. These young adults,
aged 25 to 30 years, are often called “the lost generation” in the kitchen.
A national food literacy survey, conducted in late 1990 by the National Family Opinion
Research Center, Inc. on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council, revealed some
startling results. Although 90 percent of the 735 adults (aged 25 to 54) considered themselves
to be good to excellent cooks, almost three fourths of them flunked a basic 20-point cooking quiz.
Only one person out of the 735 people surveyed received a perfect score on the multiple-choice,
true-false test, which included questions about how many ounces are in one cup and equivalent in
cups of one stick of margarine. A staggering 45 percent of respondents didn’t know how many
teaspoons are in one tablespoon.
Most of the respondents expressed a desire to cook, but they cited lack of time and lack of
basic cooking knowledge as the reasons they didn’t. However, 51 percent said they try a
new recipe at least once a month, and 30 percent said they try a new recipe at least two or
three times a month.
When looking for recipes and cooking information, one third of the respondents reach for a cookbook.
  1. Which phrase best describes the relationship between Paragraph 1 (Lines 1–5) and Paragraphs 2 and 3 (Lines 6–13)?

        (A)    specific to general
        (B)    question and answer
        (C)    assertion and proof
        (D)    opposing views
        (E)    problem and solution
  2. Information about the number of people trying new recipes is included in order to

        (A)    define the market for cookbooks
        (B)    contradict the findings of the National Pork Producers Study
        (C)    emphasize the importance of innovation in cooking
        (D)    promote convenience foods
        (E)    explain how cookbooks should be written

Now check your answers:

  1. C. assertion and proof

    Everything in paragraph one is general. The authors ask you to believe them when they define “the lost generation” (Line 5) as “cooking illiterates” (Line 2). Paragraph two, however, is all fact. The fact that three out of four people flunked a cooking quiz backs up the assertion (claim) in the first paragraph.

  2. A. define the market for cookbooks

    Nobody knows how to cook, but a lot of people keep trying anyway, and a third of them turn to cookbooks. That’s how you can restate the ideas in the last two paragraphs (Lines 14–18). Add in the information from the introduction (which you should always read) and you know that the authors believe in recipes. After all, they wrote a handbook for recipe writers!

    Put these two ideas together and you arrive at Choice (A). You can get to Choice (A) by another route also. How would the passage be different without the “trying-something-new” information? You’d think that the world is doomed to terrible cooking, and cookbook writers need a career change. There you go: Choice (A) makes sense.

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