Get To Know the ACT Reading Test

Get To Know the ACT Reading Test

Of all the sections of the ACT, the Reading test may be the most difficult one to prepare for. That doesn’t mean that you have a lot to learn, though. Nor does it mean that your prep time for the ACT Reading Test will be exceptionally long.

The difficulty in preparing for the Reading section lies in fact that it’s conditional on a student’s level of reading ability, which by one’s junior year of high school is essentially established.

Unlike the ACT Math test, where you can revisit content and learn new topics, or the ACT English test, where you can get a refresher on grammatical rules, the Reading test has little foundational information to review. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to prepare.

Familiarize yourself with the format and content of the test

The first stage of ACT prep is getting acquainted with the design and details of the test. Each ACT Reading section comprises four passages, with 10 questions per passage. You will be given 35 minutes to complete the test, meaning you will have an average of 8 minutes, 45 seconds to read each passage and answer its questions.

Your raw score on the test will then be translated to a scaled score ranging from 1 to 36. If you’re wondering what a “good” score is, just check with the colleges you are interested in to see what ACT scores are common for applicants.


ACT Reading passages themselves cover a number of topics in four different content categories: literary narrative (fiction), social science, humanities and, natural science—always in that order. One of the last three will be a passage comparison that includes two passages on the same topic, where you will be presented with questions about each individual passage and about the relationship between the two passages.

In addition to your overall scaled score, you will also receive information on how you performed in the three categories of questions, each of which evaluates your capability on a variety of reading comprehension skills. 

1. Key ideas and Details

  • Determine central ideas and themes
  • Summarize information and ideas accurately
  • Understand relationships and draw logical inferences and conclusions 

2. Craft and Structure

  • Determine word and phrase meanings
  • Analyze an author’s word choice rhetorically
  • Analyze text structure
  • Understand the author’s purpose and perspective
  • Analyze characters’ points of view
  • Differentiate between various perspectives and sources of information 

3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

  • Understand authors’ claims
  • Differentiate between facts and opinions
  • Use evidence to make connections between different texts that are related by topic
  • Analyze how authors construct arguments
  • Evaluate reasoning and evidence from various sources

Up until this year, the ACT Reading section did not include infographics—i.e., graphs, figures, or tables that contain information relevant to a passage. Beginning in 2021, however, one of the passages in the Reading test will containing such visual and quantitative elements and include questions requiring students to integrate information from the text and the infographics to determine the best answer.

Learn the strategies associated with different types of questions

As part of your preparation for the test, you will learn some ACT reading strategies based on the various kinds of questions you will see on the Reading section. To examine the different types of questions and the strategies you will use on the test, let’s look at some examples from the June 2021 ACT.

Read the information at the beginning of each passage

Each of the four passages contains a short blurb at the top that gives the title, author, and occasionally additional information. This blurb for a fiction passage provides context useful to understanding its general structure.


Scan the text when specific references are made

Sometimes a question will reference certain line numbers. Regardless of how well you think you understood the passage, make sure you go back to the text an reread the portion referenced, including a sentence or two before and after. Don’t trust your own memory when the text is right in front of you.


At other times the question will refer to certain people, locations, animals, relationships, or events. In that case, scan the text for keywords. In this example, you would look for where the term barn owl’s troughs is paired with the words length and width.


Rather than settling on the correct answer, look to eliminate wrong choices

When an answer choice seems to stand out after you have examined the evidence, then go for it and choose that answer. But let’s be honest—there are plenty of times that doesn’t happen. Certain types of questions lend themselves to confusion, where more than one answer seems to have potential. Here is a question that asks you to determine a difference between the two passages.

Rather than trying to land on the correct answer in one shot, take the time to look at the first half of each answer and eliminate the ones that do not convey the focus of Passage A. Next, look at the second half of the questions you’re still considering and get rid of the ones that don’t describe the focus of Passage B.


Know where to look when given “big picture” questions

This question asks how the passage can be described. It’s also the first question after the passage itself. For such “big picture” questions that address the passage as a whole, feel free to trust your instinct, as the reading is fresh in your mind. If none of the answer choices jumps out at you, though, then you want to have a back-up plan. The best way to get insight on big picture questions is to reread the opening paragraph and, if necessary, the final paragraph. The introduction and the conclusion of a passage almost always provide enough information to determine the answer. 


Understand the difference between a “main purpose” and a “main idea”

These two concepts may initially sound the same, but they aren’t referring to the same thing. While a question about main “point” or “idea” essentially asks for a summary of a paragraph, the use of “purpose” or “function” refers to the paragraph’s role in the passage as a whole. 


Inference questions require reasoning skills

Questions asking what you “infer” about a passage or what it “suggests” are not referring to explicit statements, but to what you can deduce based upon the evidence. For such questions, don’t go looking in the text for the answer choices as worded: instead, gather information about the topic and then pick which answer seems like a sound deduction, eliminating the choices that are unreasonable. 


Look for the best answer choice when more than one response has merit

Keep your eye out for the words “best” and “most” when you consider answer choices, a there may be more than one that answers to the question to a certain extent. Eliminate the choices that don’t relate at all, then choose the most accurate response that’s remains. You’re not looking for the only answer with any relevance, but rather the one best suited to the question that’s asked.


Don’t talk yourself into a wrong answer because it’s a partial match

This situation arises most often in the passage comparison when you’re asked to find some sort of similarity between the two passages. The tendency is to steer toward a particular choice because it perfectly answers the question for one of the passages. Don’t forget that your answer needs to fit both passages, even if the agreement is something seemingly minor. 


Recognize the parameters of reading preferences and ability

One of the realities of ACT reading tips is that they only go so far in helping you answer the questions. Yes, they are absolutely critical, but such test-taking skills are subject to the boundaries of your level of reading ability and your preferences for material.


As you prepare for the ACT, you are bound to run into passages you find boring or that are difficult to understand. That’s totally normal! Even if your powers of reading comprehension are strong, you are still human, and we as humans learn best when reading about things that interest us. We also understand the material better when it covers subjects we have some knowledge of.

For those passages that aren’t interesting or deal with unfamiliar topics, you need to trust the skills you gain through your ACT tutoring. However, don’t be surprised if your performance in such difficult passages doesn’t match how you do on the ones that cover familiar themes in an engaging way.

How do I get a 36 on the ACT reading section?

Performance on the Reading test is directly related to your own reading ability, and the only way to improve one’s ability is to read more. ACT scores reports will actually tell you to read more “complex texts” if your scores are low.

Even if you do read more to raise your level of reading comprehension, though, your ability isn’t going to jump by leaps and bounds. If are already a highly capable reader, then the skills you learn from your tutor may get you to that perfect 36.

Reap the full advantage of having an ACT prep tutor 

In addition to helping students with understanding the questions and searching the passages for the right information, ACT Reading tutors can provide guidance in time management and checking your answers. 

Since you have just under 9 minutes to complete each passage, you don’t want to spend so much time reading the text that you must rush to answer the questions. At the same time, you shouldn’t speed through the passage so quickly that you don’t even understand the main point. The target time for reading is from 3–4 minutes—not too fast, not too slow. As you work on ACT practice tests, you will get into the rhythm that facilitates the most effective blend of time spent reading and time answering questions.

For those of you who always seem to finish with time to spare, you will want direction on how to use that time to review your answers. During your ACT lessons, your tutor will explain how to quickly recognize difficult questions that benefit from closer scrutiny, as well as how to reexamine them when you have time to do so. If you are someone who has a lot of time to review (like 5-10 minutes), then you can look at every question and make sure that you are asking the question that is really being asked—not the one you may have thought was being asked when you looked at it the first time around.


Finally, the time you spend with an ACT Reading tutor will reap benefits when you’re studying for other sections of the test. Almost all Reading tutors can also provide assistance prepping for the ACT English Test, and the reading tools and test-taking skills you gain while concentrating on Reading will carry over to the ACT Science Test as well.

Given sufficient time to prepare and the right ACT tutor, you’ll be well on the path to reaching your goals and getting the ACT scores you desire.

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