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A Guide to Tackling the ACT Reading Section

Reading four lengthy passages and answering 40 questions in a short timespan of 35 minutes can seem overwhelming, especially if you are not familiar with the ACT Reading section and the many tricks that the ACT writers try to confuse test-takers with. However, a little review and practice of a few simple test-taking strategies will give you the skills and confidence necessary to tackle the ACT Reading section.

Strategy 1: Determine what your weaknesses areACT Reading Picture-page-0.jpg

As with any standardized test, it is always best to determine what you are up against and what your weaknesses are. First, you will need to complete an ACT Reading section in a timed setting. When taking this initial test, make sure that you are approaching it as if you’re taking the real test. If you happen to run out of time, record which question you are on when time runs up, and keep working on the practice test.

When scoring your practice test, take note that if you went over the allotted time, then the score that you received on the practice test is not a realistic score, and that your realistic score will likely be a little bit lower. After scoring your test, take note of the types of questions that you missed. Are they mostly inference questions, or detail questions? Did you spend a lot of time reading the passage? Did you struggle with time management? Was it difficult to interpret what the question was asking of you? Figuring out what your weakness is will help you to tackle those weaknesses and prepare strategically for the ACT Reading section.

Strategy 2: Determine the best passage reading strategy for you

There are many different popular strategies for how to read a passage and answer related questions. Some test-takers like to read the passage in detail before looking at and answering the questions. Other test-takers like to read the questions first, then read the passage in detail, and then answer the questions. Which strategy you should use to approach the reading section depends on your strengths and weaknesses, as well as on your preferences.

Read the passage in detail, then answer questions

This strategy is often used as a default, since it is what many students are taught in school. The advantage of this strategy is that you have read the passage in full, thus enabling you to have a very thorough sense of the passage. The disadvantage of this strategy is that it is more time consuming than skimming or scanning the passage.

Read the questions first, then read the passage

This strategy is a popular strategy since many students think that by reading the questions first, they are better able to pinpoint the answer in the passage when they are reading it. This strategy may be helpful to some since you know what the questions are asking before you read the passage; however, the disadvantage of this strategy is that you will inevitable have to read the questions twice, thus making you do double work. Another disadvantage of this strategy is that you spend more time reading a passage in detail than by skimming the passage.

Skim the passage first, then answer questions

This strategy is the most effective strategy if you have strong skimming capabilities. By skimming the passage, you are able to garner the main idea, purpose, and keywords of the passage in a short amount of time. Skimming allows you more time to carefully answer each questions, or provide you with a little extra time to quickly consult the passage before answering a question. If you don’t have strong skimming skills, you can develop this skill by practicing skimming on articles and other reading passages.

Experiment with these three strategies for tackling the ACT Reading section and figure out which one is the best for you.

Strategy 3: Familiarize yourself with the types of questions presented on the ACT Reading Section

The ACT is predictable in the types of questions that they pose to test-takers. Most questions will ask you to do one of the following:

  • Identify and interpret details
  • Determine the main idea of a paragraph, paragraphs, or passage
  • Understand comparative relationships (compare and contrast)
  • Understand cause-and-effect relationships
  • Make generalizations
  • Determine the meaning of words from context
  • Understand sequences of events
  • Draw conclusions about the author’s voice and method

This list covers the most frequently asked questions. The ACT does ask a few questions that aren’t specified in this list, but you shouldn’t worry too much about that since you’ll be able to find the answer in the passage for any question asked of you. I recommend becoming familiar with each of these question types, determine which areas are your weakness, and drill out your weakness by answering many practice problems in that area.

Strategy 4: Determine the main idea of each paragraph

One strategy that I use very often, especially on the Humanities, Social Studies, and Natural Sciences passage on the ACT Reading section is to underline the main idea, or the topic sentence, of each paragraph. This strategy helps to ground me in the ‘big picture’ and purpose of the paragraph, and of the passage as a whole. While using this strategy, it is more difficult to get distracted by supplemental details or get confused by answer choices that are incorrect.

Strategy 5: Eliminate wrong answer types

Often times, the writers of the ACT exam try to trick test-takers to choose an answer choice that is partially correct, instead of choosing the best answer choice. In order to avoid falling prey to this trick of theirs, make sure that you carefully read each answer choice and ask these three questions before selecting the correct answer:
  • Is this answer choice too specific?
  • Is this answer choice too broad?
  • Does this answer choice reverse the relationship of issues or events?
  • Does this answer choice introduce a new idea?
  • Does this answer choice present an unrelated concept or object?

If an answer choice does any one of the aforementioned things, then it is probably an incorrect answer choice and you should eliminate it.

Strategy 6: Tackle the Reading Section

As always, the only way to improve your performance at anything is to practice, practice, practice! Take practice ACT Reading tests often and make sure that you understand every question that you answered incorrectly, and why you answered it incorrectly. As you review the questions that you answered incorrectly, make sure to write down how you will attack this type of question differently in the future. It is imperative that you understand why the correct answer is the best answer choice, and the reason behind why you chose an incorrect answer choice. The more and more you review why you answered a question incorrectly and how to tackle it in the future, the less likely you are to repeat the same mistake, and the more likely that you are to answer a similar question correctly in the future.