SSAT Middle Level Reading : Understanding and Evaluating Opinions and Arguments in Argumentative Humanities Passages

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

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Example Questions

Example Question #1 : Evaluating Argument Reasoning

"Newton's Mistakes" by Daniel Morrison (2014)

Isaac Newton has often been thought of as the greatest thinker in human history. His insight into the role that gravity plays in existence and physics completely changed our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it. He was understood in his own time as a genius. One famous quote by Alexander Pope (himself quite an intelligent man) demonstrates the deep affection felt for Newton: “Nature, and nature’s mysteries, lay bathed in night, God said 'Let there be Newton,’ and all was light.”

Yet, when the famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith purchased Newton’s journals and diaries at auction, he found to his astonishment, and partial dismay, that more than half of Newton’s work was dedicated to the practice of alchemy—the pursuit of turning ordinary materials into precious metals. Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.

Another famous story about Newton tells of his attempts to figure out the effect of direct exposure to sunlight on the human eye. To carry out this experiment he decided to stare at the sun for as long as humanly possible to see what would happen. The effect, as you might have guessed, was that he very nearly went permanently blind and was indeed completely unable to see for two days.

One might determine from these stories that Newton was not the genius we consider him to be—that he was, in fact, a fool; however, it should tell us something about the nature of genius. It is not merely deep intelligence, but the willingness to try new things and the rejection of the fear of failure. Newton was not a genius in spite of his mistakes, but because of them.

Why does the author believe that Newton’s attempts to turn ordinary material into precious metal was a waste of his time?

Possible Answers:

Because it caused Newton to neglect his family and his personal life

Because it distracted Newton from focusing on expanding his theories on gravity

Because it had already been achieved by other scientists

Because it is not scientifically possible to do so

Because his contributions to mathematics were far more important

Correct answer:

Because it is not scientifically possible to do so


When discussing Newton’s attempts to turn ordinary materials into precious metals, the author declares, “Our current understanding of science tells us that this is impossible and that Newton was wasting a significant proportion of his time.” This detail tells you that the author believes Newton was wasting his time because it is not “scientifically possible to do so.” You could say that it “distracted Newton from focusing” elsewhere, but this answer requires a little more inference than the correct answer, which is directly stated.

Example Question #1 : Understanding And Evaluating Opinions And Arguments In Argumentative Humanities Passages

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

Early humans did not know what time meant, but in a general way they kept track of the seasons. They had noticed that the cold winter was invariably followed by the mild spring—that spring grew into the hot summer when fruits ripened and the wild ears of corn were ready to be eaten and that summer ended when sudden gusts of wind swept the leaves from the trees and a number of animals were getting ready for the long hibernal sleep.

But now, something was the matter with the weather. The warm days of summer had come very late. All the time the days grew shorter and the nights grew colder than they ought to have been.

It began to snow. It snowed for months and months. All the plants died and the animals fled in search of the southern sun. The early humans hoisted their young upon their backs and followed them. But they could not travel as fast as the wilder creatures and he were forced to choose between quick thinking or quick dying. They seem to have preferred the former, for they have managed to survive the terrible glacial periods which threatened to kill every human being on the face of the earth.

First, it was necessary that early humans clothe themselves lest they freeze to death. They learned how to dig holes and cover them with branches and leaves, and in these traps they caught animals, which they then killed with heavy stones and whose skins they used as coats for himself and their families.

Next came the housing problem. This was simple. Many animals were in the habit of sleeping in dark caves. The early humans now followed their example, drove the animals out of their warm homes and claimed them for their own.

In this way thousands of years passed. Only the people with the cleverest brains survived. They had to struggle day and night against cold and hunger. They discovered fire. They were forced to invent tools. They learned how to sharpen stones into axes and how to make hammers. They were obliged to put up large stores of food for the endless days of the winter and they found that clay could be made into bowls and jars and hardened in the rays of the sun. And so the glacial period, which had threatened to destroy humanity, became its greatest teacher because it forced humans to use their brains.

The first paragraph is primarily designed to __________.

Possible Answers:

establish mankind’s early understanding of the seasons

show how early humans lived

introduce early humans as very undeveloped

highlight human fear of winter

dramatize mankind’s fear of the unknown

Correct answer:

establish mankind’s early understanding of the seasons


In the first paragraph, the author is primarily establishing and emphasizing mankind’s early understanding of the progressions of the seasons. This is most clearly seen when the author says, “But in a general way they kept track of the seasons, for they had noticed that the cold winter was invariably followed by the mild spring.“ The purpose is to show how early humans understood what was happening when winter became perpetual, rather than temporary. The other answers are part of the meaning of the first paragraph or the passage, but not its primary emphasis.

Example Question #21 : Contemporary Life Passages

"Addictions" by Matthew Minerd (2013)

Addictions come in many forms, often quite hidden from those who should be aware of them. It is helpful to be aware of how hidden these obsessive behaviors can be. Often, they appear to be harmless, but this appearance is deceptive.  Perhaps several examples can assist in increasing the reader’s awareness of these potentially problematic habits. 

A very simple example of such an apparently innocuous addiction is the addiction that many people have to a beverage like coffee. While not as destructive as an addiction to alcohol, an extreme need for caffeine often covers a need for more sleep or an overzealous desire to be completely energetic at every waking moment. Also, a great deal of caffeine can potentially do damage to one’s heart due to the stress caused by its stimulating effects. 

Another example of a seemingly harmless addiction can be found in the case of people who are addicted to work. It is very tempting to praise such obsessive behavior, as it provides many benefits for others and even for the one doing the work. The advancement of a career certainly seems beneficial and often allows for great personal and financial fulfillment. Nevertheless, constant work often hides some sadness, insecurity, or fear that should be confronted by the person who slaves away without cessation. Likewise, over time, such continuous work often can be greatly destructive of important personal relationships.

Of course, many more examples could be brought forth, for one can obsess over almost anything. Still, even these two simple examples should make clear to the reader that it is possible for there to be apparently harmless—indeed, seemingly helpful—life practices that in reality can pose a potential harm to one’s physical or mental well-being.

What is different about the way that the author presents addiction to work and addiction to coffee?

Possible Answers:

In the case of work, he denies the negative aspects on the whole.

In the case of caffeine, he focuses only on physical damage that can occur.

There are no significant differences in presentation.

In the case of work, he notes that addiction to work can even appear to be a positive thing.

In the case of work, he ignores the psychological damage of such obsession.

Correct answer:

In the case of work, he notes that addiction to work can even appear to be a positive thing.


The only acceptable answer is the one that notes that the author remarks that obsession with work can often appear to be a good thing, something he does not do in the case of coffee. Among the wrong answers, there is a trap answer: "In the case of caffeine, he focuses only on physical damage that can occur." It is true that the author focuses on physical damage in the case of coffee but does not do so for work. Still, the author does not focus only on that even in the case of coffee.

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