One of the nice things about the ACT is that it doesn't change all that much from test to test. This is especially true for the Reading section: Reading is always the third section of the ACT, there will always be passages on four subject areas, and each subject area will have 10 questions.
So what are the 4 types of ACT Reading passages? Read on to find out!
feature image credit: Four by Jukka Zitting, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
4 Passages To Rule Them All
The 4 types of passages on the ACT are always the same, and always presented in same order: 1. Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative, 2. Social Science, 3. Humanities, and 4. Natural Science.
ACT, Inc. has an exhaustive list of all the topics that might be covered in each of these areas, but it's kind of overwhelming. To make it a little easier to understand what exactly is covered in each subject area, I've summarized each passage type, along with the questions that you’re likely to see on them, below.
Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative
These passages usually consist of excerpts from fiction or literary memoirs. You're likely to be asked...
- questions about the main theme
- questions about the narrator's tone and intent (e.g. what did the narrator mean when she used this particular phrase or word?)
- which questions are and are not answered by the passage
These passages usually consist of straightforward discussions of topics in the social sciences, including areas like psychology (study of the mind), sociology (study of societies), and education. You're likely to be asked...
- to paraphrase how information from the passage describes subject of the passage
- which statements the author would agree with (that is, what's the main point of the passage)
If the passage is about a particular person (like Harriet Tubman), there will often be questions about the passage subject’s point of view, rather than author’s point of view (in contrast with Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative or Humanities passages, which often deal with the author or narrator's points of view).
These passages from can be from personal essays or memoirs, as well as on humanities subject areas like the arts, literature, media, or philosophy.
Questions on Humanities passages are similar to Prose Fiction in that you're more likely to be asked about the tone or point of view of the passage or the narrator as compared to the Social Science or Natural Science passages.
These passages are nonfiction writing about SCIENCE. The topics can range from subjects that you've probably covered in school, like bio, chemistry, or physics, to more esoteric areas like astronomy, technology, or medicine (no paleontology yet, but I can always dream).
You do not need a science background to understand the passages; all you need are solid reading comprehension skills. (The same is true of the ACT Science section). Becoming familiar with science writing, however, might make you feel less intimidated by these passages when you have to deal with them on the ACT.
Similar to Social Science questions, Natural Science questions tend to be more focused on specific detail or statements that can be backed up with evidence from passage. A typical question you might see is "Which of the following statements is supported by the information in the fourth paragraph?"
How Do I Know Where My Problems Are?
So how do you know if you struggle with some passage types more than others? Follow these steps to find out your weaknesses.
Step 1: Take a timed practice ACT test, in order, and score it.
Because Reading appears third on the ACT, it's important to take it as part of an entire timed and in-order ACT. How your brain copes with the Reading section when you're just practicing reading passages and answering questions on them is very likely different than how it will do after it's been tired out by English and Math.
Step 2: Compare your Social Studies/Sciences and Arts/Literature subscores.
Your Social Studies/Sciences subscore is simply the combination of your scores on questions on Social Science and Natural Science passages, while your Arts/Literature subscore is the combination of your scores on questions on Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative/Humanities passages. Most official scoring charts will provide you with the information you'll need to calculate these subscores, which will be out of 20. You can even calculate them for yourself: your Arts/Litereature subscore = questions 1-10 + questions 21-30, while Social Studies/Sciences subscore = questions 11-20 + questions 31-40.
Is there a significant difference between your Social Studies/Sciences and Arts/Literature subscores? More than a 1-2 point difference between subscores indicates a difference worth checking into. For instance, if you got a 12/20 Social Studies/Sciences subscore and a 17/20 Arts/Literature subscore, you definitely would want to focus your studying on Social Science and Natural Science passages.
Step 3: For each of the four passage types, compare how many questions you answered incorrectly.
Since there are 10 questions in each section, it's pretty easy to do percentages - 1 question wrong is 90%, 4 questions wrong is 60%, and so on. Comparing your scores on each of the passage types can be really illuminating, because it can shed light on areas you may not have realized you had issues with.
Remember, it’s not just important that you’re comfortable with reading the passages: it’s important that you can successfully extract info from them to answer questions correctly.
Example from my life: Prose Fiction passages are the least straightforward to read for me, but I find the questions on these types of passages the easiest because there are fewer concrete things to ask about (especially when compared to Social Science or Natural Science passages). When I did a timed practice Reading ACT, I got 1 wrong on Social Science and 2 wrong on Natural Sciences passages; if I were taking the test for real, I would start my studying by first focusing on Natural Science passages and then Social Science passages.
Step 4: To be absolutely certain, take multiple timed ACT practice tests
Sometimes, even if you normally do well on a passage type, a particularly difficult passage can throw you and cause you to get more questions wrong than you normally would in that area. If you think that might have been the case on the timed ACT practice test you took, and you have the time, do not hesitate to take another timed practice test. The more accurate data you have, the better you can structure your studying.
Step 5: Once you know which passages you struggle with questions on, focus your reading preparation on those passages.
While there are some questions that tend to appear more on some passage types than others (more on this in upcoming articles), most of the different types of questions can and will be asked about each of the four passage types. By focusing on the particular passage type you have trouble with, you'll both increase your skill at extracting information from passages you find challenging as well as familiarizing yourself with the different ways the ACT will question you (a skill which then will carry across all passage types).
Be a detective and hunt down your weakest ACT Reading passage types.
What Do I Do Next?
Now that you know about the 4 types of passages, learn more about how to do well on ACT Reading.
Want more in depth information about what's actually tested on ACT Reading? We have the article for you.
Find out the best way to approach ACT Reading passages with our complete guide.
Having problems with finishing the ACT Reading in time? Read our article for tips on how to avoid this dreadful fate.
Aiming for a top score? Read about how you can get a 36 on ACT Reading.
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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.