ACT Reading Section: What You Need To Know

In our English classes, our teachers have frequently told us to “go deeper” or to “go farther” or to “find our own analysis.” Those are great for English class. Don’t do that on the ACT.

While the ability to read and mostly understand short passages is a prerequisite for the reading portion of the ACT, it’s also a prerequisite for all sections of the ACT. In some ways, the ACT Reading section is simply about quickly finding information presented in paragraph form. If given sufficient time, the vast majority of students would get a near-perfect score. The main thing holding back most students’ accuracy on this section is the intense time pressure.

Is this an important skill that is important in our academic lives and about which colleges should care? No. But is it an important skill for our broader lives? Also, no.

The only thing of interest that many students find in the ACT Reading is within their own engagement with it. On other sections of the test, there are lots of ways I can be very specific in helping students: When you see punctuation on the English section, think about how your sentence is constructed. If you don’t know what to do on a geometry problem in the Math section, try to draw in a radius or make a triangle. Always do battling hypotheses passages last on the Science section.

For the reading, though, we need to be curious about how our brains process information and the principles of an efficient strategy design. While there is no right process that is going to work for everyone on the ACT Reading section, there are ways we can develop an approach that will work best for each of us.

Before we begin on our large-scale overview, I think it’s important to note a logical principle that must always be true: stronger claims require stronger evidence. If I claim that some ducks are purple, I need only show you one thing that both of us agree is a purple duck. If I claim that no duck is purple, then I have way more work to do. Whichever broad strategy you use, be sure to select answers that are the lowest common denominator. It can be tempting to select the answer that brings an analysis to the next level. Rather than going for an insightful answer, try to select an answer that is hard to prove wrong. Be wary of answer choices that contain universal qualifiers (words like all, none, never, always, each, every), words that imply necessity (must, can’t, etc.), superlatives (best, worst, anything-est) and strong emotions or judgments (outrageous, loathed). It isn’t that these answers are never correct; it’s just that they require explicit and stronger evidence than answers containing modest claims (some, might, suggests, considers, and the like).

The General A Personal Approach to the ACT Reading Section

Beyond filling in the correct bubbles, our goal on the Reading section, to the extent possible, is to read all and only the information we need for a specific question, once and only once, when it is most helpful to us. We then want to take the shortest path we can from available evidence to recognition of the correct answer.

To develop our approach to the ACT Reading section that meets these targets, let’s think granularly about what we can control, what we can’t, and what our goals are. Then, we can see how those principles can fit into your best ACT Reading strategy for breaking down passages and for answering questions.

What We Can Control on the ACT Reading

As is often the case on timed standardized tests, the order in which we attend to ACT Reading tasks is a big component of what we can control. In general, we want to do easy and fast things before hard and slow things. Often, students will approach questions in the order that they are given, which is, for the ACT, at best random. Remember that there are test writers who want you to get a good number of questions wrong. If you take the test section in the order that they present it, you are giving them a competitive advantage. The order in which you take questions is a choice, and thus should be done intentionally. 

We can also control the rate at which we read. Reading a text slowly once is often more efficient than reading it quickly multiple times. Paradoxically, reading slowly can often result in working more efficiently, and thus faster.

What We Cannot Control on the ACT Reading

We all have a threshold reading speed beyond which we’re unlikely to comprehend or retain more information. While I remain skeptically agnostic about speed-reading regimens and the like, I’ll say that I’ve worked with many students who have gotten 35s and 36s on the ACT Reading. Very few of them, if any, have used any such tactics to get their target scores.

Similarly, we all have different limits on our working and short-term memories. The research on working memory is basically … well, it’s not great news. There’s about 8 bits of data that we able to process at any given time. We all have pretty mediocre hardware, and there’s not much variation across our species on how many neurons we devote to this. Short-term memory is a bit more variable. Depending on our temperament, our verbal memory and performance can suffer due to common and predictable stressors.

Rather than wishing our brains were different, we can often make more progress acknowledging what we’re good at and leveraging that for areas of struggle. I tend to be a flexible thinker but with a poor memory, so I’ll tackle portions of the passages at one time. I have colleagues with better short-term memories who swear by reading the entirety of the passage before looking at questions at all.

Building an Approach to the ACT Reading Section

I often encourage students to think of themselves on a continuum. On one side is a caricature of a strategy in which I read every word, remember every word, and never look back at the passage. This has the advantages of giving me full context, making sure I don’t miss anything, having intuitive simplicity, and preserving time by reading everything once and avoiding needless scanning. The issue is that for most of us, it’s completely inaccessible, given our limits on attention spans, short-term recall, and the like. The other caricature of an approach would be to start with the first question, skim the passage until I find evidence I need, and then proceed to the next question. This has the advantage of keeping me agile and engaged while requiring little of my memory. The problem is that finding the information without context is time consuming, I may pull from the wrong portion of the test, and I often end up rereading portions of the text as I do ad-hoc searches for the info I need.

If your approach is near one of the poles, you’ll likely want to move a bit toward the golden mean between them. While our approaches are all individual, having some options on how to tackle both individual questions and full passages can be useful.

ACT Reading Question Strategies

While we can offer various individualized approaches to engaging with a text, there are two approaches to answering questions that the vast majority of students find useful.

The ACT Reading Free Response Strategy

Unlike on the other sections of the ACT, in which the answers can often be accuracy tested or provide useful clues in how to understand the question, ACT Reading questions can confound and distract us. Rather than matching the textual evidence to the conclusions presented in answer choices, it becomes tempting to reason about the merits of one answer over against another. This kind of task often tempts us into spending a bunch of time on one question, looking in our brains for the answer rather than on the page, feeling uncertain about our answers and “overthinking,” as my students often call it.

In order to have greater clarity and efficiency in approaching answer choices, for the ACT Reading, it’s often useful to ignore the multiple-choice options at first. Instead, we generate our own answer, as though the questions were free response, and then match our answer to those that are available. By searching for evidence before looking at the available options, we’re less likely to try to retrofit evidence in the passage to work with an incorrect answer. While it’s not possible to use this strategy on all question types, it works really well for those asking for the main point or purpose of a portion of the text.

The ACT Reading Indexing Ordering Strategy

The order of the ACT Reading questions does not correspond to the order in which the evidence appears in the passage. Further, the first question often asks for the main point of the passage, which requires a synthesis of all information presented. It seems curious to me that you would begin with a complete summary and then take it apart into its component pieces … like somehow un-baking a cake and ending up with flour, sugar, butter, and eggs.

For these reasons, it’s usually helpful to approach questions in a less chaotic order. Two obvious processes would be, one, doing all questions you remember the answer to without looking back first and, two, working through the questions in the order of the evidence provided.

ACT Reading Passage Strategies

Sometimes, the order that you approach questions in will implicate the order in which you tackle passages. I often recommend that students try out both of the following approaches, and then reflect on what they liked and disliked about each to build their own strategy for taking apart the ACT Reading. 

The ACT Reading Chunking Strategy

I often encourage students whose impulse is to read every word in the passage to learn to chunk the passage. While reading the entire passage up front is a great solution for some, it can introduce a few inefficiencies, especially for those with short attention spans, uneven short-term memory, or who struggle to sort relevant details without a specific question guiding them. By breaking the passage up into more digestible pieces, we often can reduce re-reading by answering questions sooner after we read the relevant evidence. Here’s how:

  1. On turning to a passage, look for any questions that mention a specific line.
  2. Annotate the question number, or at least a little mark, next to the corresponding line.
  3. Begin reading at the beginning of the passage, pausing when you get to the first annotation.
  4. Answer the corresponding question and any other question you know the answer to already.
  5. Pick up reading the passage where you left off, repeating the process whenever you get to an annotation.  
  6. Work through any remaining questions, from those that ask about specific details to those that ask you to summarize the whole passage.

The ACT Reading chunking strategy often helps students finish the section more accurately and efficiently and with a bit less stress. It can also help students who find themselves reasoning from a broad summary or insufficient evidence from the wrong portion of the passage.

The ACT Reading Outline Strategy

For students whose impulse is to look at questions first, and then shop around within the passage to find the corresponding evidence, I’ll often recommend this outlining strategy. Rather than reducing the number of times that we have to look back at the passage, with the outlining strategy, we minimize how much time we spend with the passage at the outset. By annotating the text with the topic sentences, we can cut down on the amount of skimming we do and be a bit more targeted and intentional as we look for evidence to answer specific questions. If this approach seems tempting, consider the following process:

  1. Read the first sentence of each paragraph, or until you know what the paragraph topic is.
  2. Jot down about 1-3 words that indicate the paragraph topic.
  3. When you’ve finished writing topics for each paragraph, read through the questions, starting with the one that is about the topic that appears first in the passage.
  4. With the help of the outline you’ve annotated next to the passage, look for the answers to questions, beginning with the most detailed and working towards the most general.

Strategy for Your ACT Reading Goals

The scores you’re currently getting and your target score will inform your approach to the Reading section. Rather than jumping straight to the 36 strategy, work your way up, focusing on locking down the easiest questions as you refine your timing and familiarity with the test. 

Getting to a 23 on the ACT Reading 

It’s hard to get to a 23 on the Reading without being able to finish two whole passages with fairly high accuracy. Make sure that you are approaching the two that are most in your interest. Perhaps you want to do the passage A/B questions last or forego the natural science passage. Or perhaps you find the prose fiction passage that begins the section requires more sustained attention, as it has less of an implicit structure than the expository passages. Whatever the case, rather than rush through all four passages with mediocre accuracy, choose the two passages that you’re going to deprioritize and take your time on the rest.  

Getting to a 28 on the ACT Reading

Make sure to have your general strategy down, and make sure your accuracy is strong on the questions you get to. As you work toward a 28, you should be able to comfortably finish three passages, and maybe make some targeted guesses on the final one.

Getting to a 32 on the ACT Reading

To get to a 32, you really need to work on timing to get through the entire section. Rather than practicing timing on the entirety of the section, it’s more helpful to break off individual passages and work through those in timed sprints. Perhaps start at 10 or even 12 minutes per passage — whatever is a little bit uncomfortable — and then to increase the pace gradually in 30-second increments. When you get it down to, say, 9 minutes per passage, put two passages together and time them back-to-back in 17 minutes. Then assemble all four passages to check progress and continue working until you are practicing passages in 8 minutes and completing or nearly completing them.

Getting to a 36 on the ACT Reading

As you get close to a perfect score, you’ll need to do more work for increasingly small gains on each test. You’ll also want to really scrutinize your process for efficiency and look into whether any time-consuming questions could have been done another way, even if you got them right. Frankly, I often tell students that they have the most control getting to a 34. Beyond that, in addition to the strategies and practice, sleep, nutrition, and stress management play increasingly vital roles.