PSAT Reading: U.S. & World Literature Passages

Just as reading passages on the PSAT span different genres, your approaches will also vary from subject to subject. Let’s take a look at how to approach U.S. and World Literature passages on the PSAT.

First, know that there will be a single U.S. and World Literature passage on the PSAT. It is different from the other passages because:

  • There will be multiple characters and, therefore, multiple opinions.
  • The tone will be nuanced and emotion-based, rather than informative or explanatory.

As you read a U.S. and World Literature passage, you should:

  • Identify the characters and evaluate how the author describes them

    • What do the characters want?
    • What are the characters doing?
    • What adjectives describe each character?
  • Assess the characters’ opinions of each other and themselves

    • Do they like each other? Dislike each other?
    • Why does each character make a particular decision or take a particular course of action?
    • What do these decisions or actions tell you about a character?
  • Identify the themes of the story

    • What are the “turning points” in the passage?
    • Is there a moral to the story?

Because U.S. and World Literature passages have multiple characters with multiple opinions, remember to keep straight who said what. And as you’re mapping your passage, remember that some paragraphs are longer than others. If you are mapping a very long paragraph, you can write two or three short notes rather than trying to fit everything into just one long note.

Let’s look at the following example of an abbreviated U.S. and World Literature passage and question set. After the mapped passage, the left column contains questions similar to those you’ll see on the PSAT Reading Test on Test Day. The column on the right features the strategic thinking a test expert employs when approaching the passage and questions presented. Note how a test expert can quickly condense the entire passage into a few words, and use his or her Passage Map to ask questions that build a prediction for the correct answer.

Sample PSAT Reading Practice Question: U.S./World Literature

Questions 1-2 are based on the following passage.
In this excerpt from a short story, the narrator describes an afternoon visit to the farm of Mrs. Hight and her daughter, Esther.
Mrs. Hight, like myself, was tired and thirsty. I brought a drink of water, and remembered some fruit that was left from my lunch. She revived vigorously, and told me the history of her later years. Since she had been struck in the prime of her life by a paralyzing stroke, and her husband had died and left her with Esther and a mortgage on their farm. There was only one field of good land, but they owned a large area of pasture and some woodland. Esther had always been laughed at for her belief in sheep-raising when one by one their neighbors were giving up their flocks. When everything had come to the point of despair she had raised some money and bought all the sheep she could, insisting that Maine lambs were as good as any, and that there was a straight path by sea to the Boston market. By tending her flock herself she had managed to succeed; she had paid off the mortgage five years ago, and now what they did not spend was in the bank. “It has been stubborn work, day and night, summer and winter, and now she’s beginning to get along in years,” said the old mother. “She’s tended me along with the sheep, and she’s been good right along, but she should have been a teacher.”

1. The main purpose of the passage is to
(A) suggest some of the essential attributes of a character.
(B) show that people’s lives are determined by events beyond their control.
(C) identify the major causes of Mrs. Hight’s unhappiness.
(D) recount an incident that changed the narrator’s life.

2. Mrs. Hight’s description of Esther’s sheep-raising efforts reveals her daughter’s
(A) desire to succeed no matter what the cost.
(B) humility and grace in accepting defeat.
(C) considerable regard for her neighbors’ opinions.
(D) calm determination in meeting difficulties.

Passage Map

¶1: Mrs. H – stroke, widow, owned farm
¶1, cont.: E – raised sheep, succeeded
¶1, cont.: mom, Mrs. H, describes determination of daughter, E (theme)

Step 2: Examine the question stem

  • What are the keywords or clues in the question stem? “Main purpose”

Step 3: Predict and answer

  • What is the main purpose of the passage? To relay Mrs. Hight’s positive opinion of her daughter, Esther
  • What answer choice matches this? Choice (A)

Step 2: Examine the question stem

  • What are the keywords in the question stem? “Sheep-raising efforts”

Step 3: Predict and answer

  • Raising the sheep is described as what kind of work?  “Stubborn work”
  • How does Mrs. Hight describe Esther’s attitude toward the work? She says, “she’s been good right along”
  • What can you predict? Esther did not give up, despite having been “laughed at.”
  • What answer choice does this match? Choice (D)

PSAT Reading Practice Question Explanations

For practice question #1, note that when asked about the main purpose or central theme of a U.S. and World Literature passage, you should look at which character is discussed the most. From the third sentence onward, the story of the passage is really about Esther—her success with sheep farming and her patience in looking after her mother. The purpose of the passage is therefore to describe Esther, which matches choice (A).

For practice question #2, make sure you pay attention to characters’ opinions of each other. In Mrs. Hight’s words, you’re told that even though raising the sheep had been “stubborn work,” Esther had been “good right along”. Choice (D) captures Esther’s approach—not only did she overcome “difficulties” with “determination,” but she also kept “calm” throughout. Choice A is too extreme; Esther didn’t put “success” before all other considerations. She wasn’t “defeated,” B, and she didn’t bow to her “neighbors’ opinions,” C.

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