SAT Reading: Guide to Historical Document Passage

tl;dr:The SAT Reading Section's second passage is usually about a historical document. In this article, we'll cover how to read the passage and answer questions. Topics are easy to find, but you'll have to read carefully due to old language. Questions may include connections and vocab-in-context. To answer connection questions, use keywords such as "caused by" or "similar." For vocab-in-context questions, try filling in the blank with your own vocabulary and choose the closest word choice. With practice and the strategies outlined here, the historical document passage will be a breeze!


Welcome to the (usually) second passage of the SAT reading section! In this article, we’ll be looking into how to read the historical document passage and going over some connections and vocab-in-context questions!

The historical document passage usually comes with a single passage or a paired set. Sometimes, the approaching style might be slightly different, but we will use a single-passage example here.

These passages will always have a clearly stated topic, a defined scope and a specific purpose. On one side, it’ll be easy to know what the theme is without much inference needed. If you don’t like the inferring stuff, you might find these easier! On the flip side, these are excerpts from historical documents with old language, so you’ll have to read a little more carefully and deliberately.

Passage Example #1

Here is the sample passage we will be working with today.

The following passage is an adaptation of an excerpt from “Up From Slavery: An Autobiography” by Booker T. Washington.

My own belief is, although I have never before said so in so many words, that the time will come when African Americans in the South will be accorded the political rights which his ability, character and material possessions entitle him to. I think, though, that the opportunity to freely exercise such political rights will not come in any large degree through outside or artificial forcing, but will be accorded to African Americans by white people themselves, and that they will protect him in exercise of those rights. Just as soon as the South gets over the old feeling that it is being forced by “foreigners,” or “aliens” to do something which it does not want to do, I believe that the change in the direction that I have indicated is going to begin. In fact, there are indications that it is already beginning to a slight degree.

Passage and Questions from Kaplan Prep Book

And as you read through this, you should remember to answer a couple of questions.

What is the topic of the passage?

Try to identify the topic of the passage. You can usually find this in the first paragraph (and in the thesis sentence). If you think you’ve seen it, underline it, highlight it, or circle it so that you can refer to it anytime.

In the case of the passage, the author believes rights for African Americans will come. The topic is about the author’s own beliefs and views on African American rights.

What is the topic sentence of each paragraph?

Each paragraph is a separate paragraph for a reason - which means you should always look for why that paragraph deserved its own section. What role does this paragraph play? Does it provide evidence to support a previous claim? Or does it introduce new claims? Try asking yourself and these questions and figuring out the essential details within the passage.

What is the purpose of the passage?

Why did the author decide to write on this topic? Though it might be hard to answer, most purposes are relatively common. Some authors have the purpose to inform, to refute, to promote, to explore, etc. Knowing precisely the purpose of the passage is critical to answering most of the questions.

In the example passage, the author writes to explore his different thoughts on slavery and African American rights. He thinks that change will begin soon when the South doesn’t feel forced to change.


Now let’s look at some practice questions!

Question #1

1. This passage can best be described as

a) description of a state of affairs intolerable to the author.

b) statement of belief about society and how it will change.

c) a declaration of basic rights and a roadmap to achieve them.

d) a call to action to correct an injustice.

If you would like to check the answer right away, skip this paragraph. If not, this is a general walk-through of one’s thought process. The question asks about the passage as a whole (theme, topic, purpose). We’ve concluded that the theme of the passage was that the author believes African American rights will come soon. Essentially, the author is saying that change will happen. Remember, the two keywords are belief and change. And there is an answer choice that contains both keywords! 🙌

Answer: B

That was pretty easy, wasn't it? Well, let’s look at the next question.

Question #2

2. According to the passage, “the political rights” mentioned will come about through

a) increased political pressure on those denying the rights.

b) additional laws mandating those rights.

c) peer pressure designed to embarrass anyone denying those rights.

d) a natural evolution of society.

If you first glance at this, the answer choices all seem possible. But one thing that we have to keep in mind is that the author thinks the South feels forced. This is really a key idea because, though the excerpt generally talks about rights, the author believes rights will be achieved naturally after the South feels less forced. So we can rule out choices A and B. C might seem like the answer, but peer pressure essentially is just being forced. Therefore, C can also be ruled out.

Without the process of elimination, you can note that the opposite of being forced is doing something naturally, which matches choice D.

Answer: D
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Connection Questions

Connection questions can be one of the hardest questions since you need to infer explicit and implicit connections. These questions will ask you about how two events, characters, or ideas are related. The three common types are cause-and-effect, compare-and-contrast, and sequential.

Cause-and-effect connections require you to identify the action or condition that resulted in a predictable result.

Keywords: caused by, results in, because, therefore

Compare-and-contrast connections require you to find the similarities or differences between two events, characters, ideas, etc.

Keywords: similar, different, despite, like

Sequential connections describe the chronology of the items.

Keywords: first, second, following, after

Aside from these, you’ll also encounter explicit and implicit connection questions.

Explicit connection questions ask you about (obviously) explicit information. Usually, the question will provide one part of the relationship, and you’ll find the other. The correct answer will be very similar to the wording of the passage.

Implicit connection questions will ask you to identify how things are related. This will not be directly stated in the passage, so wording will not always be similar.

Vocab-in-Context Questions

Vocab-in-context questions require you to deduce the meaning of a word or phrase using context. But it isn’t impossible without knowing the meaning of the word if you’re good with finding context clues! It will also use some top-notch vocab words, so memorizing a little bit of vocabulary before the SAT can also help as well!

When answering these questions, first pretend the word is blank in the sentence and try to substitute your own word into the sentence. This can help you get a general idea of what type of word would actually be used. Then, try to check if any of the answer choices match your prediction.

If this doesn’t really pinpoint an answer, try to guess for a word the “feels” right. Your brain might not know, but that doesn’t mean you can't trust your guts! But this doesn’t always guarantee a correct answer, so only use this strategy when you really really don’t know the answer.

Passage Example #2

The following excerpt is from a speech delivered in 1873 by Susan B. Anthony, a leader in the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century.

Friends and fellow-citizens: I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last Presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any State to deny.

The preamble of the Federal Constitution says: “We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens not yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people - women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government - the ballot.

For any State to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people is a violation of the supreme law of the land. By it the blessings of liberty are forever withheld from women and their female posterity. To them this government had no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. To them this government is not a democracy. It is not a republic. It is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy to sex; this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husbands, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household - which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord and rebellion into every home of the nation. Webster, Worcester and Bouvier all define a citizen to be a person in the United States, entitled to vote and hold office.

The one question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no State has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several States is today null and void, precisely as is every one against African Americans.

Passage and Questions from Kaplan Prep Book


Some more practice questions!

Question #1

1. In paragraph 1, “exercised” most nearly means  

a) used.

b) practiced.

c) angered.

d) trained.

As you can tell, this is a vocab-in-context question. If you’ve identified what type of question this is, try using the strategy of coming up with your own synonym. Pretend that the word “exercised” is blank and replace it with a synonym that matches the context. Then, see if it matches any of the answer choices!

Answer: A

If you couldn’t figure it out with the strategy above, there are still other ways to find the correct answer! First, you can obviously cross out C because it doesn’t match the context. Then, try replacing “exercised” with A, B, and D. You’ll notice that D doesn’t make sense either. Now you're left with A and B. B could make sense, it does fit the context, but a better choice that replaces “exercised” is A because “exercised” means “acted within,” and this matches A better than B.

Question #2

2. The author suggests that without the lawful right to vote, women

a) can still hold elected office.

b) cannot be considered citizens.

c) can still receive the blessings of liberty.

d) cannot consent to be governed.  

This is an implicit connection question because the keyword “suggests” refers to an inference needed to be made. Lok for the paragraph that talks about “disfranchisement,” which means the inability to or being deprived of the right to vote. This is discussed in paragraph 4. If you look at paragraph 4, you’ll see some phrases like “government had no just powers derived from the consent of the governed.” So, the answer is clearly D! However, be careful of choice B. Though this seems convincing (as this is mentioned several times), this is not the correct answer because the author doesn’t state that women aren’t citizens. The author clearly says that because women are citizens, they should have the right to vote, not the other way around. This is a very sneaky example of what you should be careful of. Make sure to always check what the cause is and what the result is.

Answer: D

Question #3

3. Based on the passage, which of the following is necessary to secure the blessings of liberty?

a) a republic

b) the ballot

c) a constitution

d) the people

This is an explicit connection question because there is the phrase “based on the passage,” which points out that this is an explicit passage. The question asks for the relationship between securing liberty and something else, so your job is to fill in that something else. This is mentioned in the last sentence of the third paragraph. Since explicit connection questions have similar wordings to the answer choices, you should arrive at the answer.

Answer: B


That’s it! You went through the second type of passage out of four, which means you’re halfway through!

Keep in mind that historical document passages aren’t that hard!! Even if they seem scary, just approach it as if you were reading a book. Remember to look out for the topic of the passage, the topic sentences of each paragraph, and the purpose of the passage.

For connection questions, keep an eye open for any relationships you see with specific ideas or events. Remember, you should approach implicit and explicit connection questions a bit differently.

For vocab-in-context questions, pretend the word is blank and try to fill it up with your own vocabulary that makes sense to you!

And lastly, remember the different types of questions as well and how to approach them. It’ll definitely help you on exam day!

Keep up that pace! You got this 😎

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