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ACT Reading Basic Strategy Outline

Format and Timing:

4 passages and 40 questions in 35 minutes (10 questions per passage).  The passages appear in the following order: Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, Social Science/Social Studies, Humanities, and Natural Science.

Force yourself very strictly to stay on the good side of a 9 minute per passage pace.  For example, after two passages, make sure no more than 18 minutes have elapsed.   Nine minutes per passage will actually leave you with only 8 for the last one.  Stay on this pace even if it means not spending as much time as you would ideally like on certain questions.

Basic Technique

Read the passage, then answer the questions, going back to the passage as necessary while making certain to stay on pace.


How to Read

  • Read the entire passage.
  • Although reading faster is better than reading slower, understanding the passage is far more important than being fast, so adjust your reading pace according to the difficulty of the passage.

Factual Passages: Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science

  • Your goal is get the author’s main point (by far the most important thing), a knowledge of what is talked about where, and the author’s tone (positive, negative, or neutral).
  • Don’t feel like you need to completely understand every single detail; you can go back when you need. Avoid getting bogged down in facts and details, as doing so can interfere with your ability to grasp the main point.
  • Pay extra attention to the places most likely to contain the most information.
    • Entire first paragraph, but especially the last sentence. Consciously look for a thesis.
    • Beginnings of paragraphs, until you have a good prediction of what the paragraph is about. Look for a topic sentence.
  • After the first paragraph, pause for a few seconds to make a deliberate prediction about the main point.
  • In each of the remaining paragraphs, your job is to figure out how the paragraph supports or develops the main point and how, if at all, you need to adjust your understanding of the main point in response to the paragraph.
  • Occasionally, a Humanities passage will seem more fictional than factual in nature. When this is the case, use the reading strategy described below for Prose Fiction passages.

Prose Fiction Passages

  • Fictional passages do not typically have a main point. Therefore, you should pay attention to characters, plot, and setting.  Pay particularly close attention to the characters.


Addressing the Questions                         

  • Always read the answer choices before going back to the text.
    • Use process of elimination.
    • You never know when the answer will be obvious, and you don’t want to waste time going back if you didn’t need to.
    • Even if you need to go back to the passage after reading the answers, doing so makes going back that much more productive, because you are going back to specifically choose between known options.
  • Because of time constraints, you will likely be unable to go back to the passage every time you would like to. Therefore, you must be selective.  Avoid going back on questions that will take too much time to go back on.  Typically, these are the questions where you don’t know exactly where the answer would be found.  On these questions, take your best guess, put a mark next to the problem, and move on.  Then go back to these problems if you have extra time left at the end of the passage.


Correct and Incorrect Answers

Incorrect Answers

  • Wrong name with the wrong thing.
  • Half right half wrong.
  • Misrepresenting words from the text.
  • Using words from the text but misrepresenting their meanings.
  • Just because the answer uses words from the text DOES NOT mean it is probably wrong. They do a good job of keeping you guessing, so it gives you no evidence either way.
  • Absolute language (all, invariably, entirely, etc.). Words that offer NO room for exceptions are very rarely found in correct answers.
  • Answer choices that just seem too strong. Be suspicious of any answer choices that seem like they are making big claims.
  • Illogical answers and answers that go against common sense.
  • Answers that are inconsistent with the passage’s main point or tone.

Correct answers

  • Should seem reasonable and makes sense.
  • Use your own knowledge when applicable.
  • Very weak, vague, non-committing.
  • If you have it down to two choices that seem to be saying the same thing, choose the weaker one.

Dual Passage

One of the passages is likely to be a dual passage, consisting of two short passages on a related topic.  On this passage, read the first passage as described above, and answer the questions that relate to the first passage only.  Then read the second passage, thinking not only about its main point but also about how it relates to the first passage.  After you have read the second passage, answer the remaining questions.

Not Enough Time

Below are two techniques that can be useful if you have trouble finishing the Reading Test.


Skim the Passages

Factual Passages: Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science

• Your goal is to get an idea of the main point, the tone, and what is located where.

• Read the entire first paragraph unless it is very long, in which case you can skip over some of the sentences in the middle.  By the end of this paragraph, you should have actively made a prediction about the main point of the passage.

• In each of the remaining paragraphs, read until you have a very good idea of where it is going, then move on to the next paragraph.  Sometimes, you will only have to read one or two sentences.

• In the final paragraph, read the last sentence in addition to the first sentence or two.

• Pay particular attention to what is located in each paragraph so you can go back effectively.

• Do not get bogged down in details.

Prose Fiction Passage

• Because fictional writing does not contain structural elements like topic sentences and thesis statements, it is tough to predict the most important parts of the passage.  Therefore, you should simply read this passage, while attempting to skip any sections that seem unimportant.

• Pay attention to characters, plot, and setting.  Pay particularly close attention to the characters.


Concentrate on 3 Passages (ACT)

• Devote all your time to 3 of the passages, leaving only enough time to randomly fill in bubbles on the 4th.

• You can spend 11 minutes each on two of the passages and 12 minutes on one of the passages.  Doing so leaves you with 1 minute to randomly fill in bubbles on the fourth passage.

• Randomly fill in bubbles on the passage that tends to be the most difficult for you.

• It is still possible to get a score in the mid or even upper 20s using this technique.