You might imagine the ACT Reading section as some sort of vague, unpredictable undertaking that you can’t really prepare for. Yet it’s more predictable than you’d think—unlike SAT Reading, you know exactly what to expect on the ACT. You’ll have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions, split between 4 passages. Even the genres are fixed: you’ll have one passage (or, less often, a pair of shorter passages) of about 750 words reflecting each of the following categories: natural science, humanities, literary fiction, and social studies. With just under 10 minutes for each passage and set of questions, time management is crucial.
You know your reading style best, so if an old-fashioned read-through without previewing the passage works for you, use it! But, if you’re like many students, you may struggle to retain information or finish in time with this method. Don’t worry—there are other ways! I’m going to outline a 4-step method for approaching the passages that I’ve seen succeed for many students and that can work for you, too:
Step 1: Don’t Ditch the Description
It’s easy to feel like you’re being thrust into the middle of an unfamiliar book on a far-removed topic when reading an ACT passage. Reading the short introductory description that precedes each passage can help you find your footing and provide valuable context. For one, knowing the genre can help you gauge the tone. A social studies or natural science passage, for example, will be objective and academic, whereas a literary fiction piece will have more personality. The description will also provide a gist of the passage’s focus. Don’t expect it to do any heavy lifting for you when answering main idea questions, but do spend the 10 seconds it takes to read it—you’ll get a sense of what to expect in terms of content.
Tip: If you are more experienced with certain genres, you can always begin with those passages. You are not required to complete passages in order, and you’ll typically perform better on passages you are more comfortable with.
Step 2: Skim for the Skeleton
You might recall using a 5-paragraph essay format in grade school in which the first sentence of each line was the main idea of the paragraph and the first and last paragraphs contained the main idea of the essay. Treat the ACT passages similarly. Before engaging in a thorough reading of the passage, take a minute to preview the main components: the introduction, the conclusion, and the topic sentence of each paragraph. This “skeleton skim” will help you better comprehend the content during a second detailed reading.
Step 3: Consult the Questions
After skimming the passage, preview the questions to get an idea of which details to look for on your detailed reading. If a question cites lines or paragraph numbers (which is often the case for explicit detail or vocabulary questions), mark these lines or paragraphs in the passage with the corresponding question number to save time referring to them later. Creating this initial connection between the passage and questions will help you recognize relevant details and answer questions more quickly.
Step 4: Dive into a Detailed Reading
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself through the introduction, skimmed for the main points of the passage, and previewed the questions you’ll need to answer, you’re prepared to closely engage the passage and answer the questions. Remember that you can mark up your test booklet. Scribble notes in the margins about author or character viewpoints and about central events or details. You may even want to sketch quick diagrams to visualize complicated relationships. In a science passage, for example, jotting down a timeline of events, using arrows to show cause-effect relationships, or sketching diagrams (such as of molecules or layers of earth) based on details you encounter as you read can save you time trying to “reconnect the dots” later.
Hint: Be careful about answering questions as you read. This works fine if you are tackling questions whose answers do not depend on a full reading (ex. vocabulary in context questions or explicit detail questions), but save questions that refer to the broader scope of the passage for after you’ve read the whole passage. You may slip up on main idea, inference, and application questions if they depend on details in other parts of the passage—and you may not know that they do until you’ve read the whole thing. If you find distinguishing answer-as-you-go questions tricky, play it safe and tackle all the questions after you’re done reading.
As cliché as it sounds, practice makes perfect when it comes to standardized testing. Use these reading strategies with as many sample passages as possible and time yourself to get a feel for the pressure. Plan—don’t wish—your way to a 36!