The ACCUPLACER Reading Test - dummies

By Mark Zegarelli

Here is a quick overview of the types of reading passages you’ll see on the ACCUPLACER. The ACCUPLACER Reading Test includes 20 questions, organized in a specific way. Here, all of this information is pulled together in a single outline so you can see exactly what your ACCUPLACER Reading Test will look like.

For easy reference, the following table contains this outline, breaking down the 20-question reading test into separate sections.

Overview of ACCUPLACER Reading Passages and Questions
Type of passage Number and length Number of questions
1 literary set 1 long passage 4 questions
1 informational set 2 medium passages 4 questions
12 informational discrete 12 very short or short passages 12 questions
Total questions = 20

One long literary passage with 4 questions

The test begins with a single long literary passage that includes a four-question set. This is the only literary reading passage you face on the ACCUPLACER. This passage is a selection from a fictional narrative work, such as a novel or a short story.

As you read a literary passage, determine as soon as you can whether the narrator is first-person (a character in the story talking from the “I” perspective) or third-person (not a character in the story). Next, get clear on the names of the main characters — usually, there will be two or three at the most — how they relate to each other, and especially how they differ.

After you understand the basics of who the main characters are, try to figure out “what’s at stake” — that is, what each character wants or is trying to achieve. Here’s an example:

“The narrator (Blair) is a daughter who wants to help her mother, but the mother (Arla) becomes defensive and keeps pushing her daughter away.”

“The father (unnamed) and son (Kevin) are talking about Kevin’s older brother (Stephen), who is planning to join the Army. The father objects to this plan and gets angry when Kevin points out that the father is usually overcritical of Stephen.”

“The narrator (Aaron) is a 22-year-old Jewish man thinking back on his recent trip to Israel, where he met his girlfriend (Fadilah), a Muslim woman whom he plans to ask to marry him.”

One paired set of 2 medium-length informational passages with 4 questions

Next, you’ll read a paired set of medium-length passages on an informational topic and answer a set of four related questions. Typically, the two passages in a paired set relate distinct viewpoints on a single topic.

For example, the first passage in a paired set might focus on an advance in submarine technology, and the second might discuss a particular application of this technology for studying deep ocean plant life. Or the first might present the positive aspects of a proposed United Nations resolution, and the second could present the downsides.

At least one or two of these questions will test you on the finer points that distinguish the two passages. So, as you read paired passages, try to get a sense of the differences between the two authors’ viewpoints. And if possible, see if you can find actual words to describe these differences.

Here’s an example:

“Passage 1 talks about a possible threat to the Amazon rainforest, and Passage 2 talks about a possible solution.”

“The author of Passage 1 urged Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and the author of Passage 2 criticized him for signing it.”

“Passage 1 discusses Billie Holliday’s early years, and Passage 2 discusses her musical stardom.”

12 short or very short informational passages with 1 question each

Finally, the test concludes with 12 short or very short passages, each of which includes a single question for you to answer. These passages are always informational, and they tend to be a grab bag.

When a passage has only one question, read the question first. This can help you focus so you know what to look for before you read the passage.

Passage Form – What the Passages Look Like

Reading passages for the ACCUPLACER are classified according to four different lengths:

  • Very short: 75 to 100 words
  • Short: 150 to 200 words
  • Medium: 250 to 300 words
  • Long: 350 to 400 words

Each very short and short passage is followed by a single (discrete) question. Each long passage and pair of medium passages is followed by a set of four questions based on that passage.

In some cases, two short passages are presented as a paired set, labeled as “Passage 1” and “Passage 2,” and followed by a set of four questions. Paired passages are usually linked by a common topic or theme, each with a distinct position or point of view on that topic. For example, a pair of passages might both discuss an innovation in video game design, one written by a game designer, and the other from the perspective of a game blogger.

Passage Content — What the Passages Are About

The passages you’ll read on the ACCUPLACER fall into two categories: literary content (fiction) and informational content (non-fiction). The texts fall into three categories: narrative, explanatory, and persuasive.

Understanding the genre of the passage

On the ACCUPLACER, passage genre falls into two basic categories: literary (fiction) and informational (non-fiction). In this section, I discuss both of these types of passages.


On the ACCUPLACER, you’ll read one literary passage and answer four questions about this passage. Literary passages are selected from fictional works of prose, such as short stories and novels. (Note: The reading passages on the ACCUPLACER don’t include works of poetry.) A literary passage is typically a narrative storyline depicting one or more characters.


Informational passages are selected from factual works and break down into the following three topic areas: Careers/history/social studies, humanities, and science. Here, you get a quick take on all three types.

  • Careers/history/social studies: One informational topic area for reading passages on the ACCUPLACER is careers/history/social studies. These passages focus on career-based information, the lives of people and civilizations in other times, and texts in social studies (such as anthropology, cultural anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology).
  • Humanities: Humanities passages are typically about the fine arts (visual art, music, dance, theater, and literature), architecture, movies, and other forms of creative work discussed from an academic perspective.
  • Science: Common topics in science passages are biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, earth science, and medicine. Information often includes important scientific discoveries, how theories developed, important experiments, and technological advances.

Informational text types

The informational reading passages on the ACCUPLACER include texts whose organization and purpose fall into three different types: narrative, explanatory, and persuasive.

  • Narrative passages: A narrative passage describes the progression of events as they occur in time. Most literary works — and all of the literary passages on the ACCUPLACER — are organized as narratives, for the purpose of telling a story that unfolds over a period of time. Additionally, a few of the informational passages you read here may be organized as narratives, although this is somewhat uncommon.
  • Explanatory passages: An explanatory passage explains an event or process, or otherwise provides information. This is the most common form of informational passage on the ACCUPLACER, and most likely the most common form of reading you’ve done in classes such as history, social studies, and the sciences.
  • Persuasive passages: A persuasive passage attempts to convince the reader that a particular viewpoint is correct, and in some cases to take a specific action based on this viewpoint (for example, to vote for a certain candidate or to begin recycling plastic bottles).

As you read an informational passage, see if you can tell whether the author’s main purpose is simply to explain something, or if he or she is attempting to persuade. Remember, every informational passage will have explanatory elements. However, a persuasive passage will use these elements to craft an argument.

See also, “What’s on the ACCUPLACER.”