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7 ACT Reading Tips You Need to Know

Many students dread the ACT Reading Test—it’s a load of Reading, right after the taxing English and Math tests, when students’ minds are starting to feel fried.

The good news is that there are a lot of adjustments you can take to improve your Reading score, and most of them will yield big results when practiced with diligence and consistent effort.

Here’s seven of our best tips to help take your ACT Reading score up a notch!

Take Notes

Writing stuff down will save you time and improve your understanding of the passages.

Taking notes is tremendously helpful on the Reading Test, where you need to read five passages and answer 40 questions in a breakneck 35 minutes.

This might seem counterintuitive. Why add more work—note-taking takes time—to your plate, when you already have too much to do and hardly enough time to do it? The answer is, effective note-taking will actually save you time on the Reading Test, preventing you from having to go back into the passages to find the information you need to answer questions, after you’ve already read everything once.

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Our short-term memories, not great to begin with, are severely taxed during the ACT. You don’t have much room to hold facts in your head, so it’s inevitable that by the time you reach some of the questions, you’ll have forgotten what you read and need to re-reference the passage. This is where your notes will come in handy—one sentence identifying the main idea of the passage, and three to four words summing up each body paragraph, will give you a sort of ‘table of contents’ that you can use to quickly locate information to answer questions. No more endless scanning of the passages after you’ve forgotten important info.

As the Chinese say, “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”

Differentiate Fiction Passages

Since Fiction passages don’t have a predictable structure, take notes on four specific topics—plot, character, setting, and tone.

Most of the passages you’ll read are non-fiction, with easily-identifiable introductory paragraphs containing theses, and body paragraphs featuring supporting details. However, the Fiction passage, which is typically the first passage you’ll encounter on the Reading Test, doesn’t have a predictable structure. So, take notes on four different areas—character, setting, plot, and tone.

Your three to four words of notes on character should say who the main character is, who the supporting characters are, and how the story is narrated (first person, third person omniscient, etc.). Your notes on setting should note the time and place of the story. Plot describes what happens in the course of the story (it could be jam-packed with events, or simply dialogue, or something like stream-of-consciousness). Finally, tone describes the mood of the piece, and is based on the sum total effect of the story’s diction, imagery, metaphorical language and topics. A dark, stormy day at a funeral suggests a bleak or dreary tone, for example.

Skim Passages If Time Lacks

Just getting the basics down might help you answer the most questions correctly without running out of time.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In other words, if something isn’t working, don’t keep doing it—try something else. This is particularly true on the Reading Test, where many students have trouble finishing on time because of all the reading they have to do.

Our reading comprehension improves very slowly, over the long-term. This is why reading ability is discussed in terms of grade level. So, you can’t expect that you’ll become a significantly swifter or better reader over the course of studying for, and taking, the ACT. You’ll show some improvement, of course. But, in order to get the score you want, you’re going to have to change up your strategy to find a way to answer more questions correctly, and guess on as few as possible.

Learning how to skim is one way to do this. The Fiction passages, because they don’t have a consistent structure, aren’t amenable to skimming. So, always read the Fiction passage in full. The nonfiction passages, on the other hand, all have the same structure, more or less—an introduction, body paragraphs supporting the thesis, and a conclusion. To gain maximum understanding of what a passage says without reading it in its entirety, skim by reading the introduction and conclusion in full, and then reading the topic sentences of each body paragraph. This will give you a good understanding of the ideas discussed in the piece as you answer the questions. You’ll have to go back into the passage to find some answers, certainly, but this should still take less time than reading the passage in full.

Of course, it’s ideal to read the passages in full, if you’re able to do so. But if not, skimming might be your successful strategy for a higher score.

Read In Order of Strength

Do the passages you’re best at first and those you’re worst at last.

As you complete more and more practice tests, you’ll probably start noticing that certain types of passages are easier or more interesting to you than others. If you do, then consider ranking the passages in order of your personal best to worst, and then completing them in that order, taking care to bubble in the appropriate places on your scantron.

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The rationale behind this approach is that you are better off leaving whatever passage you would do worst on—for some might be Fiction, for others Social Studies, etc.—to the end, when you are more likely to run out of time and be required to guess. It’s better to guess on questions you would have gotten wrong anyway, after all.

In addition, if certain passages interest you more, doing those first will help keep your focus up for the remaining passages, which are likely to be more difficult reading.

Beware the Pre-1920 Passages

Familiarize yourself with more colloquial, descriptive types of writing from earlier eras.

The most difficult passages for my students on the Reading Test tend to be those written prior to 1920. This is because these passages are written in the denser, more colloquial prose typical of earlier times.

You’re most likely to encounter this type of writing on the Fiction and Humanities passages. You can better prepare yourself for it by acquainting yourself with writers like Jane Austen (author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice), who has a similar writing style. Just keep in mind that this type of writing is heavier on imagery and metaphorical language than is contemporary writing. So, look for the author’s argument or story in the images and metaphors he or she uses.

Go Light on the Underlining

Underlining without note-taking is useless.

A lot of people like to highlight as they read the passages on the Reading Test, but I find that this is of limited use, at least if it’s done in the absence of actual notes. First off, it’s very easy to forget why you underlined something—further taxing your short-term memory. Second, it’s just as easy to underline way too much, to the point where you have underlined almost the entire passage, negating the point of underlying.

Furthermore, underlining doesn’t require as much engagement with the text as does note-taking, so you might find yourself losing focus as you read, and underlining mindlessly. Note-taking forces you to process information as you read it, so it keeps you alert and focused, and thus allows you to gain a greater understanding of the passage.

If you like to underline, then there’s no real reason to stop—just do so in combination with taking notes. Then, at least, you’ll remember why you underlined something.

Always Be Experimenting

Mix and match strategies until you find the combination that’s best for you.

As I mentioned once before, if you find that your particular approach to the Reading Test isn’t leading you to a higher score, mix and match the different strategies outlined above until you find the perfect combo for improving your score. Perhaps you’ll benefit enormously from note-taking; maybe you won’t find it particularly useful. Maybe skimming will open up the test for you; or perhaps you’re just the type of person who needs to read things in full. You’ll never know unless you take lots of practice tests and find out. So, get studying!

Consider Test Prep

Prep Expert’s instructors can help you improve your score.

I find that scores are most difficult to improve on the Reading Test. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s impossible to increase your score. If you’re having trouble doing this on your own, try taking a test prep course like Prep Expert’s. A test prep course will teach you how to look at and answer ACT Reading questions, how to better glean information from the passages as you read them, and how to improve your timing.

If your score is stubborn and just won’t move, be proactive and get in touch with Prep Expert. We offer ACT classes and one-on-one tutoring, both in-person and online, all throughout the year. Furthermore, taking classes or tutoring online through our Virtual Classroom means that you can fit studying to your schedule, whether through sessions with your tutor, or watching classes On Demand at your own convenience.

Our expert instructors have seen great results, with most of our students seeing considerable increases in their scores when they have consistently attended class and taken practice tests. So, be confident you’ve got someone to turn to if studying on your own hasn’t gotten you where you want to go.

Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.