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How to Attack Paired Passages in ACT Reading

Posted by Laura Staffaroni | May 1, 2018 7:00:00 PM

ACT Reading

 

feature_twotoads.jpgPaired passages on the ACT have been around since 2013, and they can make the Reading section seem a lot more difficult than it really is. After all, you're required to answer multiple questions to two whole reading passages! But there are ways to do this effectively.

How should you go about attacking ACT Reading paired passages? Read on for our best strategies.

Feature Image: Randy Robertson/Flickr

 

Paired Passages on ACT Reading: 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 one set of paired passages per ACT. I've only seen them in literary narrative or humanities sections, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pop up elsewhere.

The set of paired passages will have 10 questions altogether; the first few questions will be about passage A, while the next few will be about passage B. The final three to four questions (I’ve only seen three, but I’m using a range to be on the safer side) will ask about both passages. 

The presence of paired passages on ACT Reading allows ACT, Inc. to test students' abilities to "use evidence to make connections between different texts that are related by topic."

 

Attacking Paired Passages on ACT Reading: 4 Strategies

There's no one surefire strategy that'll let you power through questions on paired passages. Why? Depending on how you approach ACT reading passages, certain strategies simply might not work as well for you.

I've gathered together my top four strategies for mastering paired-passage questions on ACT Reading. I recommend trying all of them out and then using the one that works best for you!

 

Strategy 1: Start by Answering Questions on Individual Passages

For paired passages, I highly recommend answering all the questions about each individual passage before moving on to the multi-passage questions. Even if you're planning to guess on questions that ask about multiple passages (more on why you might want to do that later), it’s still worth it to take time to answer questions dealing with individual passages.

But why? The advantage of answering questions that refer to a single passage before moving on to multi-passage questions is twofold.

For one, each passage that's part of a pair of passages is shorter and less complicated than the standalone long passages. This is because you're comparing two separate passages and not just focusing on one. As a result, it's usually easier to answer questions on one or the other of the set of paired passages, compared with questions on the longer, unpaired passageseach of the paired passages has fewer words after all, making it easier to find details in them.

Secondly, the questions the ACT asks about each individual passage will help you with the multi-passage questions. For example, take a look at the two questions below about individual passages (adapted from official ACT sample questions):

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). This information isn’t necessarily enough to give you the answer to question 7 (the one about both passages), but it might help you eliminate some answers.

 

Strategy 2: Guess on Multi-Passage Questions

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

 

body_confusion.jpg

 W-w-w-w-whaaaaat? (Hamner_Fotos/Flickr)

 

I know—this strategy sounds like it could be risky. But based on the 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 two passages are (unsurprisingly) far more complex than those that ask you to answer questions about one passage.

Take this sample question (modified from a sample question on the ACT, Inc. 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 this question requires you to go back to passage A to determine how the narrator felt after seeing a woman conduct a major orchestra. You must then do the same for passage B.

There are some strategies you can use to help with eliminating answers (which I’ll discuss later in this article). But if you're aiming for a 26 on ACT Reading, you can afford to guess on the multi-passage questions.

The proof can be found in the sample scoring chart below, taken from the most recent official ACT practice test. As a reminder, a raw score is equal to the number of questions you got right. (For more information, check out our in-depth guide to ACT scoring.)

Note that although this scoring chart does not apply universally to every ACT Reading section, it should give you a general idea of how many questions you'll need to answer correctly in order to get a certain scale score on Reading.

Raw Score

Reading Score

Raw Score

Reading Score

Raw Score

Reading Score

40

36

27

24

9-10

12

39

35

25-26

23

8

11

38

34

24

22

6-7

10

37

33

22-23

21

9

35-36

32

21

20

5

8

34

31

19-20

19

4

7

33

30

18

18

3

6

32

29

17

17

5

31

28

15-16

16

2

4

30

27

14

15

3

29

26

12-13

14

1

2

28

25

11

13

0

1

 

As this chart indicates, if you’re aiming for a 26 on ACT Reading, you only need a raw score of about 29 out of 40 questions.

If you guess on the three or four multi-passage questions, you:

  • Can still miss another five to six questions on the Reading section and get a 26
  • Will now have 35 minutes to answer 34-35 questions, giving you 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 multi-passage questions. If there are three multi-passage questions, you'll have a 75% chance of getting one of them right ... and you won’t have to spend more than a few seconds on any one of them!

 

Strategy 3: Use the Process of Elimination

This tip is partially related to strategy 1. 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.

But what does this mean for multi-passage questions? If part of an answer is wrong, then you can immediately eliminate that answer choice.

For instance, take the ACT Reading 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). It doesn’t matter, then, whether the part in this answer choice about passage A is correct or not—since the part about passage B is wrong, that whole answer is wrong.

What about answer choice B? Let's take a look:

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

My thinking: for answer choice B, passage A does start out exuberant, and passage B does end with something sort of sarcastic or cynical.

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 with the sentence, "I was amazed to see a woman on stage," while passage B starts 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." Both of these intro sentences convey a sense of wonder. 

Moreover, passage A ends with, "I guess it was too much to expect the newspapers would ignore her sex and focus on her musicianship," while B ends with, "In the end, I didn’t feel bolstered by the performance; I felt more discouraged than ever." Both of these convey disenchantment.

A common recommendation for using the process of elimination is to cross out any answers that suggest that the passages are the same (the ACT wants you to compare passages, so what would be the point in comparing two nearly identical ones?).

As you can see from the example above, though, eliminating answers that point out the passages' similarities might cause you to get rid of the right answer, too. So read carefully!

 

body_marin_alsop_conductorDon’t make Marin Alsop come after you for accidentally eliminating the right answer. (Governo do Estado de São Paulo/Flickr)

 

Strategy 4: Practice With Official SAT Paired-Passage Questions

Honestly, this feels like a bit of a cop-out. It’s weird to advise students to prepare for one test by using questions from another one.

Unfortunately, ACT Inc. doesn’t leave students much choice. The only official (and free) paired-passage questions available are the three on the ACT, Inc. website and the three in the most recent official ACT practice test. This means that, in total, there are six multi-passage questions you can use for practice (19 paired-passage questions altogether). This lack of practice questions is partly what makes preparing for ACT paired passages so difficult.

Luckily, recent changes to the SAT have made the test strongly resemble the ACT—and both have paired-passage questions on their respective Reading sections.

SAT paired passages involve long (approximately 45-line) passages with a few questions about each passage followed by some questions about both passages. In total, there are about 10-11 questions per paired passage set on the SAT. Because this format is so similar to that on the ACT, SAT paired passages are quite useful for ACT Reading practice.

Every official SAT practice test contains a set of paired passages with 10-11 questions (for a total of more than 80 questions). That's about four times as many paired-passage questions as ACT, Inc. currently provides for practice (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 ACT, Inc. only has six multi-passage questions available, it's hard to know if there's a particular type of multi-passage question you struggle with more than others. Use the SAT paired-passage questions to hunt down your weaknesses and overcome them.

 

How to Attack Paired-Passage Questions: A Summary

As you can see, paired passages on ACT Reading can be tricky—but they're certainly not impossible to master. To wrap up, let's briefly go over the four best strategies you can use to attack paired passages:

  • Answer single-passage questions first: Answering questions about individual passages will often give you clues you can later use to answer questions that deal with both passages.
  • Guess on multi-passage questions: Figure out which type of question you tend to get wrong and then focus on improving that skill.
  • Use the process of elimination: If even just part of an answer is wrong, you can eliminate that answer choice immediately. Remember the rule: there is only ever one unambiguously correct answer.
  • Practice with official SAT paired-passage questions: Since not many ACT paired-passage questions are available for practice, it's a good idea to use SAT paired-passage questions so you can get more used to answering questions that address multiple passages.

 

What’s Next?

For more reading strategies, take a look at my article on SAT paired passages.

What about answering questions on non-paired passages? Learn more about how to approach passages on ACT Reading with our in-depth guide.

Wondering what will the ACT Reading passages be about? Read my article on the four types of ACT Reading passages to learn everything you need to know.

Dig into your ACT prep by studying each skill the Reading section tests, starting with vocab-in-context questions.

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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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