How to Answer Small Picture Detail Questions on ACT Reading


How to Answer Small Picture Questions on ACT Reading.

Small picture questions account for a significant portion of the ACT Reading section. We have physically counted the number of small picture questions on the 6 published ACT practice tests. We found that small picture questions make up between 25 and 50% of ALL ACT Reading questions. This means that as you prepare for the ACT Reading, you should make sure that you can consistently find the detail needed to correctly answer small picture questions within the allotted time. The ACT Reading section has 40 questions and 35 minutes which is approximately 52 seconds per question. However, as we discussed here, how fast you really need to be going really depends on your target score.

In this article, we will define what is meant by “small picture” questions. We will describe the different ways the ACT Reading section will test your “small picture” finding skills. And we will provide examples and strategies that you can use to answer these types of questions

What are Small Picture Questions?

How to Answer Small Picture Questions on ACT Reading

Small picture questions are the types of questions that ask you to find specific details from the passage. The ACT will not ask you about obscure details. It will ask you about the details essential to understanding the passage. However, if you know these 4 ACT Reading strategies, you do not need to read the whole passage to find the details.

The ACT Reading will test a variety of skills (more in-depth discussion here). However, the skills that you must master to succeed with small picture questions are:

  • Find details within the passage and interpret them (usually in the form of paraphrasing)
  • Interpret sequence of events
  • Compare and contrast
  • Recognize and understand cause and effect relationships

Small picture questions use so many of the skills the ACT Reading section tests that if you learn how to handle small picture questions, you will be well on your way to understanding how to answer the other types of questions as well.

Let’s talk about the types of small picture questions and strategies for answering them.

Type 1: Finding the Detail

How to Answer Small Picture Questions on ACT Reading

The detail questions on ACT reading fall into two general categories:

  1. with line references
  2. without line references

Category 1: Follow the Line Reference

For these types of questions, you will be given a line or paragraph reference. Your job will be to find the details necessary to answer the question.

The difficulty level of this question depends on how complicated the passage is. Usually, understanding vocabulary-in-context will come in handy. If there is a word you don’t know,  use context clues and process of elimination to find the correct answer.

Here are examples of the way these questions might be phrased (all taken from real published ACT practice tests):


Category 2: Find Detail in the Unspecified Place

The information for these types of questions can be found anywhere in the passage. Sometimes you might be directed to a general area of a few paragraphs or more specific areas like the “end of the passage,” and sometimes you will not be given any clues. Because these questions require you to do more searching than the questions for which you are given a specific line reference, “find detail in an unspecified place” questions are relatively straightforward. You might be looking for specific words stated in the text or you might need to paraphrase.

The phrasing of small picture questions is what makes them different than inference or big picture questions. Inference or big picture questions will include the phrases “it can be inferred from the passage that” or “the passage suggests,” while small picture questions will be more direct.

Here are examples of the way these questions might be phrased (all taken from real published ACT practice tests):


Instead of using phrases such as “it can be inferred from the passage,” small picture questions use phrases such as “according to the passage” and “the narrator states.” Small picture questions do not ask you to make assumptions based on the text, they ask you to look for answers directly in the text.

Strategy: Finding the Detail

Exactly how you should handle small picture questions depends on the reading strategy that works best for YOU.

  1. Start by summarizing what information a specific question is looking for. For example,


What is the information that the passage looking for? Something that is an “anomaly.” Here, knowledge of vocabulary words may be important. “Anomaly” means something outside of the norm.

  1. Find where in the passage that information can be found (unless you are given line references) and read that information. The answers to these questions are frequently quoted directly from the passage or very closely paraphrased.

You can try to answer the question in your own words, but because the answer choices are sometimes taken word-for-word from the passage, this approach may be dangerous. The ACT will sometimes use words form the passage in reverse and trick  you into “this sounds right so I’ll just choose it” trap.

  1. If your approach is to carefully read the entire passage first, I recommend answering the big picture questions first and then moving on to small picture questions. This will allow you to understand the main ideas of the passage before moving on to the details.
  2. If your approach is to read the questions first and you have strong reading and comprehension skills, then you should start with small picture questions first.
  3. If your approach is to skim the passage, then answer questions – you should practice to determine which types of questions you should answer first. Skimming the passage can help you develop a mental map of where certain details might be found which would make it easier to answer detail questions; however, it can also give you enough understanding of the passage to get big picture questions out of the way first. Practicing will identify your strengths in this area.

Type 2: Use Multi-detailed Knowledge to Answer the Question

How to Answer Small Picture Questions on ACT Reading

These questions will ask you to find multiple details within a passage and compare these details in the following ways:

  1. “Except” and “Not” questions
  2. Order or List questions

Category 1: “Except” and “Not” questions

These small picture questions ask you to find the one thing that is NOT true / NOT specifically mentioned in the passage. These questions will appear at least once on every test.

Here are examples of the way these questions might be phrased (all taken from real published ACT practice tests):


Category 2: Order or List questions

Questions from this category ask you to pick an answer choice that either lists things, orders events, or satisfies specific criteria. To answer these questions correctly, you need to use the same skill set as for “Except” and “Not” questions. The main difference is that list and order questions are a little easier because their answers are wordier and, as we said above, if any of the information in the answer is wrong or in the wrong order, you can eliminate it.

Here are examples of the way these questions might be phrased (all taken from real published ACT practice tests):


Strategy: Consider Multiple Detail Questions

  1. Answering these questions uses the same strategy we discussed for answering Category 1: finding the detail questions. You must find the key words in the question, find the information in the text, and read the question slowly to make sure you know what is being asked.
  2. Use process of elimination. Every answer must have only one unambiguously correct answer. This means that if any word or phrase in the answer choice contradicts the information in the text – you can eliminate that answer immediately.
  3. Sometimes it is easier to answer Category 1 (small picture detail) questions before Category 2 (small picture multiple-detail) questions and big picture / inference questions. The reason for this is that while answering small picture detail questions you come across the parts of text that you will need for big picture / inference questions which ultimately gives you more understanding and makes it easier to answer big picture and inference questions.
Let’s illustrate this point with an example from a Real ACT test:


Here are the lines (77-79) referenced in the first question.


The first question is the small picture – find the detail question. You are given a line reference and you are supposed to paraphrase stated information.  The second question is the small picture – consider multiple details questions. If you read the lines referenced in the first question, you would have already gone over the three of the reasons the author cites as “causes of European food crises during the Little Ice Age” and the one reason that is not mentioned is the “exception,” i.e. the correct answer.

You have to realize, though, that these questions would not always appear next to each other (like they are here) so it’s not necessarily important to answer the questions in the order that they are presented in the passage. If you don’t remember where the information needed to answer the question is, check the line references provided in the other questions. One of the line references might provide you with the location of the necessary details.

Strategy: Consider Multiple Detail Questions (cont’d)

  1. If your approach is to carefully read the entire passage first, I recommend answering the small picture – consider multiple details questions first. Your memory will be fresh and it may be easier to determine the correct order of events or recognize which “except” and “not” answers did not appear in the passage. Once you’ve answered all of these questions, you can move on to small picture – find the detail questions.
  2. If your approach is to read the questions first and then look at the passage, I recommend answering the small picture – find the details questions first. Answering questions with line references will give you a better overall understanding of the passage. Once you understand the passage’s structure, you will have a better idea of where to look for the details mentioned in the answer choices.
  3. If your approach is to skim the passage first, then answer questions, I recommend practicing to determine which approach works best for you. Understanding of the overall passage structure might help you confirm some of the details, but it could also inundate you detail and make it harder to answer big picture questions.

Before you choose the approach that works best for you make sure to practice all of the approaches. Then,  choose the strategy that results in the highest score.

Small Picture Question: Fully Explained


Looking at the question, we see that the key words are “diminished excellence,” “flawed competence,” “different.” We are asked to look at the last paragraph and find why the author would think “diminished excellence” and “flawed competence” are different. Here’s the text:



After skimming this paragraph, I see the words “diminished excellence” and “flawed competence” mentioned in lines 76-80. Reading the lines closely, I realize that this is where the author contrasts these terms.  “Diminished excellence is a condition of the world and therefore never an occasion for sorrow, whereas flawed competence comes out of character and therefore is frequently the reason for the bowed head, the furrowed brow.”

So, according to the author “diminished excellence” is an external phenomenon and so you shouldn’t be sad.  While (the word “whereas” is used to show contrast) “flawed competence” is something internal that can make you sad.

Looking at the answer choices again:


We see that the only answer that contrasts environment (external) against the individual (internal) is choice H. It is the correct answer.

If you did not know what the word “inherent” means, find the correct answer by eliminating all the other choices. For example,

Choice F is incorrect because the quoted text does not mention anything about pride.

Answer Choice G is incorrect because while “family” can be understood as external. The author referred to the world at large (and other than a vague reference to a grandfather who painted houses yellow, there is no mention of family in the passage).

Choice J is incorrect because there was no mention of improving the world.

Make sure to practice answering these types of questions to improve memory retention, accuracy, and speed. These will ultimately help you achieve a better score on ACT English.

Next Steps

Do you need more helpful advice for ACT English? Read this article about vocabulary-in-context and big picture questions.

Looking for the best approach to ACT English? Read this article and find out which approach is right for you.

Looking for real ACT tests to practice your newly acquired knowledge? Here is a list of free published ACT exams.

Want to see video solutions to the free published ACT Exams? Check out my YouTube channel:


Previous Post
ACT Reading vs. SAT Reading: Which Is Easier
Next Post
How to Answer Big Picture Questions on ACT Reading