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The Best Way To Practice ACT Reading


At last, the time has come when you must tackle the ACT Reading. How can you practice for the ACT Reading? Where can you find ACT Reading practice questions? Is it even possible to practice for the Reading section? Read on for the answers to these questions.

feature image credit: Insomnia by Lauren Hammond, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.


A Brief Breakdown Of ACT Reading

To start off, I’m going to do a quick runthrough of the structure of ACT Reading. Feel free to skip over it to the Important Tips (™) (alas, not actually trademarked, unless I can trademark things just by typing the which case I just trademarked that). Also, a quick disclaimer: all of this information is for the current ACT. If there are any significant changes, we'll be sure to update this article accordingly.

Currently, the ACT Reading section consists of 40 passage-based multiple choice questions (each with four answer choices) which you must answer in 35 minutes. ACT Reading is always the third section of the test, and contains passages in four different content areas: Prose Fiction or Literary Narrative, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. The 40 questions are divided up equally among all the content areas.

Historically, there were only four passages on the ACT, with one passage in each content area; since June 2014, however, ACT, Inc. has begun to incorporate paired passages (two short passages with questions ask you about each passage and to compare the two passages in several ways) into the exam, which means that you may face up to 5 passages (across 4 subject areas) on the ACT. Unfortunately, there aren't really any good study materials for these paired passages out there yet - but more on that in an upcoming article.

If you want to read more about the ACT (and the Reading section in particular), look into our articles on the length of the ACT and what's actually tested on ACT Reading.

Now that you have a better idea of what exactly is on ACT Reading, let’s segue into tips for how to practice the ACT Reading section in the most effective way.


ACT Reading Practice Tip 1: Use Official ACT Tests

When you are practicing for the ACT, you MUST use official ACT questions. Why? Because only official ACT questions will test you the same way the real test does. Part of what is difficult about the ACT is that it takes concepts everyone knows (since it's standardized, it has to stick to standard knowledge) and then asks about them in weird ways. Therefore, the best way to insure you get used to the weird ways of questioning is to do actual ACT questions. As PrepScholar co-founder Allen Cheng has said, “If you train yourself on questions that aren't anything like what the ACT writes, you're going to learn the wrong patterns.”

So where can you find official tests? Well, to start out with, we've compiled a complete list of all the available free complete ACT tests. You can also buy The Real ACT (3rd edition) as well as ACT Inc's online prep program to gain access to additional official tests (more about where you can do that in this article). Finally, the PrepScholar test prep platform integrates up to 5 offical ACT tests as part of your customized study program.


ACT Reading Practice Tip 2: Practice Under Realistic Conditions

When you take the ACT, you’ll be constrained not only by the amount of time you have to answer Reading questions (35 minutes), but in when you take the Reading section. What do I mean by this? Only that on test day, you'll be taking the Reading section third, having already spent the first two hours or so on the English and Math sections. In all likelihood, your brain will be tired, and you won't get a break from Reading questions partway through - you must do all 40 at once. If switching back and forth between sections sound like it might be more up your alley, try reading our article on the differences between the SAT and ACT to see if the SAT might be a better match for you.

Bottom line: I recommend not only practicing Reading questions in isolation, but also doing Reading questions as part of at least one full-length timed practice test so you can get used to what it will feel like to have your brain possibly liquefied by the time you get to Reading.

Additionally, make sure to take at least one practice test at the same time of day you would be taking the ACTual ACT (I will never stop doing this) so that you'll have a good idea of how tired you might be. For example, if you're not a morning person, an 8 am test might mean you don't pay as much attention when reading a passage, as compared to studying and practicing Reading questions and passages in the afternoon.


body_snoozy.jpgsnoozy 260515 by Daemyeong Middle School, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped from original.

If this is you in the mornings, then a practice Reading section done in the afternoon may not be the best gauge of how you'll do on test day.


ACT Reading Practice Tip 3: Review Your Mistakes Effectively

The most important part of studying that many students skip over is EFFECTIVELY reviewing mistakes. Learning from your mistakes isn’t just a saying - it’s the single most useful tool for improving your test score. Yes, it’s tempting to just look at a question and go “oh, I made a stupid mistake” and just move on (I mean, what person wants to dwell on what she/he got wrong?). KLAXON! KLAXON! Failing to review your mistakes is the biggest mistake of all. To see real improvement in your score, you really need to get down into the nitty gritty of WHY you made the mistake.

For example, what kinds of QUESTIONS or PASSAGES do you struggle with? Do you tend to have problems with Prose Fiction passages, no matter what the question is asking? Maybe you struggle when answering inference questions on passages (Line 42 primarily suggests that…), or finding the main point of a paragraph. Identifying the types of questions you struggle with most is necessary for creating the most helpful study plan - there's no point in wasting precious prep time practicing questions you already know how to answer.

If your problems are with particular types of passages, you're in luck - we have an article with detailed explanations of each of the types of ACT passages. Have problems with passage-based questions? Go through our skills articles on vocabulary-in-context, big picture,little picture/detail, function and development, and inference questions.  You can also brush up your passage reading skills with our article on the best way to approach the passage on ACT Reading.


What about the kinds of MISTAKES you tend to make? Why did you make them? Don't just stop at surface explanations.

  • Surface reason: oh, I just ran out of time for this question because it was at the end of the Reading section. I totally could have gotten it since it was asking about a detail that was really easy to find.

This response is not helpful, because it doesn't make you learn from what you did wrong (and if you don't learn from your error, there's nothing to stop you from continuing to mess up).

  • Nitty gritty: I ran out of time because I spent too much time on the Prose Fiction passage and ran out of time by the time I got to the Natural Science questions. How can I avoid this in the future? I should figure out which passages are easiest for me and which are hardest, then make sure I start with the easiest ones (since I don't have to do the section in order). I also need to make sure that I really only skim on my first readthrough or read the questions first and do all the detail ones that don’t rely on having to read the whole passage.

Here's another example of possible reactions to getting a question wrong:

  • Surface reason: There were two answers that seemed like they were kind of right, and I went with the wrong one. Oh well. Nothing I can do about that.

A good start, but WHY did you go with the wrong one? You must look deeeeeeeeper.

  • Nitty gritty: I didn’t read the question carefully enough to get what it was really asking. Because of this, when I went back to the passage I wasn’t able to eliminate three wrong answers. Next time, I'll really focus on exactly what the question is asking and make sure I answer the question based only on the information in the passage, not based on my outside knowledge.

For even more detailed advice and suggestions on how to make sure you review mistakes in a way that improves your score, read my article here.


Action Plan

1. Get official tests to practice from. Learn the way the ACT asks you about concepts to avoid tripping up on questions you know the answer to.

2. Practice under realistic conditions. Don't neglect to do timed reading sections as well as full-length practice tests, so you can get used to switching from Reading to other subject areas and back to Reading again.

3. Mark questions you are unsure of when you are taking the test. This way, you’re not just reviewing questions you got wrong - you’re also reviewing questions you were shaky on.

4. Review your mistakes so you can pinpoint your higher level weaknesses and drill them. If there's a particular type of question you tend to mess up on, focus your studying on that skill type.

5. Do it all over again: never give up [your test prep], never surrender.

As you study, your weak areas may shift, so don’t hesitate to adapt your studying plan to fit your current skill level. For instance, if you had planned to spend a week studying each type of question, but find that after a couple of days you’ve already got the hang of answering questions that ask you to search for details in the passage, don’t waste your time spending five extra days on it - reallocate that time to an area that needs your attention more.

For more guidance and suggestions that might work for you, try reading our articles on how to get a 36 on ACT reading and tips from a 36 full scorer.

If you're really struggling with your prep, consider getting a tutor to help you structure your study and learn missing content. Contrary to what ACT Inc claims, the Reading section is much more about critical thinking skills than it is about knowing a particular curriculum, which means content-focused tutoring isn't necessarily helpful. However, it can still be helpful to get a tutor to help you create a structured study plan. On a completely unrelated note, one magnificent option for online tutoring can be found right here.


body_strugglebus.jpgCuritiba future bus stops by Sasha Aitkin, used under CC BY 2.0.

Get off the struggle bus and taxi to success with these strategies!


What’s Next

Want more tips on the best way to study for the ACT? Read our guide to improving your ACT score by 4+ points.

Go to the PrepScholar blog for articles targeted to each type of ACT Reading Question as well as articles about answering paired passage questions.

Interested in adding some tutoring to the mix? PrepScholar Tutors might be right for you!


Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points?

Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this Reading lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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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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