Five Tips To Help Interpret Passages on the ACT® Reading Test

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The ACT® Reading exam assesses your reading comprehension skills through texts that are accurate to the style and level of difficulty you will encounter in your first year of college. If you are unsure of your reading comprehension skills, there are a few things you can focus on to ensure that you are interpreting the passages accurately and effectively. 

Here are 5 quick tips for ACT Reading passages to help you understand, interpret, and accurately answer questions you will encounter on the ACT Reading test:

1. What Kind of Question Is Being Asked?

By now, you may be aware that the ACT Reading section contains four different passage types with a set of 10 questions related to each passage. Each of these questions is formulated to test your overall comprehension of the passage. There are two broad kinds of questions: explicit questions and implicit questions. Explicit questions are ones that focus on information that is stated in plain sight in the passage. Whereas, implicit questions are designed to test your understanding of the information stated in the passage.

Under these two main pillars, one can find the following kinds of questions:

  • Broad-View Questions — These are questions that test you on your overall understanding of the passage.
  • Detailed Questions — These are designed to question your knowledge of specific portions within the passage.
  • Craft and Structure Questions — Drafted to ask about the author’s writing style, tone of voice, and/or the meaning behind a portion of the passage that isn’t explicitly stated.
  • Vocabulary-in-Context Questions — Asks the meaning of a word or phrase within the passage in the context of a sentence or paragraph. 
  • Purpose Questions — These questions address the significance or importance of a certain part of the passage.

Here are some examples of explicit questions:

In the context of the passage, the author’s use of the phrase “_____” (line __) is primarily meant to convey the idea that
    a. ____
    b. ____
    c. ____
    d. ____

Which choice provides the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?
    a. ____
    b. ____
    c. ____
    d. ____

Here are some examples of implicit questions:  

The passage most strongly suggests that ______

  1. ____
  2. ____
  3. ____
  4. ____

From the information in the second and third paragraphs (lines 15–44), it can reasonably be inferred that 

  1. _____
  2. _____
  3. _____
  4. _____

Taking time to check whether the answer to a question can be found directly in the text, or if you need to interpret information in the text to select an answer, is a good way to be sure that you understand what is asked.

2. Make Notes As You Read

Remember, you have roughly only 35 minutes for this section. So one of the key tips for ACT Reading passages is to make notes while reading. You can pay attention to things like cause and effect relationships, the order of events taking place, and comparisons. You could also underline information that is necessary to answer questions right while reading. This way, you’re likely to save time digging for the answer later. 

Things to note include: transitions occurring in the text, change in events, tonal shifts at a specific point in the passage, etc. These pointers may correlate to significant details that will be questioned later on.

3. Pay Attention to the Author’s Writing Choices

As you read, note any rhetorical choices that stand out. Craft and Structure questions make up 25%–30% of the exam, and your attention to details (like the point of view, structural details, and word choices) will pay off when these questions come up.

4. Filtering Out Incorrect Answers

One thing to keep in mind with multiple-choice questions is that a single word or phrase in the answer options could make all the difference between the right and wrong answer. So take a minute to eliminate all the clearly incorrect answers and then map to the most accurate answer. This will help save time and increase accuracy.

5. What Is the Purpose of the Passage?

When reading the passages throughout the ACT Reading exam, it can be good to build a habit of asking yourself, What is the purpose of this passage?

Paying attention to the author’s motivations and goals is a great way to track the important details. It is also an excellent way to track the points in the passage that may be more motivated by opinions than facts.

6. Read the Italicized Information at the Beginning of the Passage

If you struggle to understand the passage’s context, re-read the italicized text that precedes the passage. This text blurb will include information like the year the passage was written and if the passage was adapted from a larger text. Use this information to orient yourself and contextualize the information in the passage. 

These simple tips for ACT Reading passages will help you greatly improve your score. You can practice implementing these pointers with our test preparation course which offers performance tracking tools, detailed question explanations, and thousands of practice questions to work through! Also try UWorld’s ACT online prep to help streamline your study plan and improve your scores.

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