I don’t know about where you live, but things are really heating up this summer on the Upper Test Side as standardized tests (and the school year) are creeping closer and closer. And when I say “creeping,” I mean “flying at the speed of light since summer is an insane, paradoxical time vortex that is suddenly halfway over even though it just began.”

Today I’m giving you the scoop on one of the shadiest SAT Writing & Language question types out there: Development questions. And just what the heck is a Development question? According to the College Board, the goal of these questions is “refining the content of a passage to achieve the writer’s purpose.” Basically, our key word here is “content,” which leads into the reason these questions are so sneaky. Instead of looking for grammatical mistakes in the answer choices, you have to consider the ideas in each choice and choose the one that best meets the criteria mentioned in the question.

Here’s a sample Development question from College Board:

In the question above, notice that all answer choices are technically grammatically correct. Our only hope here is to think about the writer’s goal specified in the question.

So what should you do when you see a Development question on the test?

If you run into a Development question in the wild, don’t panic. Stay very still and hope it won’t notice you. It will only attack if provoked.


There’s actually a really simple approach to Development questions that will help you breeze right past them (think easy, breezy, Grammar Girl) and keep on rolling through the section:

Step 1: Notice the Development Question

Is the question asking about one of the main details of the passage? Is it asking which choice would best strengthen a claim? Or whether a sentence should be added or removed? Or is it asking you to interpret a graph or figure? If the answer to any of these is yes, you know you’re dealing with a Development question.

Step 2: Underline the Key Words

Since we can’t rely on grammar to help us, we start by finding the key words in the question. In the question above, our key words/phrases are “a third example of a detail” and “majestic city skylines.”

Step 3: Read the Context

Development questions are always based on the surrounding context, so you’ll need to read that context before looking at the answer choices. For our example in Step 2, we’d make sure to look at the beginning of the sentence and see what the first two examples of “majestic city skylines” are. For other Development questions, you may need to read much more than just one sentence—sometimes you’ll even be asked about the overall passage, in which case you’ll need to skim the whole thing.

Step 4: POE

After understanding both the question and the context, it’s finally time to look at the answer choices and apply the process of elimination. We’ll begin by crossing off the ones that don’t match up with the criteria we found in Step 2. In this case, choice C is not an “example of a detail” since it doesn’t actually mention anything specific. Buh-bye, choice C.

Finally, we think back to the context. The first two examples in the sentence were talking about big things like skyscrapers and bridges. Based on that, it makes sense for the third example to also mention a big detail that could be seen in a cityscape painting. Choice B is definitely a small detail (and so was choice A, which mentioned a “tiny cat prowling in the bushes”). Both of those choices get the chop.

Looks like we’re down to a final answer, and “enormous ships at urban ports” are definitely a large detail that could clearly fit into a cityscape.

So that’s pretty much it. Despite the College Board’s best efforts to be sneaky and slip these non-grammar questions into the Writing & Language Test, once you notice a Development question, you’ll be ready to follow those four little steps and deal with anything the test can dish out.

Stay tuned, my grammarlings. I’ll be back before you know it to spill those grammar beans to help get you one step closer to the SAT score that may finally earn you some collegiate love. Until next time.

X, O, X, and O,

Grammar Girl