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How To Attack Paired Passages in ACT Reading

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Jul 3, 2015 7:00:00 PM

ACT Reading

 

feature_twotoads.jpgPaired passages on the ACT are a relatively new phenomenon; it was only announced that they would be added to the Reading section in Spring 2013.

So how should you go about attacking paired passages? Read on for strategies.

feature image credit: Two Toads by Randy Robertson, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

 

Paired Passages: A Brief Rundown

Paired passages are two short passages (40-50 lines each) that are related in some way (usually by topic). There is only 1 set of paired passages per test (so far); I have only seen them in literary narrative or humanities sections, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pop up elsewhere.

Each set of paired passages will have 10 questions altogether; the first few questions will be about passage A, the next few about passage B, and the final 3-4 questions (I’ve only seen 3, but I’m using a range to be on the safer side) will ask about both passages. Adding paired passages to ACT Reading is part of ACT, Inc.'s push to get students to “integrate knowledge and ideas across multiple texts.” 

 

Plan of Attack

There is no one surefire strategy that will let you power through questions on paired passages. Some of this is because depending on how you approach the passage, certain strategies may not work as well for you; some of this is also because there is a tiny number of publicly available multipassage ACT Reading questions (as of right now, there are 3). I've gathered together for you my top 4 strategies for mastering paired passage questions. Use what works for you!

 

Strategy 1: Start By Answering Questions on Individual Passages

No matter how you approach the passage (reading it thoroughly before answering questions, going straight to the questions and then back to the passage, or skimming and then answering questions), for paired passages I highly, HIGHLY recommend answering all the questions about each individual passage first before moving on to the multi-passage questions. Even if you're planning on guessing on questions that ask about multiple passages (more on why you’d want to do that later), it’s still worth it to take time to answer questions on individual passages. Why?

The advantage of answering questions on each passage before moving on to multipassage questions is twofold. For one thing, each passage that appears as part of a set of paired passages are shorter and less complicated than the standalone long passages (since you're expected to compare passage to passage, not just focus in on one passage). Because of this, it's often easier to answer questions on one or the other of the set of paired passages, compared to questions on the longer, unpaired passages  - each of the paired passages has fewer words, so it's easier to find details.

In addition, the questions the ACT asks about each individual passages will help you with the multipassage questions. For example, take a look at these two questions about individual passages (adapted from the ACT’s online example):

2. In Passage A, the narrator’s descriptions of Alsop suggest that she sees her as ultimately:

F. self-confident and triumphant.
G. isolated and alone.
H. awe-inspiring and heroic.
J. stiff and ceremonial.

5. Passage B indicates that compared to the narrator’s expectation about how the first woman to conduct a major orchestra would be treated in print, the articles themselves were:

A. similar; the narrator had expected the newspapers to prolong the event with preliminary material leading up to Alsop’s first performance.
B. similar; the narrator had expected Alsop would be announced as the next conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
C. dissimilar; the narrator had expected there would be more coverage of male conductors of color before a woman conducting would be written about.
D. dissimilar; the narrator had expected to be able to read about Alsop’s performance in the papers shortly after it occurred.

Now, here’s a question that asks about both passages:

7. Which of the following statements provides the most accurate comparison of the tone of each passage?

A. Passage A is fondly nostalgic, while Passage B is impersonal and scientific.
B. Passage A is optimistic and exuberant, while Passage B is sarcastic and cynical.
C. Both passages begin by conveying some sense of the narrator’s wonder but conclude with a note of disenchantment.
D. Both passages begin by conveying the narrator’s doubt but conclude with some sense of lasting pride.

If you’ve answered questions 2 and 5, you already know a little bit about the tones of the passages (the answer to question 2 tells you how the narrator of passage A views Alsop, while the answer to question 5 tells you a little about the expectations of passage B's narrator). It isn’t necessarily enough to give you the answer to question 7, but it might help you eliminate some answers.

 

Strategy 2: Guess On Multi-Passage Questions

If you’re aiming for a Reading score at or below 26, my recommendation is to not even bother with trying to answer questions that ask about two passages.

body_confusion.jpgConfusion by Hamner_Fotos, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

W-w-w-w-whaaaaat?

I know, that sounds like it could be risky. But based on the extremely small sample size of ACTs with paired passage questions, I have been able to glean the following: the questions that ask you to compare aspects of the two passages are (unsurprisingly) more complex than those that just ask you to answer questions about one passage.

Take this sample question (modified from the example that the ACT provides on their website):

“It can reasonably be inferred that after seeing the first woman conducting a major orchestra, compared to the narrator of Passage B, the narrator of Passage A felt…”

Answering the question requires you to go back to passage A and see how that narrator felt after seeing a woman conduct a major orchestra, then do the same for passage B. Now, there are some strategies that you can use to help with eliminating answers (which I’ll discuss later in this article). But if you're aiming for a 26, you can afford to guess on the multi-passage questions.

The proof can be found in the sample scoring chart below:

 

Raw Score

Reading Score

Raw Score

Reading Score

Raw Score

Reading Score

40

36

29

24

11-12

12

39

35

27-28

23

9-10

11

38

34

26

22

8

10

--

33

25

21

7

9

37

32

23-24

20

6

810

36

31

22

19

5

7

35

30

20-21

18

4

6

34

29

19

17

3

5

33

28

18

16

--

4

32

27

16-17

15

2

3

31

26

14-15

14

1

2

30

25

13

13

0

1

 

Notice that if you’re aiming for a 26, you only need a raw score of 31 out of 40 questions.

If you guess on the 3-4 multipassage questions, you...

  1. can still miss another 5-6 questions on the Reading section and get a 26
  2. will now have 35 minutes to answer 36-37 questions – more time per question

Pick your favorite answer choice (A/F, B/G, C/H, or D/J) and fill it in for all the multipassage questions. If there are 3 multipassage questions, you have a 75% chance of getting one of them right…and you won’t have to spend more than a few seconds on the questions!

 

Strategy 3: Eliminate Answers

This is partially related to the strategy of answering questions on each individual passage first (because individual passage questions can help you out with the answers to questions on both passages). Questions that ask about both passages have to meet the same standard as questions about a single passage: there must be one unambiguously correct answer. What does this mean for multipassage questions? If part of an answer is wrong, then you can eliminate it completely.

For instance, take the example I used earlier:

7. Which of the following statements provides the most accurate comparison of the tone of each passage?

A. Passage A is fondly nostalgic, while Passage B is impersonal and scientific.
B. Passage A is optimistic and exuberant, while Passage B is sarcastic and cynical.
C. Both passages begin by conveying some sense of the narrator’s wonder but conclude with a note of disenchantment.
D. Both passages begin by conveying the narrator’s doubt but conclude with some sense of lasting pride.


Let’s say you’ve just finished answering questions about Passage B when you get to this question about both passages, so it’s clear in your mind.

You can tackle two of the answers right away. Look at answer A:

A. Passage A is fondly nostalgic, while Passage B is impersonal and scientific.

Ask yourself: Was Passage B impersonal and scientific? Let’s say no (for the sake of argument). Then it doesn’t matter if the part about passage A is correct – since the part about passage B is wrong, that whole answer is wrong.

What about answer B?

B. Passage A is optimistic and exuberant, while Passage B is sarcastic and cynical.

My thinking: For answer B, Passage A does start out exuberant, and Passage B does end with something sort of sarcastic or cynical. But, on the other hand, answer choice C,

C. Both passages begin by conveying some sense of the narrator’s wonder but conclude with a note of disenchantment,

...is definitely correct – Passage A starts out by saying “I was amazed to see a woman on stage” and Passage B with “I’d been hoping so long to read about someone like me doing something I wanted to do that I couldn’t stop my foot from nervously jiggling”, which both convey wonder, and A ends with “I guess it was too much to expect the newspapers would ignore her sex and focus on her musicianship” and B with “In the end, I didn’t feel bolstered by the performance; I felt more discouraged than ever”, which both convey disenchantment.

A common recommendation for eliminating answers is to cross out answers that suggest the passages are the same (since the ACT wants you to compare passages, what woudl the point be in comparing passages that are the same?).  As you can see from this example, however, eliminating answers that suggest the passages have similarities might cause you to get rid of the right answer, too.

body_marinalsop.jpgstk_000739 by Zé Carlos Barretta, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.

Don’t make Marin Alsop come after you for accidentally eliminating the right answer.

 

Strategy 4: Practice with Official SAT Paired Passages Questions

Honestly, this feels like a bit of a cop out. It’s weird to advise people to prepare for one test by using another one. Unfortunately, ACT Inc. doesn’t really leave students much choice in this case. As I've said before, the only official place online where paired passage questions appear is on the ACT student site, which provides you with three (3) (?!) questions on multiple passages for practice, and (as of July 1, 2015) the new "Preparing for the ACT" booklet (which includes the June 2014 ACT); this means that, in total, there are now six (6?!) questions on multiple passages (19 paired passage questions altogether). Check back soon for an article on why this makes preparing for ACT paired passages so difficult.

Despite the fact that paired passages have been appearing on actual ACTs since June 2014 (as per our co-founder Allen Cheng, who took the ACT then), ACT Inc. has not (as of the time of this article’s publication) yet released any official tests that include paired passages (UPDATE: As of July 1, 2015, there is now 1 official practice test with paired passages).

Luckily, just as the changes to the new SAT have made it resemble the ACT, so have some of the changes to the ACT made it more like the SAT; adding paired passage questions is one of those changes.

Be careful when using SAT paired passages to practice, though; there are two different types of paired passages on the SAT Critical Reading section, only one of which is really useful for ACT practice. One type of SAT paired passages involves really short (12-15 line) passages and 4-5 questions that (almost always) ask about both passages; this type is less useful for ACT Reading practice, since the passages are not comparable to those that will appear on the ACT. The other type of SAT paired passages involves long (approximately 45 line) passages with 12ish questions about individual passages mixed in with questions about both passages; because it's so similar to what is on the ACT, this type of paired passage is quite useful for ACT Reading practice.

So which particular official (and publicly available) SATs have paired passages? Go to our article with free links: every single one of the 8 tests listed there contains a set of 2 long (45 lines or so) paired passages with 12 questions each (for a total of 95 questions). That's 5x as many questions as the ACT currently provides to practice from (bonus math practice if you want to check that ratio).

This will also give you a chance to figure out what the most difficult question types are for you when it comes to paired passages. Since the ACT only has 6 multipassage questions publicly available, it's hard to know if there's a particular type of multipassage question you might struggle with more than others (although I can tell you right now that, in order of appearance on the ACT student site, the 3 questions there are author technique, little picture/detail, and inference questions). Use the SAT paired passage questions to hunt down your weaknesses and overcome them.

 

Strategies To Attack Paired Passage Questions: A Summary

1. Answer Single-Passage Questions First. Answering questions about individual passages will often give you clues to answer questions about both passages.

2. Guess On Multi-Passage Questions. Figure out which type of question you tend to get wrong and then focus on improving that skill.

3. Eliminate Answers. If part of an answer is wrong, then you can eliminate it entirely.

4. Practice With Official SAT Paired Passage Questions. Practice with SAT long paired passages to get used to answering questions on multiple passages.

 

What’s Next?

For more strategies, glance over my article on SAT paired passages (coming soon!).

What about answering questions on non-paired questions? Learn more about how to approach the passage on ACT Reading.

Wondering what will the ACT Reading passages be about? Read my article on the 4 Types of ACT Reading passages.

Dig into your ACT prep by studying each skill the ACT Reading questions test, starting with vocab-in-context questions. We’ll have more articles up like this soon.

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Laura Staffaroni
About the Author

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.



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