How to Answer Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading


What are the Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading?

Big picture questions on ACT Reading ask you to consider the passage, a series of passages, or a single paragraph as a whole. Ability to answer these types of questions will be very useful in college where professors will expect you to already have these skills and apply them to dense and academic writing.

In this article, we will talk about How to Answer Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading and discuss the two main types of big picture questions, how to recognize them, and best strategies to approach them.

Type 1: Main Point

Before we talk about How to Answer Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading – Main Point , let’s consider what main point actually is. For Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science passages, the main point is the central argument. Finding the main point in Prose Fiction or Literary Narrative passages can be a bit more complicated because they don’t always have central arguments; therefore, for these types of passages the main point is the central conflict and its implications. If it helps, you might even think of the main point as “the moral of the story.”

Questions of this type             will not ask you about the topic, the theme, or the attitude of the writing. These questions specifically ask you to summarize “what the point of this paragraph / passage is.”

How to Recognize Main Point Questions

It is usually pretty easy to identify the main point questions on ACT Reading.  Here are some examples of main point questions from the actual ACT tests:


ACT Examples

Let’s take one of the questions above as an example.


The question asks us to find the main idea of the first paragraph. Here’s the first paragraph.


If you read this paragraph and just think of the topic, then your answer might be “Little Ice Age” or “weather.”

Remember, the correct answer to the main idea question must tell us what the author’s point in this paragraph is. We notice that the words “Little Ice Age” appear twice in the paragraph. Once at the beginning when the time period of “Little Ice Age” was defined and once more in line 14 where the author says that the “Little Ice Age was an endless zigzag of climatic shifts, few lasting more than a quarter century.” From this quote, we can deduce that the main idea of the first paragraph is that during Little Ice Age there were frequent, short-term temperature changes.

Let’s look at the answers again:


The only answer choice that agrees with our summary of the main idea is H, which is the correct answer.

Choice F is incorrect because the main idea includes periods of cooling and periods of warming.

Answer Choice G is incorrect because the paragraph only loosely mentions “Cro-Magnon mammoth hunters” as illustration of how most people think of “Little Ice Age.”

Choice J is incorrect because the paragraph mentions that “interactions between the atmosphere and ocean” are “still little understood” and are not the reason for the “Little Ice Age.”


The correct answer is H.


Type 2: Perspective Questions

Before we talk about How to Answer Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading – Perspective, let’s consider what perspective questions are.

Instead of asking “what happened,” perspective questions generally ask “what is the point of view, perspective, or attitude of the {narrator, author, person} in this {article, passage, paragraph}?

These questions are different from the main point questions (and are asked less frequently than the main point questions). However, because they do require you to consider the passage, a pair of passages, or a paragraph as a whole to one central point, these questions are considered big picture questions.

It is important to make sure that you know the difference between main point and perspective questions, especially if a certain question is asking about a specific paragraph within a passage rather than the passage as a whole. This is because a single paragraph from the passage can be written in the point of view of a particular character / person, and that person’s perspective may be different than that of the whole passage.

How to Recognize Perspective Questions


ACT Examples

Let’s take one of the questions above as an example.


Let’s look at a piece of the passage.

Looking at just a third of the whole passage, we see that the author uses personal pronouns “I” and “my.” From this information, we might determine that this passage is written from a point of view of an individual. However, reading further, we notice that in line 14, the author describes a “family trait” where members of his family are known for doing good deeds that they, somehow, always “screw up.” The narrator goes on to describe an event when he built new bookcases for the office where he worked “for 28 years.” While building bookcases, he is constantly worried that something is going to go wrong, “I’m going to mess up these bookshelves just as my grandfather before me would have messed them up.”

Let’s look at the answer choice while considering the given information.


As we mentioned before, the passage is told from the point of view of a boy-turned-man who is describing “screw up” events that he calls his “family trait.” The correct answer is D.

We can eliminate choice A. Although the passage does talk about the boy and his grandfather, the perspective is more centered around the boy-turned-man reminiscing about the family trait of messing up projects.

Choice B can be eliminated because the passage is told from the perspective of the boy-turned-man, not two members of the same family.

Choice C is incorrect because the mood of the passage is wistful and lighthearted. There is no agony.

Warning: Main Point and Perspective is NOT the same as Function

Many students confuse main point, perspective and function questions. Function questions are different! Instead of asking “what’s the point,” functions questions ask what does [this] line, set of lines, or paragraph do in a passage? Instead of asking “what is the perspective from which the author is arguing his or her point?” function questions ask “why is the author writing (or saying) this?”

Consider these examples:


The first excerpt can be translated to “what does the passage say?” – a main point question.

The second excerpt can be translated to “what do the referenced lines do in the whole passage?” – a function question.

Sometimes, a main point question can impersonate a function question.

Although this question has the word “function” in it, it is actually a “main point” question that is asking about the “main idea” of a paragraph within the passage. How can you tell?

Let’s compare this question to a similarly-worded function question:


The difference is in both the wording of the question and the given answer choices. If you eliminate the extra words and reduce each question to its basic structure, you will notice that the first question asks “what does this paragraph SUGGEST? (i.e. what does this paragraph SAY)?” By contrast, the second question asks “what is this paragraph’s FUNCTION? (i.e. what does this paragraph DO?)”

You can also glean this information from the answer choices.

Function questions generally have answers in the form of “verb a noun”. In our example, “identify some mentors,” list early events,” “contrast opinions of King and Fletcher,” and “describe the musical style.”

Answer choices to main point questions that answer question “what’s the point?”

For more information on this topic check out this function questions on ACT Reading article.

Now that we’ve talked about what Big Picture questions are, let’s talk about how to answer them.

Strategies for Answering Big Picture Questions

The strategy for How to Answer Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading depends largely on how you read the passage.

If you read each passage in full and answer questions later, then you should be trying to figure out the main point and author perspective as you read.  You can quickly skim the questions beforehand to see if there are any “main point” or “perspective” questions, but event if there are no questions that use those specific terms, it is still helpful to know the main point / author perspective because that information can help you answer other questions.

If you read the questions first, you may be able to get an idea of what the main point of the article is just by the type and tone of questions being asked.

If you skim the passage and then answer questions, you should focus on the key information on your first run through.

Look at Introduction and Conclusion

For questions NOT related to Literary Narrative / Prose Fiction passages, more often than not, main point and author perspective should be evident in the introduction and the conclusion. This can be true of the Literary Narrative / Prose Fiction passages.  However, since having a clear main point (or “moral”) is not necessary for the successful construction of a prose fiction piece, an author won’t always state the main point or communicate his or her perspective directly in the introduction or conclusion.

This rule is generally useful for finding main point / author perspective of the full passage; however, when finding the main point of a single paragraph this rule is not always so clear cut. Sometimes there will be words in the middle of a paragraph that change direction. In those cases, the discussion will shift from “we used to believe this” but “now we know that”. These “they say/I say” shifts are essential to understanding the main point. If you are only focusing on the introduction and conclusion sentences, you might miss these words. Last sentences frequently take the argument to its broader context by discussing something that goes a step beyond what was already stated in the paragraph.

Introduction and conclusion sentences are still a good place to start. If introduction and conclusion sentences contradict each other, it is a sign that you need to dig deeper into the passage / paragraph to find any hidden “shift” words and to understand the main point.

Use Key Words

You probably understand that it makes sense to note that something is important if the author specifically says it is. However, you can often uncover key information by paying attention to transition words – i.e. words or phrases that signal a change in direction. For example, “conversely,” “in contrast,” “alternatively,” “while,” “however,” etc.  These words can be important because they signal a shift (addition or contradiction) to what was said before.

Key words can help you get to the main point of the passage by helping you avoid the trap of just reading the first sentence of a paragraph and assuming that is what the rest of the passage will be about. Let’s take a look at an excerpt from a real ACT test.

The beginning of the paragraph talks about how the Equator has the longest distance on Earth. If you look at line 21, you will notice the transition word “however.” This word signals a shift in the information.  The text that follows talks about the longitude of Earth at different places away from the Equator. Never leave a passage or decide on an answer (especially a vague one) without checking contrasting transition words.

Answer in Your Own Words

Whenever you come across a Big Picture question, try to predict the answer before looking at the answer choices. The answer choices for most Big Picture questions can be wordy and confusing. They can include answers that COULD BE true but are not supported. It would be extremely beneficial to you to come up with a possible answer to each Big Picture question by relying on your understanding of what you read in the passage or paragraph and then matching the answer choices in the test to an answer that you came up with.

If you use this strategy, you must be careful to not oversimplify answers in your own words. Remember, the central argument is the point the author is making, not a general topic or theme. Be precise but use as few words as possible to write down your own answer. If this seems difficult – practice makes all things a lot easier.

Summary: Big Picture Questions

Now that we’ve talked about types and strategies for answering Big Picture questions, let’s summarize.

Big Picture questions occur in two different ways:

  • Main point
  • Author perspective
How to Answer Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading:
  • Look at the conclusion and introduction sentences
  • Make sure to skim for “shift” words that signal change in direction
  • Answer Big Picture questions in your own words based on your understanding of the passage / paragraph.
  • Be concise, but don’t oversimplify
  • Find an answer that most closely matches your answer

Remember, Big Picture questions require you to answer the question: “what is the main point?” Knowing the main point and/or author’s perspective of a passage or paragraph can be helpful for answering other types of questions, such as function and author technique questions. Sometimes, knowing the main point and/or author’s perspective can be helpful in answering little picture, inference, and vocabulary in context questions.

Regardless of what reading approach you take, make sure to look at the introduction and conclusion sentences. Look for “shift” words, and answer questions in your own words. Then, look for a matching answer among the choices presented on the test.

Next Steps

Do these strategies make sense in theory … but in practice you always run out of time on ACT Reading? Read this article to find out how to stop running out of time.

Looking for more guides? Check out our articles on Small Picture questions, Vocabulary-In-Context questions, and Inference questions.

Do you know how to maximize your reading time on ACT? Read this guide on how to read passages more effectively.

Do you need to know every topic the ACT tests? Read all about it here.

Want to see a video explaining everything in this article? Check out my YouTube channel:

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