SSAT Upper Level Reading : Determining Authorial Purpose in Narrative Social Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for SSAT Upper Level Reading

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Purpose And Effect Of Phrases Or Sentences In Social Science / History Passages

Adapted from "Co. Aytch," Maury Grays, First Tennessee Regiment; or, A Side Show of the Big Show by Samuel Rush Watkins (1900 ed.)

In giving a description of this most memorable battle, I do not pretend to give you figures, and describe how this general looked and how that one spoke, and the other one charged with drawn saber, etc. I know nothing of these things—see the history for that. I was simply a soldier of the line, and I only write of the things I saw. I was in every battle, skirmish and march that was made by the First Tennessee Regiment during the war, and I do not remember of a harder contest and more evenly fought battle than that of Perryville. If it had been two men wrestling, it would have been called a "dog fall." Both sides claim the victory—both whipped.

I stood picket in Perryville the night before the battle—a Yankee on one side of the street, and I on the other. We got very friendly during the night, and made a raid upon a citizen's pantry, where we captured a bucket of honey, a pitcher of sweet milk, and three or four biscuits. The old citizen was not at home—he and his whole household had gone visiting, I believe. In fact, I think all of the citizens of Perryville were taken with a sudden notion of promiscuous visiting about this time; at least they were not at home to all callers.

At length the morning dawned. Our line was drawn up on one side of Perryville, the Yankee army on the other. The two enemies that were soon to meet in deadly embrace seemed to be eyeing each other. The blue coats lined the hillside in plain view. You could count the number of their regiments by the number of their flags. We could see the huge war dogs frowning at us, ready at any moment to belch forth their fire and smoke, and hurl their thunderbolts of iron and death in our very midst.

I wondered why the fighting did not begin. Never on earth were our troops more eager for the engagement to open. The Yankees commenced to march toward their left, and we marched almost parallel to our right—both sides watching each other's maneuvers and movements. It was but the lull that precedes the storm. Colonel Field was commanding our brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson our regiment. About 12 o'clock, while we were marching through a corn field, in which the corn had been shocked, they opened their war dogs upon us. The beginning of the end had come. Here is where Captain John F. Wheless was wounded, and three others, whose names I have forgotten. The battle now opened in earnest, and from one end of the line to the other seemed to be a solid sheet of blazing smoke and fire. Our regiment crossed a stream, being preceded by Wharton's Texas Rangers, and we were ordered to attack at once with vigor. Here General Maney's horse was shot. From this moment the battle was a mortal struggle. Two lines of battle confronted us. We killed almost everyone in the first line, and were soon charging over the second, when right in our immediate front was their third and main line of battle from which four Napoleon guns poured their deadly fire.

We did not recoil, but our line was fairly hurled back by the leaden hail that was poured into our very faces. Eight color-bearers were killed at one discharge of their cannon. We were right up among the very wheels of their Napoleon guns. It was death to retreat now to either side. Our Lieutenant-Colonel Patterson halloed to charge and take their guns, and we were soon in a hand-to-hand fight—every man for himself—using the butts of our guns and bayonets. One side would waver and fall back a few yards, and would rally, when the other side would fall back, leaving the four Napoleon guns; and yet the battle raged. Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since. The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces. The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons.

Our men were dead and dying right in the very midst of this grand havoc of battle. It was a life to life and death to death grapple. The sun was poised above us, a great red ball sinking slowly in the west, yet the scene of battle and carnage continued. I cannot describe it. The mantle of night fell upon the scene. I do not know which side whipped, but I know that I helped bring off those four Napoleon guns that night though we were mighty easy about it.

In the third paragraph, the information given serves to __________.

Possible Answers:

set the scene

exaggerate the details

criticize the leadership of the two sides

compare the armies

distinguish one side from the other

Correct answer:

set the scene


The third paragraph is used to set the scene of the battle, as it describes the layout of the enemy forces in relation to the forces on the side for which the narrator is fighting. What we are told by the narrator is specifically used to create a sense of the battlefield.

Example Question #2 : Summarizing And Describing Social Science / History Passage Content

Adapted from An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, (Late a Citizen of Bourbon County, Kentucky,) during his Captivity with the Indians, in the Years 1755, '56, '57, '58, & '59 by James Smith (1799; ed. Glugg & Eliott, 1834)

After the departure of these warriors we had hard times; and though we were not altogether out of provisions, we were brought to short allowance. At length Tontileaugo had considerable success, and we had meat brought into camp sufficient to last ten days. Tontileaugo then took me with him in order to encamp some distance from this winter-cabin, to try his luck there. We carried no provisions with us; he said he would leave what was there for the women and children, and that we could shift for ourselves. We steered about a south course up the waters of this creek, and encamped about ten or twelve miles from the winter-cabin. As it was still cold weather, and a crust upon the snow, which made a noise as we walked, and alarmed the deer, we could kill nothing, and consequently went to sleep without supper. The only chance we had, under these circumstances, was to hunt bear-holes; as the bears, about Christmas, search out a winter lodging-place, where they lie about three or four months without eating or drinking. This may appear to some incredible, but it is well known to be the case by those who live in the remote western parts of North America.

The next morning early we proceeded on, and when we found a tree scratched by the bears climbing up, and the hole in the tree sufficiently large for the reception of the bear, we then felled a sapling or small tree against or near the hole, and it was my business to climb up and drive out the bear, while Tontileaugo stood ready with his gun and bow. We went on in this manner until evening without success. At length we found a large elm scratched, and a hole in it about forty feet up, but no tree nigh suitable to lodge against the hole. Tontileaugo got a long pole and some dry rotten wood, which he tied in bunches with bark; and as there was a tree that grew near the elm, and extended up near the hole, but leaned the wrong way, so that we could not lodge it to advantage, to remedy this inconvenience he climbed up this tree and carried with him his rotten wood, fire, and pole. The rotten wood he tied to his belt, and to one end of the pole he tied a hook and a piece of rotten wood, which he set fire to, as it would retain fire almost like punk, and reached this hook from limb to limb as he went up. When he got up with his pole he put dry wood on fire into the hole; after he put in the fire he heard the bear snuff, and he came speedily down, took his gun in his hand, and waited until the bear would come out; when it did appear he attempted taking sight with his rifle; but it being then too dark to see the sights, he set it down by a tree, and instantly bent his bow, took hold of an arrow, and shot the bear a little behind the shoulder. I was preparing also to shoot an arrow, but he called to me to stop, there was no occasion; and with that the bear fell to the ground.

Being very hungry, we kindled a fire, opened the bear, took out the liver, and wrapped some of the caul-fat round, and put it on a wooden spit, which we stuck in the ground by the fire to roast; then we skinned the bear, got on our kettle, and had both roast and boiled, and also sauce to our meat, which appeared to me to be delicate fare. After I was fully satisfied I went to sleep; Tontileaugo awoke me, saying, "Come, eat hearty, we have got meat plenty now."

The next morning we cut down a lynn-tree, peeled bark and made a snug little shelter, facing the southeast, with a large log betwixt us and the northwest; we made a good fire before us, and scaffolded up our meat at one side. When we had finished our camp we went out to hunt; searched two trees for bears, but to no purpose. As the snow thawed a little in the afternoon, Tontileaugo killed a deer, which we carried with us to camp.

Sometime in February the four warriors returned, who had taken two scalps and six horses from the frontiers of Pennsylvania. The hunters could then scatter out a considerable distance from the winter-cabin and encamp, kill meat, and bring it in upon horses; so that we commonly, after this, had plenty of provision.

Which of the following sentences best summarizes the last paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The use of horses to transport meat had not been considered before this point.

The violence of the warriors outlined the cruelty of the hunting.

With the return of the hunters and their plunder hunting became more protracted.

The four warriors who returned signified a greater requirement for meat.

The homecoming of the fighters eased the process of hunting. 

Correct answer:

The homecoming of the fighters eased the process of hunting. 


The last paragraph details how the warriors return and make the process of hunting easier as their plunder of four horses means the men of the camp can hunt over a wider area. The answer choice "With the return of the hunters and their plunder hunting became more protracted" is incorrect, as “protracted” means drawn-out or time consuming.

Example Question #2 : Analyzing Main Idea, Theme, And Purpose In Social Science / History Passages

Adapted from The Man with the Muck-Rake by Theodore Roosevelt (1906)

There are in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, business, or social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in a book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.

The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity takes the form of slander he may be worse than most thieves. It puts a premium upon knavery untruthfully to attack an honest man, or even with hysterical exaggeration to assail a bad man with untruth. An epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character does no good, but very great harm. The soul of every scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or even when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.

The primary purpose of this passage is to __________.

Possible Answers:

urge truthful criticism of political immorality

discuss the art of lying

highlight the corruption in contemporary political practice

encourage the use of slander to bring about political change

discourage the common man from political participation

Correct answer:

urge truthful criticism of political immorality


The second paragraph focuses on emphasizing the importance of truthful criticism, as opposite to slanderous assailment. The first paragraph discusses the need to regulate and relentless expose the immorality of political and economic society. The correct answer then is that the primary purpose of this passage is to urge truthful criticism of political immorality. Of the four incorrect answer choices the only other possible answer could be: “to highlight the corruption in contemporary political practice.” But, this answer choice is too limited in scope and only references one aspect of the passage. Always choose the most comprehensive answer choice.

Example Question #2 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from "Crossing the Rubicon" in History of Julius Caesar by Jacob Abbott (1902)

There was a little stream in ancient times, in the north of Italy, which flowed eastward into the Adriatic Sea, called the Rubicon. This stream has been immortalized by the transactions which we are now about to describe.

The Rubicon was a very important boundary, and yet it was in itself so small and insignificant that it is now impossible to determine which of two or three little brooks here running into the sea is entitled to its name and renown. In history the Rubicon is a grand, permanent, and conspicuous stream, gazed upon with continued interest by all mankind for nearly twenty centuries; in nature it is an uncertain rivulet, for a long time doubtful and undetermined, and finally lost.

The Rubicon originally derived its importance from the fact that it was the boundary between all that part of the north of Italy which is formed by the valley of the Po, one of the richest and most magnificent countries of the world, and the more southern Roman territories. This country of the Po constituted what was in those days called the hither Gaul, and was a Roman province. It belonged now to Cæsar's jurisdiction, as the commander in Gaul. All south of the Rubicon was territory reserved for the immediate jurisdiction of the city. The Romans, in order to protect themselves from any danger which might threaten their own liberties from the immense armies which they raised for the conquest of foreign nations, had imposed on every side very strict limitations and restrictions in respect to the approach of these armies to the capital. The Rubicon was the limit on this northern side. Generals commanding in Gaul were never to pass it. To cross the Rubicon with an army on the way to Rome was rebellion and treason. Hence the Rubicon became, as it were, the visible sign and symbol of civil restriction to military power.

Why does the author discuss the geographical nature of the Rubicon at the beginning of the second paragraph? 

Possible Answers:

To contrast the smallness of its actual size with the massive effect it has had on history

To discuss the logistical problems faced by Caesar’s army

To illustrate how close the river was to the city of Rome

To defend against allegations that Caesar was an abhorrent tyrant

To demonstrate how simple it would have been for Caesar to cross the river

Correct answer:

To contrast the smallness of its actual size with the massive effect it has had on history


The author discusses the geographic smallness of the river to contrast the river's size with its historical significance. Immediately after remarking on the smallness of the river, the author states, “In history the Rubicon is a grand, permanent, and conspicuous stream, gazed upon with continued interest by all mankind for nearly twenty centuries; in nature it is an uncertain rivulet, for a long time doubtful and undetermined, and finally lost.” To provide further help, “conspicuous” means striking or easily noticed, and “rivulet” means small river.

Example Question #1 : Determining Authorial Purpose In Narrative Social Science Passages

Adapted from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1784)

At the time I established myself in Pennsylvania there was not a good bookseller's shop in any of the colonies to the southward of Boston. In New York and Philadelphia the printers were indeed stationers; they sold only paper, etc., almanacs, ballads, and a few common school-books. Those who loved reading were obliged to send for their books from England; the members of the Junto had each a few. We had left the ale-house, where we first met, and hired a room to hold our club in. I proposed that we should all of us bring our books to that room, where they would not only be ready to consult in our conferences, but become a common benefit, each of us being at liberty to borrow such as he wished to read at home. This was accordingly done, and for some time contented us.

Finding the advantage of this little collection, I proposed to render the benefit from books more common by commencing a public subscription library. I drew a sketch of the plan and rules that would be necessary, and got a skilful conveyancer, Mr. Charles Brockden, to put the whole in form of articles of agreement, to be subscribed, by which each subscriber engaged to pay a certain sum down for the first purchase of books, and an annual contribution for increasing them. So few were the readers at that time in Philadelphia, and the majority of us so poor, that I was not able, with great industry to find more than fifty persons, mostly young tradesmen, willing to pay down for this purpose forty shillings each, and ten shillings per annum. On this little fund we began. The books were imported; the library was opened one day in the week for lending to the subscribers, on their promissory notes to pay double the value if not duly returned. The institution soon manifested its utility, was imitated by other towns and in other provinces. The libraries were augmented by donations; reading became fashionable; and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observed by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries.

Franklin's primary purpose in starting the library was to __________.

Possible Answers:

make money from library subscriptions

buy more books for he and his friends to read

make books more readily available

make reading more fashionable

Correct answer:

make books more readily available


Franklin tells us he hoped to "render the benefit from books more common," which implies that he hoped to make books more readily available.

Example Question #12 : Isee Lower Level (Grades 5 6) Reading Comprehension

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 underlined proverb “the king has many eyes and many ears” is intended to demonstrate what?

Possible Answers:

The belief that Darius was a divine being

The fear that Darius inspired in his people

The malevolence and diabolical nature of the king 

The extent of Darius’ control 

The wisdom and benevolence of the king

Correct answer:

The extent of Darius’ control 


The revelation that it became a proverb to say “the king has many eyes and many ears” is offered immediately after an account of the extent of Darius’ power and control in the Persian Empire. For example, the preceding sentence says, “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.” Therefore, when the author reveals this proverb he is intending to add a little color to his portrayal of the extent of Darius’ control. 

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