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Why ACT Reading Paired Passages Are So Hard

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | Jul 25, 2015 9:00:00 AM

ACT Reading


feature_pencilbiting.jpgPaired passages on the ACT are a relatively new phenomenon, first announced by ACT, Inc in spring of 2013. 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.

What are paired passages, why are they suddenly on the ACT, and what’s the best way to prep for them? Read on to find out.

feature image credit: Pencil Biting by Walt Stoneburner, used under CC BY 2.0.


ACT Reading Paired Passages: The Origin Story

As far as I’ve been able to research it out, the first time any mention of two short passages (paired pasages) appeared in the “preparing for the ACT” manual was 2012-2013 (in 2011-2012, the Reading section was still made up of “four prose passages” with questions that asked about individual passages). For a long time, however, despite the fact that as early as June 2014 the ACT was including paired passages on official test administrations (as per PrepScholar co-founder Allen Cheng, who took the ACT then), the only place with official practice for ACT paired passage questions was the ACT website, which provided 9 paired passage questions (3 of which asked about multiple passages).

Most prep books (including The Real ACT, 3rd (and current) edition, Kaplan's ACT Premier 2014 guide, the ACT Black Book, and Meltzer's The Complete Guide to ACT Reading) do not include paired passage practice questions, let along any strategies to deal with them.

As of July 2015, the new 2015-2016 "Preparing for the ACT" guide finally includes a test with paired passages and 10 questions on these passages (incuding another 3 on both passages). Fun fact: as I was looking through the new guide, I noticed that the ACT Reading questions looked really familiar, and so I double checked with Allen's June 2014 booklet (acquired through TIR) and confirmed that yes, the test included in the "Preparing for the ACT: 2015-2016" guide is the (US administered) June 2014 ACT.


Why Does This Make Paired Passages on ACT Reading Extra Difficult?

I don’t mean to climb on my soapbox, but I see this as more than a “minor” change. We at PrepScholar have always stated that the best way to practice for the ACT is to use actual ACT Reading practice questions, because only the ACT words the questions (and answer choices) in that certain way. If there are no (or relatively few) questions to practice with, how are students supposed to prepare for the test? Moreover, how can the scores of students who took the ACT without paired passages on the Reading section (any student who took the ACT prior to June 2014) be compared to those of students who are taking the ACT with paired passages (any student who took the test June 2014 or later)?

For the most part, answering a question about multiple passages is more difficult than answering a question about just one passage, because nswering questions on multiple passages requires you to synthesize more information and juggling multiple perspectives in your head, as you try to keep track of who said what where and when did she say it. This is definitely a valuable skill to develop, particularly for students heading to college. However, ACT Reading is already a big time crunch (35 minutes to answer 40 questions), and going from 4 to 5 passages, even if those passages are now 2/5 shorter, is not insignificant.

body_soapbox.jpgchubby soapbox by daretoeatapeach, used under CC BY 2.0.

This is clearly a photorealistic portrait of me done as I was writing this article. Clearly.


Paired Passage Question: A Comparison

Below is a comparison of a paired passage question with a single-passage question, modified to be on the same topic. For each question, I list the steps needed to successfully answer the question.

Paired passage example (adapted from an ACTual ACT Reading question):

Based on these two passages, which pair of phrases best compares Stark’s relationship to Science and Banner’s relationship to Science?

F. Aimless researcher versus idle dreamer
G. Fascinated onlooker versus pragmatic worker
H. Casual alchemist versus thoughtful artist
J. Indifferent outsider versus sarcastic farmer


How do you answer this question? You must go through Passage A and find information about Stark’s relationship to Science, then go to Passage B and find information about Banner’s relationship to Science, then compare the two, and then see which answer matches reality. That's a four step process. When answering a comparable question on a single passage, you only have to go through two steps. Take the following (adapted) ACT question:

Stark’s approach to the task of converting the junk in the cave to a functioning energy source can best be described as:

F. reluctant until his companion’s plans inspire him.
G. enthusiastic until his companion’s error puts them both in an awkward position.
H. apprehensive until he discovers his error is not a devastating one.
J. thrilled until he remembers that his companion is a poor planner.

All you need to do in order to answer this question is go through the passage and find information about Stark’s approach to converting junk into functioning energy source and then see which answer matches reality.


What Can I Do To Practice Paired Passages?

Since there are so few official sample questions out there, this makes it difficult (but not impossible!) to create tailored advice. I recommend starting with my article on how to attack paired passages in ACT Reading, which goes into great detail on this very topic. In short, though, here are the takeaway strategies from that article:

1. Answer questions on individual passages first. As I discussed above, questions on single passages are generally less complex than those on multiple passages, which makes them better to tackle first. In addition, answering questions on a particular passage may lead to your finding information that is useful for answering multipassage questions.

2. Guess on all multi-passage questions. If you’re not aiming for above a 31 on Reading, you can safely skip/guess on the 3 questions per ACT Reading section that ask about multiple questions, and still have some room for other errors. Choose your favorite letter pair (A/F, B/G, and so on) and go for it!

3. Eliminate three wrong answers (yes, that good old standby). Answer choices to questions on multiple passages tend to be relatively complicated, but this means that they can also be easier to eliminate, since if any part of the answer choice is wrong, then the whole thing must be wrong.

4. Practice with official SAT paired passage questions. Currently, there are 8 free official SAT practice tests that contain ACT-length paired passages. Each set of these paired passages has around 12 questions, for a total of 95 paired passage questions (yes, I did actually go in and count it). That's exactly 5x as many questions as compared to the 19 total (not just free, but TOTAL) official paired passage questions provided by the ACT.


What’s Next?

Want to make sure you're practicing ACT Reading as effectively as possible? Find out more about paired passages and strategies to help answer questions on multiple passages here.

How should you approach passages in the first place? Our blog has explanations of three different ways to approach the passage on ACT Reading.

Want to improve your ACT Reading skills? Read our series of targeted articles on big picture, little picture, and vocab in context questions - articles about function and inference questions on ACT Reading are coming soon!


Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points? 

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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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