Once you have a firm grasp on how the ACT Reading section is set up, the next step is mastering the best strategies for the section. Part of the shortcut to getting a good score on the ACT Reading section is understanding how to balance taking the time to find all the necessary information in the passage with moving quickly enough to finish within the challenging time limit. Here are some of the best strategies to approach the ACT Reading section.
ACT Reading Strategy #1: Use the Two-Pass Method
As a general rule in all sections of the ACT, you should strive to address the section in the way that makes the most sense for you, not necessarily in the way the test lays it out for you. In the Reading section, that concept applies primarily to the order in which students approach the questions.
As we discussed in the post that covered the structure of the section, the questions in ACT Reading can be divided up into two general categories: broad questions and narrow questions. Broad questions require you to understand a substantial portion of the passage to be able to answer them, while narrow questions can be answered with a relatively small amount of reading, ranging from a sentence to a couple of paragraphs.
The ACT frequently front-loads its passages – putting the broad questions at the beginning and the narrow questions after – in order to make students think that they need to read the entire text before they can start the questions. In reality, though, it pretty much always makes more sense to do the narrow questions first. That allows you to build your understanding of the passage while reading the bare minimum; then, when you move to the broader questions, you can use the themes you discovered in the process of answering the other questions to make the broad questions quick and easy.
You should start each Reading passage by quickly sorting the questions into two buckets: first-pass (narrow) questions and second-pass (broad) questions. Then, answer the first-pass questions in order of what portion of the passage they ask about before finishing with the second-pass questions. For a more detailed look at the two-pass method, one of the best strategies for the ACT Reading section, check out the ACT Fundamentals videos in our Rapid Prep course!
Reading Strategy #2: Read Like A Robot
Relatively early in almost every program, while I’m reviewing a Reading passage with the student, I hear some variation of this statement: “That answer can’t be right, it’s too obvious.” My response? “That means it’s even more likely to be right.”
Here’s what you have to remember about ACT Reading: this section moves fast. Sure, if you’ve been paying attention, you already knew that, but you probably haven’t thought about the trickle-down effects of that fact. Because the pace of the section is so aggressive, the ACT can’t also make the questions super in-depth and intricate; otherwise, almost nobody would get many right, and that would screw up their data. So they have to craft questions that are possible to answer correctly in a short amount of time, and that means building in shortcuts.
The most significant of those shortcuts is the superficiality of the questions. Most problems in this section require next to no analysis, or really any thinking of any sort; they’re essentially just ‘scavenger hunts’ that ask you to find a particular piece of information in the passage, bring it back to the question, and match it to the correct answer choice. So to get a good score on the ACT Reading section, don’t think about how you would analyze the text in your English class. Instead, just choose the answer that most closely corresponds to the idea or detail in the text for each question. And if you catch yourself thinking “this answer is too obvious to be right” – that’s probably the right answer!
Reading Strategy #3: Read for Context
One of the ways that the ACT introduces some amount of misdirection to their questions is through the use of context. You’ll notice when working through a passage that several of the questions flat-out tell you where in the text to look. For example, the omnipresent vocab-in-context question: “In line 11, the word funktastic most nearly means which of the following?”
The line numbers they give you in these questions and others like them aren’t exactly wrong, but they are… let’s say ‘misleading.’ Typically, the line number in the question refers to the line that contains the exact word or phrase the question is asking about; however, that’s not all that is necessary to get the correct answer. Most of these questions require you to understand how that word or phrase fits into what’s around it so that you can interpret it correctly.
As a rule, you should read a few sentences above and a few sentences below any line number that is given to you in a question. So if we really want to understand how the author is using ‘funktastic’ in our earlier example, we might want to start by reading lines 8-14; if that still doesn’t feel like quite enough information, we can seek out more as needed.
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And that wraps up our summary of the best strategies and shortcuts for the ACT Reading section. If you follow this approach to the section and practice it consistently, you’ll be in a great position to get a good score on ACT Reading. If you’d like more specific advice on how best to approach the ACT Reading section or strategies in any other area of the test, head over to Inspirica’s ACT headquarters. We offer a diverse range of ACT prep options to fit a ton of different timelines and budgets, and our squad of test gurus would love to help you crush the ACT.