Is the ACT reading section the hardest part of the exam for you? Do you find yourself frustrated with reading the passages and trying to understand what they mean? This article breaks down the ACT reading section and highlights some techniques to boost your ACT reading score.

What ACT Reading Test Is Like

The ACT reading section is 35 minutes long and asks ten multiple-choice questions each about four passages, meaning that students must answer 40 questions in total. One of these passages will actually be composed of a pair of two shorter passages. Students should know that the ACT reading section generally follows a predictable order of passage types: prose fiction, social science, humanities, and natural science. This means that students can be well prepared for the types of questions and reading skills demanded by each type of passage.

The first passage in the ACT reading section covers prose fiction, and will probably be an excerpt from a larger short story, novel, or other work of fiction. Generally, students find this to be the easiest passage to read and understand because these works of fiction are intended for a general audience and do not contain technical terms. These passages are also written much more recently, so students should not have to worry about understanding an old-timey writing style.

After the prose fiction passage comes the social science passage. This passage will cover a topic within the fields of political science, economics, anthropology, education, history, or sociology. The organization of these types of passages have a logical sequence, such as introducing an issue, describing different perspectives or developments on the issue, and then wrapping up with a discussion of the current research or status on the issue.

The third passage in the ACT reading section is the humanities passage. The humanities passage is often a speech or personal essay or relate to other topics such as art, literature, ethics, or philosophy. This passage may even be from a past century, so students may find these difficult to read because of the older English style. If the humanities is an essay, memoir, or speech, it may contain literary devices such as similes, metaphors, or hyperboles that require students to make inferences about the author’s message.

The final passage in the ACT reading section covers a topic within natural science, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or technology. Students might find this passage especially tricky due to the technical language that is characteristic of the field and the detailed explanations of different scientific concepts. However, like the social science passage, this informational text will follow a logical progression that focuses on explaining a concept with clear topic sentences in each paragraph.

10 Helpful Tricks And Tips For Improving Your ACT Reading Score

#1: Get to know the structure of the test, so that you are not surprised by the length, structure, or layout of the ACT reading section on test day. Take plenty of practice exams so that you are familiar with the time constraints of the section and exactly how much time you need for each type of passage. Since the types of passages are different, the amount of time you take may differ for each passage, so familiarize yourself with whether you are more comfortable with certain types of passages. 

#2: Read the questions before the passages. This is one of the most important strategies for test-takers, because previewing the questions before delving into the passage will help students know exactly what to look for in order to answer the questions. Take a minute before reading the passage to glance at what the questions are asking and quickly mark up the passage accordingly. For example, if a question is asking about the main idea of the sixth paragraph, draw a giant bracket next to the sixth paragraph of the passage in your test booklet so that you have a reminder to pay special attention to that paragraph once you are reading the passage.

#3: Look for transition words. Transition words indicate a shift in the passage, such as “In conclusion” to signify the summarizing of main ideas at the end of a passage or “notably” to draw attention to an interesting piece of information. Get familiar with commonly used transitional words and their functions so that you can understand what they signal as you make your way through the passages.

#4: Make sure you underline everything that seems significant. The test booklet is your tool, so mark it up as much as you can with underlining, brackets, stars, scribbles, and other easy annotations. You might be wondering what exactly counts as significant enough to underline in the ACT reading section, but to refer back to the previous two tips, basically any line or paragraph that is the particular question or information that is preceded by a noteworthy transition word is worth underlining.

#5: Take note of the heading before the passage. Each passage will be preceded by a few short lines about the passage type, author, and other background information such as publication date or setting or context of the passage. Especially for the humanities passage, which can contain speeches or memoirs, knowing this background information can aid in your understanding of the passage’s main idea.

#6: Eliminate the wrong answers. Another common mistake on the ACT reading section is narrowing down all the answer choices to just two possible answers, and then choosing the wrong one. In order to avoid feeling confused between two answer choices, focus on ruling out answers you know are false by looking for specific text evidence to prove them wrong. Answer choices with generalizations that include words such as “always,” “never,” or “everyone” are usually worth scrutinizing to see if they can be ruled out.

#7: Skip complicated questions. The ACT reading section has intense time constraints with only 52 seconds per question, so if you find yourself stuck on a question for more than 90 seconds, skip it. Don’t waste time trying to figure out the harder questions when you can use the same precious time to get points for easier questions. After answering all the questions you are able to, come back and guess on all the questions that stumped you.

#8: Don’t panic if you don’t know the word. Questions on the ACT reading section require students to decipher the meaning of a word based on its context. It may feel alarming if you do not already know the meaning of the word, but these questions do not actually require you to have background knowledge on what difficult words mean. Rather, your job is to use context clues to figure out what the word means.

#9: Read, read, read! The ACT reading section is essentially a test of how fast and accurately you can understand and analyze a passage. Of course, the foolproof way to become a faster and more attentive reader is to read more! Try to make a habit of reading more in your daily life, whether nonfiction or fiction books or short stories, or even news and magazine articles about topics you like!

#10: Build the right ACT prep plan for you. Studying effectively means targeting your weakest areas. Whether you self-study or opt to purchase a tutoring service, make sure you know the part of the ACT reading section you struggle with the most, whether it is a type of passage or a style of question. 

What Is Skimming And How To Use It

Considering the intense time limit on the ACT reading section — just 34 minutes to answer 40 questions about four passages! — some students struggle to fully read and understand the passages. Students who can’t completely read the passages in the allotted time should consider a strategy called skimming. Skimming works as a time-management strategy for students who struggle with accurate reading comprehension in such limited time. In addition, some students may read the passage fully at first, but then go back and skim when they need to find a specific piece of information for a question.

Skimming is a way to quickly read text and selectively skip over certain parts of the passage that may not be crucial to grasping the main ideas of the text. It cuts down on reading time, which can be of use if students find themselves using up too much of their allotted time on understanding the passages. However, students should be cautious when they opt to skim rather than fully read the entire passage because they could easily pass over crucial information for answering the questions. After all, skimming is a skill that comes with practice as students learn what information to focus on and what to omit while reading.

In order to skim effectively, focus on the introductory and concluding paragraphs along with the topic sentences and last sentences of each body paragraph. Focusing on these specific sections and sentences while glancing over the other material should provide a basic main idea of the passage. Transition words such as “in summary” or “essentially” should mark the restating of important information. If you find that your skimming was unhelpful in answering a question about a particular part of the passage, go back and read more closely.

I typically advise my own students to fully read rather than skim the ACT reading passages, but for students who cannot genuinely read every word of the passages in the 35 minutes, skimming is the next-best alternative. When answering the questions after skimming, you might find yourself going back to the passage and re-reading sections multiple times if you did not understand the main idea of the passage in the first go. As a result, skimming should be a strategy to supplement your reading on the ACT, unless you are truly struggling with reading all four passages in the allotted time.

ACT Reading Strategies For Each Passage Type

Don’t focus on the plot in the prose section. While you may feel like every little detail in the first passage is crucial to answering the questions, the prose fiction passage actually tests understanding of bigger ideas such as sequence of events, drawing conclusions, or characterization and relationships between characters. When reading descriptions of settings or dialogue between characters, take note of what these details reveal about the overall takeaways of the passage, such as how a character feels or the tone of the situation.

Skimming and rephrasing in social science. Many of the questions in the social science passage will test your understanding of the information by asking questions about the author’s point of view or opinions they would agree or disagree with. To answer these questions, you should feel comfortable with reading the text and then putting the same concepts or ideas into your own words. This skill will allow you to test whether or not you are truly comprehending the information presented in the passage, especially when the author uses a lot of in-depth explanation to get across a simple point.

Understanding the subtext in humanities. The humanities passage usually has a passionate, even emotional, tone and plenty of ornate language and literary devices to bolster the author’s purpose and main points. Extracting the underlying main idea rather than getting caught up in the details of the language style is key to comprehending the humanities passage. To do so, make sure you take note of the heading preceding the passage and any context information it provides. For example, if the passage is a speech, the heading may describe the event and setting of the speech.

Focus on the main idea and the passage structure in natural science. It can be easy to get lost in the technical details and concepts of the natural science passage, but the most important part is to grasp the main idea that the author is conveying. Each paragraph of the passage will have a clear topic sentence before delving into the details that may be harder to understand. Take note of how the passage is organized — does the author highlight a central concept and then explain the history of its discovery, or are they describing different perspectives or elements of a topic? The passage structure will help you understand the passage in its entirety rather than feeling overwhelmed by the detailed information of the subject.

Find Out More ACT Tips For Reading With SoFlo

SoFlo ACT tutors are masters of the test who have achieved high scores and attend top universities. Check out our tutoring services for a virtual ACT tutor who will help you target your specific weaknesses on the ACT reading section.

About the Author

Masaraat Asif is from the Dallas area and currently attends Georgetown University, where she majors in Culture & Politics. At Georgetown, she helps with research at the Institute of International Migration, serves on the leadership board of Georgetown University Women of Color, and is a Pelosi Scholar. At SoFlo, she works one-on-one with students as a College Applications Counselor and SAT/ACT tutor, along with other projects such as writing blog posts and hosting webinars. 

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