If you’ve taken the ACT Reading section before and are planning to take it again, you’re likely looking for ACT Reading strategies that will show you how to improve your ACT Reading score. You are also likely aware of just how tricky the ACT Reading section can be.  Although the ACT Reading section has fewer questions than the English and Math sections, it can still feel overwhelming because of the extended prose passages you have to read.

The ACT Reading tips and tricks in this article are designed to give you the maximum strategic advantage as you take or retake this section of the ACT.  Follow these ACT test strategies to make the Reading section feel more manageable and straightforward.

Looking for more general ACT study advice? You might like our articles on How to Improve Your ACT Score and ACT Test Strategies. Need winning strategies for the other ACT sections? Check out all of the articles in our series of ACT strategy guides:

ACT Reading Test Format

Seconds per Question

1. Learn What Content is Covered on the ACT Reading Test 

Have you ever heard the saying “forewarned is forearmed”? Although it’s kind of old-fashioned, it means that if you know what possible problems lie ahead, then you can prepare to solve them. When it comes to ACT Reading strategies, being forewarned is pretty good advice—so good, in fact, that it’s our first ACT Reading strategy: learn what will be tested on the Reading section of the ACT (being prepared also reduces test anxiety).

The ACT Reading test is a 40-question, 35-minute test that consists of four sections, each of which includes one to two prose passages and is accompanied by ten multiple-choice questions. There are four types of passages on the ACT Reading Test, and they always appear in the same order:

  1. Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction: this passage will consist of an excerpt from a novel, short story, personal essay, or memoir.
  2. Social Studies: this passage will discuss a topic related to the social sciences, such as history, anthropology, economics, geography, politics, or sociology.
  3. Humanities: this passage will likely concern music, art, film, or another artistic field, and may be excerpted from a personal essay
  4. Natural Science: this passage will be about a scientific topic such as biology, geology, physics, or chemistry.

The test will explicitly state the category at the beginning of each passage. The passages should all have the same difficulty level, but students will likely feel more comfortable with the  passages that most closely relate to their own interests.

Reading Test Breakdown

  • Key Ideas and Details (55-60%) – Students must identify central themes, pick out specific details, and draw conclusions about the nature of relationships between presented ideas.
  • Craft and Structure (25-30%) – Students must determine the meaning of words and phrases and analyze the author’s rhetorical and structural choices.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13-18%) – Students must evaluate the author’s claim and, in some cases, find connections between two different texts.

Reading Test Strategies

  1. Start with your strengths
  2. Read the questions first
  3. Take notes

If you’re taking the ACT Reading section as part of the full ACT, you will encounter it third, after the English and Mathematics sections. You will get a short break between the Math and Reading sections—take advantage of that time to stretch, hydrate, use the restroom, and clear your head of numbers and formulas.

2. Familiarize Yourself with the Five Question Types

Next on our list of how to improve your ACT Reading score is understanding the five question types you’ll encounter during the exam. We’ve outlined these five types of questions below, listed in order of the average frequency (from high to low) in which they appear on ACT Reading tests.

We explain each type of question briefly for the sake of keeping this strategy review succinct. If you feel you need more review of these ACT Reading strategies, Piqosity’s 70+ ACT content lessons include detailed information on how to master each type of ACT Reading question.

1. Specific Detail Questions 

Specific Detail questions are typically the easiest kind of question to answer. On average, nearly half of all ACT Reading questions fall into this category. As the name implies, these questions ask you to pick specific details out of the text—no guesswork is involved. In fact, these questions will often reference a specific line or paragraph, telling you exactly where to look.

One note of caution, though: remember that the correct answer is unlikely to appear word-for-word in the passage. Instead, the correct answer will be paraphrased from the original. If you can find a sentence in the passage that is synonymous with one of the answer choices, you can safely bet that it’s the right one.

2. Structure and Function Questions 

The second most common type of question on the ACT Reading section is Structure and Function Questions, which ask about how the passage is organized or how specific sentences or paragraphs function as part of the whole. These kinds of questions might, for instance, ask why the author uses a certain example or what kind of evidence would strengthen (or weaken) the author’s argument.

The answers to these kinds of questions will not be found directly in the passage, but you should still be able to answer them based on what you have read. Remember, you don’t need any prior knowledge about the subject matter covered in each passage to answer these kinds of questions.

Pro tip: Structure and Function questions seem to occur most often in Humanities passages.

3. Inference Questions 

Inference Questions are similar to Structure and Function Questions in that the correct answers are not directly stated in the passage but can be deduced after careful reading. These kinds of questions are asking you to “read between the lines” or draw conclusions based on the evidence provided in the passage.

If the question includes the phrases “We can infer…,” “The passage suggests…,” or something similar, you’ll know it is an Inference Question. Even though you won’t find the correct answer paraphrased in the passage, you should still be able to point to specific textual evidence that supports your answer. If you can’t find anything in the passage to support your choice, it’s not the correct answer.

4. Main Idea Questions 

As you might expect, Main Idea Questions ask you about the main idea(s) of a passage; in this way, they are sort of like the opposite of Specific Detail Questions. The most important thing to remember is that the author of a passage will reference the main idea in (nearly) every paragraph—if there’s a topic that recurs frequently, it’s a good bet that it’s the main idea. By the same token, be careful not to get tripped up by specific details masquerading as the correct answer. If an answer references a detail or idea that is referenced in only one sentence, it’s not the correct answer—it’s meant to trick you!

Another way to think about the Main Idea of any particular passage: if you had to summarize it in one sentence, what would you say? You probably would not include very many specifics and instead would give a broad outline. If one answer choice seems like a version of your own one-sentence summary, it’s probably correct.

5. Vocabulary in Context Questions 

Although these questions are the least common on the ACT Reading section, there are still usually a few of them on each test. They are very straightforward: you will be asked to define a word based on the way it is used in the passage.

Obviously, the best-case scenario is one in which you already know the meaning of the word. But if you don’t recognize it, look at the sentence (the “in Context” part of “Vocabulary in Context”) in which the word appears, and those around it, for clues as to its meaning. If the word is used in contrast to another word, for instance, pick the answer which means the opposite of that other word.

Remember: sometimes, words have multiple meanings. If the vocabulary word in question is one of those words, one of the answer choices will often be the most usual definition, and it is usually the wrong answer. Always make sure the definition you choose makes sense in context of the sentence.

Want to brush up on your vocabulary? Check out Piqosity’s Vocabulary Practice, with over 2,750 words: Lower Level, Middle Level, and Upper Level.

3. Learn the Typical Tricks the ACT Uses to Trip Up Test Takers

In order to be a competitive test, the ACT purposefully tries to trick students with answers that might look right at first but are actually wrong. Learning these tricks is one of our favorite ACT reading strategies, as it can vastly improve your test-taking confidence and help you avoid easy pitfalls.

Three common types of these “trick” answers are:

  1. Opposite Answers: Often, one of the choices will be the near-exact opposite of the correct answer. At first glance, it might appear correct because it covers the same information as the passage (and the correct answer), but it takes a contradictory position, so is incorrect.
  2. Distorted Answers: Another type of common trick answer is one that distorts information from the passage. Frequently, this involves taking something from the passage to an extreme; for example, if the passage states that something is sometimes true, the distorted (incorrect) answer might state that it is always true.
  3. Irrelevant Answers: A third way the ACT will try to trip you up is by including an answer which is true, but not relevant to the question. This might take the form of a detail that can be found in the passage but which does not answer the question, or an answer which includes true information that is not part of the passage and which, therefore, is likely irrelevant.

Fortunately, the ACT tends to deploy these same tricks again and again, so once you’re familiar with them, they’re easier to spot. If you still feel confused by this and you’re wondering how to improve your ACT Reading score, the best way to get comfortable with these kinds of questions and answers is to take a practice ACT Reading section, like the ones found on this free 2020 ACT practice test.

4. Identify Your Specific ACT Reading Test Weaknesses

Every student who takes the ACT Reading test has their own set of test-taking strengths and weaknesses. As we’ll see momentarily in our section on strategic practice, in order to improve upon your particular weaknesses for the ACT Reading test, you’ll need to be able to identify them first.

Common issues for students taking the ACT Reading test include:

  • Timing Issues: You scored very well on every question you answered, but didn’t have time to finish, you’ll know that what you need to work on most is increasing your test-taking (or reading) speed.
  • Close Reading Issues: You are able to understand the general ideas put forward in passages, but tend to miss questions that pertain to specific details (such as the aptly named Specific Details questions).
  • General Comprehension Issues: You are able to find evidence- and detail-based answers but tend to miss questions that pertain to overarching concepts in a passage (such as Main Idea Questions).
  • Vocabulary Issues: You are able to answer both questions pertaining to details and concepts, but Vocabulary in Context questions tend to trip you up.

5. Brush Up on Specific ACT Reading Test Strategies

Once you’ve got a good grasp of the question types, it’s time to focus on a handful of ACT Reading strategies designed to help you with the actual process of taking the ACT Reading test. Remember, taking a standardized test like the ACT is a skill, and as with all skills, practice makes perfect. These ACT Reading tips and tricks will help maximize your chances of success.

Start with Your Strengths

Always begin with the ACT reading passage which relates most closely to your personal interests. If your favorite subject in school is science, for instance, start with the Natural Science selection; if you love reading novels in your spare time, start with Prose Fiction.

Read the Questions First

How do you approach reading on the ACT? Before you start any of the ACT Reading passages, skim the questions that follow it—they will give you a good idea of what’s most important to pay attention to when reading. (Often, the questions will directly reference specific lines in the text—make sure to mark those lines in the passage!)

After you have finished reading, try to answer the questions without looking at the answer choices; if your instinctive answer matches one of the choices, you can be confident it’s the right answer. This strategy helps to ensure that you are not overly influenced by the answer choices, three of which are always wrong.

Take Notes

Sometimes our brains go on autopilot and we read over an entire passage without actually comprehending it. Another crucial key to how to improve your ACT reading score is to practice active reading by taking notes as you read. For example, you can underline the key ideas in each paragraph or make brief summaries in the margins.

Taking notes helps you focus, ensures your understanding of a passage, and creates a roadmap back to important information in the text. This roadmap often proves helpful when you’re answering questions that have answers that can be found directly in the text, such as Specific Detail or Vocabulary in Context questions.

In addition to taking notes, you may find it useful to check in with yourself every paragraph or even every few sentences. Would you be able to describe what you just read to someone else? If you’re having trouble summarizing, it’s a good sign you need to re-read that paragraph. Being able to summarize concepts will help you answer Main Idea and Inference questions.

An Example of How to Apply These ACT Reading Strategies: 

Let’s examine at a practice ACT Reading passage (taken from the free official 2020 Practice ACT) and use our strategies to answer a couple of practice questions.

act reading passage example

In the example passage above, we have circled key words that appear in specific questions and written their respective question numbers next to them. In the margin, we have briefly summarized each paragraph as an example of how the reader should check in with themselves to ensure that they understand what they just read.

Now, let’s look at an example question:

act reading example question 1

Before looking at the answer choices, let’s go to the passage and see if we can come up with our own answer. At the end of paragraph 7, the author describes the “Blues in C# Minor” (which we circled!) as “odd, haunting, and ultimately relaxing.” Looking at the answer choices, we can see that the information we found in the passage best matches answer choice D.

One more question:

act reading example question 2

We circled the key phrase “A Ghost of a Chance” at the beginning of the final paragraph. The author states that it is the sole recording in Berry’s career that featured him from start to finish. Now let’s look at the answer choices. Based on the information provided by the author, we know the answer is A.

6. Practice Strategically

If you apply only one of our tips for how to improve your ACT reading score, this is the one you want to use. We truly can’t emphasize the importance of regular ACT practice enough. The more you practice, the more familiar you will be with the test, and the more likely you will get an outstanding score.

We recommend the following 4-step plan to gain the maximum strategic advantage.

1. Take a full practice ACT Reading test

After you’ve spent some significant time going over the different types of questions and studying ACT Reading strategies, take a practice ACT Reading section, like one of the two below:

We recommend trying to imitate real-life testing conditions. Clear your workspace of everything except your testing materials. Set a timer for 35 minutes, and work through as much of the test as you can; stop when the time’s up, even if you’re not done. As you’re taking the test, put a star next to any questions you guess on. When the timer goes off, stop and circle every question you didn’t have time to answer.

2. Grade your practice test and read the answer explanations

Mark each question “right” or “wrong.” For each question (even the ones you got right), read over the answer explanations. Go over each possible answer choice and learn why it is right or wrong. You will, of course, want to pay special attention to the questions you missed to better understand how you went wrong. Use the links below to access the answer explanations to previously published practice ACT Reading tests:

3. Keep analyzing the data, finding your weak spots, and identifying solutions

As we covered above, recognizing your knowledge gaps and test taking weaknesses is a crucial part of figuring out how to improve your ACT reading score. As you continue to practice, you will want to continually assess whether your weaknesses are improving and whether you’ve identified new problem areas. Use your grading notes to draw conclusions about what you need to work on.

If your test taking weaknesses center around particular kinds of questions (as opposed to timing), Piqosity can help. Our ACT Answer Explanations categorize every question based on its type, helping you to get consistent and thorough practice. If your weakness is related to timing, our platform allows you to simulate a testing environment so that you can improve your performance in this area as well.

4. Target your weaknesses with practice

Now that you know your weak spots, you’ll want to spend the majority of your study time focusing on those areas. This is where Piqosity’s 70+ content lessons and personalized practice options really come in handy—you can create practice tests which specifically target the areas where you most need improvement.

Of course, you want to make sure not to lose ground in your strongest subject areas. One helpful strategy is to divide your time more equally the closer you get to the test day. If, for instance, you had a month of prep time, you might spend the first week working exclusively on practice questions targeting your weakest content areas. In the second week you would continue working mostly in those areas, but by the end of the month you would spend equal time preparing for all of the content areas. (You might even take another full practice ACT Reading test.)

Curious about the effectiveness of ACT prep? Read Piqosity’s deep-dive article: Does ACT Prep Work?

7. If Applicable, Brush up on ACT Reading Strategies for Slow Readers   

Everyone reads at a different speed, and if you’re not a fast reader, the ACT Reading passages can seem intimidating. Slower readers may be especially worried about running out of time reading the passages. Depending on how much time you have to prepare for the ACT Reading section, there are a couple of ACT Reading tips for slow readers that can help.

If you are a slower reader: when you’re faced with an ACT Reading passage, try to skim it for the essentials instead of getting bogged down in a time-consuming close reading. While it is important to understand the passage in its entirety, it is not essential to remember every detail upon first reading. It is much more important to have a general understanding of the passage. Similarly, if you see a word with which you are not familiar, don’t waste time agonizing over its meaning; instead, try to understand the main idea of the sentence from context clues.

Of course, the best way to increase your reading speed is simply to read more—of anything! Reading increases your vocabulary and familiarity with different sentence structures and writing styles. When faced with a new passage to read, you will feel more comfortable if you have a broader range of past reading with which to compare it.

Test Practice with Piqosity: The Ultimate in ACT Reading Strategies  

Now that you know how to improve your ACT Reading score, it’s time to get studying! Whether you’re a student who wants to improve their ACT test taking skills, a teacher with multiple students wishing to give their scores a boost, or a tutoring company in need of a test prep LMS that really works, Piqosity has you covered with quality, affordable test prep materials.

Piqosity provides personalized practice test questions that help you address and improve upon your weaker test subject areas. Our software is engineered to help students study smarter, not harder. We offer a wide range of ACT prep materials, perfect for both tutored and self-guided ACT practice:

  • 10 full-length ACT Practice tests
  • Over 70 concept lessons, including tutorial videos
  • Real-time Score prediction (both Composite and for each Subject)
  • Interactive interface allowing teachers, tutors, or parents to assign and track student work
  • …and much more!

The best part? Piqosity for the ACT is entirely free during the pandemic and is also typically available to try for free with our 7-day trial. Sign up today!

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