ISEE Lower Level Reading : Analyzing Tone, Style, and Figurative Language in History Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ISEE Lower Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #3 : Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from Early European History Hutton Webster (1917)

It was the work of Darius to provide for his dominions a stable government which should preserve what the sword had won. The problem was difficult. The empire was a collection of many people widely different in race, language, customs, and religion. Darius did not attempt to weld the conquered nations into unity. As long as the subjects of Persia paid tribute and furnished troops for the royal army, they were allowed to conduct their own affairs with little interference from the Great King.

The entire empire, excluding Persia proper, was divided into twenty satrapies, or provinces, each one with its civil governor, or satrap. The satraps carried out the laws and collected the heavy tribute annually levied throughout the empire. In most of the provinces there were also military governors who commanded the army and reported directly to the king. This device of entrusting the civil and military functions to separate officials lessened the danger of revolts against the Persian authority. As an additional precaution Darius provided special agents whose business it was to travel from province to province and investigate the conduct of his officials. It became a proverb that "the king has many eyes and many ears."

Darius also established a system of military roads throughout the Persian dominions. The roads were provided at frequent intervals with inns, where postmen stood always in readiness to take up a letter and carry it to the next station. The Royal Road from Susa, the Persian capital, to Sardis in Lydia was over fifteen hundred miles long; but government couriers, using relays of fresh horses, could cover the distance within a week. An old Greek writer declares with admiration that "there is nothing mortal more swift than these messengers."

The tone of this passage could best be described as __________.

Possible Answers:

informative and authoritative 

disparaging and humorous 

critical and harsh 

aggressive and bellicose

enigmatic and emotive 

Correct answer:

informative and authoritative 


Okay, before we try to figure out the tone, let's define all the answer choices that are a little challenging. “Authoritative” means deriving power from authority; “informative” means imparting useful information; “disparaging” means mocking; “humorous” means funny; “bellicose” means war-like; “enigmatic” means mysterious; “emotive” means showing emotion; and “aggressive” means hostile and angry. Of these terms, it would be difficult to use any of the more emotional or strong terms because this is a historical passage, not a persuasive essay. The author’s tone could not be said to be “mocking,” “funny,” “critical,” “aggressive,” or “enigmatic.” Simply put, the author is presenting a brief historical account, so the tone best described as “informative” and “authoritative.”

Example Question #24 : Authorial Purpose

"The Holy Roman Empire" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

The Holy Roman Empire was somewhat unique among the various organized states of Middle and Early Modern Europe in that the Emperor was chosen by a group of electors. This is in stark contrast to the strict hereditary nature of English or French succession - where the position of monarch was handed down from the outgoing ruler to his closest legitimate heir, usually a son. In the Holy Roman Empire the Emperor was chosen by seven electors which in theory might seem to give the Empire a sort of early democratic flavor. However, in practice, only two or three families were ever able to draw on sufficient personal wealth to stand for election. Of these the Luxembourgs and the Hapsburgs are most well known. The Hapsburgs were so successful that they were able to maintain their “elected” position for almost four centuries. And, the Luxembourgs somehow still have a small country named after their family almost seven hundred years after their fall from dominance.

What can you infer about the author’s use of quotations around the word “elected”?

Possible Answers:

That he is deriding the influence of the Hapsburgs on European history

That he does not really believe the position of Holy Roman Emperor was truly an elected position

That he wishes to emphasize the personal wealth needed to stand for the position of Holy Roman Emperor

That he is mocking the Luxembourg family for their spectacular fall from grace

That he wants to highlight the democratic nature of the Holy Roman Empire

Correct answer:

That he does not really believe the position of Holy Roman Emperor was truly an elected position


When authors use quotation marks in text without actually describing something that someone has directly said, it is usually done to suggest that what the author is mocking or expressing his disbelief in something. So, when the author says, “The Hapsburgs were so successful that they were able to maintain their 'elected' position for almost four centuries," he really means that the position was clearly not an elected position.

Example Question #225 : Ssat Elementary Level Reading Comprehension

Adapted from The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon (1921)

I am going to take you to the top of the highest pyramid and I am going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk. Way, way off, in the distance, far beyond the yellow sands of the desert, you will see something green and shimmering. It is a valley situated between two rivers. It is the land of mystery and wonder which the Greeks called Mesopotamia—the "country between the rivers."

The names of the two rivers are the Euphrates and the Tigris. They begin their course amidst the snows of the mountains of Armenia and slowly they flow through the southern plain until they reach the muddy banks of the Persian gulf. They perform a very useful service. They turn the arid regions of Western Asia into a fertile garden.

The valley of the Nile had attracted people because it had offered them food upon fairly easy terms. The "land between the rivers" was popular for the same reason. It was a country full of promise and both the inhabitants of the northern mountains and the tribes which roamed through the southern deserts tried to claim this territory as their own and most exclusive possession. The constant rivalry between the mountaineers and the desert-nomads led to endless warfare. Only the strongest and the bravest could hope to survive, and that will explain why Mesopotamia became the home of very strong people.

When the author says he is “going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk,” he most nearly means __________.

Possible Answers:

He wants you to act like you can see back into the past.

He wants you to act like you know what goes on inside the mind of a bird.

He wants you to act as if you are as noble and wise as a hawk.

He wants you to pretend you can see over very long distances.

He wants you to pretend you can comprehend what it is like to fly.

Correct answer:

He wants you to pretend you can see over very long distances.


When the author says he is “going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk,” he means he wants you to “pretend you can see over very long distances.” Hawks have very good vision over long distances, and the author is creating a scenario whereby his audience is standing atop a pyramid in Egypt and looking all the way, across hundreds of miles, at the plains of Mesopotamia. This is most clearly shown in the sentence that follows the underlined text, where the author says, “Way, way off, in the distance, far beyond the yellow sands of the desert, you will see something green and shimmering.” The key phrase is “way, way off, in the distance."

Example Question #2 : Social Science Passages

"The Units of Ancient Warfare" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

The armies of the ancient world were generally composed of three distinct units who faced off against each other in a gigantic game of rock-paper-scissors. These were the infantry, cavalry, and slingers. The heavily armored but slow-moving infantry were able to fend off the cavalry with their long pikes, but were sitting ducks for the fast moving slingers who carried only a sling and a bag of small rocks. The slingers in turn were great at taking down infantry as they could out-maneuver them and never get bogged down in hand-to-hand combat, but were easily decimated by the rapidly advancing cavalry.

In this manner the history of warfare progressed for several thousand years. The slingers were replaced by archers, and then by heavily artillery; the cavalry constantly advanced in tactical awareness and arms; and the infantry progressed from swordsmen, to pikemen, to riflemen. Next time you are playing rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets the last slice of pizza, don’t forget that you are channeling your inner Scipio Africanus.  

The author’s underlined comment is most likely intended to add __________ to the passage.

Possible Answers:






Correct answer:



The passage as a whole is primarily academic and serious in tone; however, this comment contextualizes the lesson in a manner that the author probably considers relatable to the audience. Based on the contrast between the seriousness of the subject matter and the lightness of the battle over who gets the last slice of pizza, you can reasonably determine that the author is trying to inject “humor” into the lesson. “Gravity,” in this context, means significance or importance; “presumption” means assuming something to be true before you know the facts.

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