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What's Actually Tested on the ACT Reading section? Skills You Need

Posted by Rebecca Safier | May 2, 2015 5:00:00 PM

ACT General Info, ACT Reading



Just like the ACT has four different sections, the ACT Reading section has four different types of passages for you to read. This article breaks down exactly what's on this section of the ACT so you can plan your best approach.

First, let's consider how the ACT Reading section is formatted.


Format of the ACT Reading

The ACT Reading section asks 40 questions in 35 minutes. There are three single passages and one set of paired passages (usually either in the Prose Fiction or Humanities subject areas). Since there are four different categories of passage, this means 10 questions after each one. Each of these questions has four answer choices, A, B, C, and D.

Since there are more questions than there are minutes, this leaves you with about 52 seconds per question. Actually, it will be considerably less since you'll be spending a portion of your time reading. This is a doable task, but you'll want to spend some time working on the best ways to manage your time.

In terms of the entire test, the Reading section is the third section you do, right after you have a break. This can be really good timing, as the first two sections get you warmed up and then you have a quick break to refresh and refocus.

Just like the order of sections, the Reading is consistent in what kinds of passages it presents to you. Let's take a look at the subject areas from which the passages are taken.


Types of Passages

The five passages on the Reading section always come from these four topic areas: humanities, social studies, natural sciences, and literary fiction. You're not expected to have any pre-existing knowledge about any of the passage topics. Everything you need to know to answer the questions will be there in the text.

Since these topics can cover a large number of subtopics, this chart breaks it down a little more specifically, along with some examples of passage sources from sample ACT Reading questions that introduce passages and help you put them into context. As you can see with the Natural Sciences passage, the blurb might define any subject-specific words that you might need to know to understand the text.

A typical social studies passage might be taken from a textbook, a natural sciences passage from an article, a literary narrative direct from a book, and a humanities passage from an essay or memoir.

Passage Subject


Sample ACT Passage Introductions

Social Studies

anthropology, archaeology, biography, business, economics, education, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociology.

This passage is adapted from the chapter “Personality Disorders” in Introduction to Psychology, edited by Rita L. Atkinson and Richard C. Atkinson (1981).

Natural Sciences

anatomy, astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, ecology, geology, medicine, meteorology, microbiology, natural history, physiology, physics, technology, and zoology.

This passage is adapted from the article “How to Build a Baby’s Brain” by Sharon Begley (1997 by Newsweek, Inc.). In this selection, the term neuron refers to a specialized cell of the nervous system, and tomography refers to a method of producing three-dimensional images of internal structures.


short stories, excerpts from novels, memoirs, or personal essays

This passage is adapted from the novel The Men of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1998).


architecture, art, dance, ethics, film, language, literary criticism, music, philosophy, radio, television, and theater.

This passage is adapted from “A Poem of One’s Own,” an essay by Mary Jo Salter in which she discusses feminist literary critics’ recent reappraisal of women’s writing. The essay was taken from Audiences and Intentions: A Book of Arguments (1994).



If you feel much more confident about reading about the natural sciences, for example, than about social studies, you might choose to locate that passage in your Reading section and do that one first. Some students skip around so they can answer questions about their favorite subjects first. The questions are not ordered by difficulty, so it's fine to choose your own order, as long as you're not wasting valuable time trying to choose where to start.

Now that you have a sense of what kind of passages you'll encounter, let's talk about the skills tested on the ACT Reading section.



You'll need some different skills for the ACT Reading.


Skills Tested on ACT Reading

What skills do you need to bring to the table to understand and answer questions about these passages? According to the ACT, you must use referring and reasoning skills to accomplish the following:

  • Understand main ideas
  • Locate details within a passage and interpret them
  • Interpret sequence of events and flow of ideas
  • Make comparisons
  • Understand cause-effect relationships
  • Determine the meaning of words, phrases, and statements in context (these are usually straightforward, but may be used in an unusual or significant way in context)
  • Draw generalizations
  • Analyze the author's or narrator's tone and purpose

These are all skills that you develop and improve upon in your English classes. You can further hone your skills by reading widely and often.

The ACT asks 5 main types of questions in order to test these skills. I'll break down these 5 question types and give examples below so you know exactly what to expect and how you can prepare.


Types of ACT Reading Questions

The 5 main types of questions on the ACT Reading test these skills of understanding main ideas, locating details, and interpreting purpose and voice. Not only will you keep a close eye on what's directly stated, you'll also be called upon to interpret and analyze implied meanings. There's not huge leeway for interpretation, though - even seemingly subjective questions will only ever have one 100% unambiguously correct answer.

Without further ado, the 5 types of questions on the ACT Reading:


1. Main Idea

These questions ask you about the main point or theme of the passage.

For example: The main point of this passage is to:

A. illustrate the importance of genetics in the formation of a baby's brain.
B. illustrate the importance of stimulation and experience in the formation of a baby's brain.
C. indicate the great need for conducting further research on babies' brains.
D. compare the latest research on babies' brains with similar research conducted fifteen years ago.

2. Detail 

These questions will often refer you to a specific line in the text and ask what it means.

For example: The fourth paragraph (lines 31-37) establishes all of the following EXCEPT:

A. that Abshu had foster brothers
B. that the Masons maintained a clean house.
C. how Mother Mason felt about the location of their house.
D. what Abshu remembered most about his years with the Masons.

3. Vocabulary

These questions will point you to a specific word or phrase and ask what it means or how it functions in context. These questions often point to a common word or phrase that might be being used in an unusual way.

For example: As it is used in line 65, the term the edge refers to a place where Abshu felt:

A. most alive
B. unfulfilled
C. defeated
D. most competitive

4. Function & Development

These questions ask you to describe the effect of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph in the context of an entire passage. Function questions tend to be about smaller amounts of text:

For example: The narrator’s statement “I am looking at the MOON, I told myself, I am looking at the MOON” (lines 60–62) is most nearly meant to:

F. reflect the excitement of the astronauts as they prepare to land.
G. illustrate the narrator’s disappointment with the moon’s barren appearance.
H. express the narrator’s irritation at having to wait for Apollo to land.
J. convey the narrator’s awe at the event that is being broadcast.


Development questions, on the other hand, will as you to think about larger ideas. How are ideas arranged within the passage? Does the passage introduce its thesis right away, or eventually build up to its main point? Does it offer countering opinions, or does each paragraph expand on the previous?

For example: The last paragraph of Passage A (lines 37-49) marks a shift in the passage from:

A. a description of events leading up to a sudden action by the narrator to a reflection on the intentions and meanings behind that action.
B. an overview of a family dilemma to an explanation of how the narrator solved that dilemma.
C. an example of the narrator's typical response to family events to an analysis of the narrator's personality.
D. a chronology of a historical event to a summary of the narrator's circumstances at the time.

5. Implied Ideas 

These are inference questions. What does a line, paragraph, or the whole passage imply?

For example: It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that which of the following is a cherished dream that Abshu expects to make a reality in his lifetime?

A. Establishing himself financially so as to be able to bring his original family back under one roof
B. Seeing the children at the community center shift their interest from sports to the dramatic arts
C. Building on the success of the community center by opening other centers like it throughout the state
D. Expanding for some, if not all, of the children the vision they have of themselves and their futures


These examples illustrate the question types, but if you want to see the passages they refer to and understand them in context, you can read them them here, as well as try the remaining questions. 

To equip yourself with the tools you need to tackle these questions, you should study up on the literary terms you've learned in your English classes. Don't just study their definitions, but actively apply them to texts that you read, as you'll have to do on the ACT Reading. There's a big difference between knowing that tone refers to the attitude a work takes towards its subjects or audience, whether it be formal, playful, or condescending, and actually determining the tone of a given text.

Let's touch on some other approaches and strategies you need to know to excel on the ACT Reading.


Tips and Strategies for the ACT Reading

By knowing how the test works, you're already taking an informed approach to the ACT Reading and eliminating the chance of unexpected surprises on test day. You also want to plan your approach for reading the passages and balancing your time between reading and answering questions. Is it better to read the passage or the questions first? Should you read thoroughly or skim? You can learn more about the best approaches for ensuring your reading comprehension while making good time here.

Your mindset plays an important role in your reading comprehension, too. If you can try to make yourself really interested in the passages and intrigued by the random information you're about to learn, you'll actually be able to read faster and retain more.  Read this article for more tips on the best way to practice ACT Reading.

The ACT tests your ability to recall information quickly and use evidence to back up your answers. The best way to practice these skills is through ACT Reading test prep with high quality questions and simply through reading extensively in and out of school. While this approach is more difficult to measure, frequent reading will make you a sharper and better reader over time.

For more strategies for conquering the ACT Reading section, you can read all the important tips from this perfect 36 scorer. Again, knowing exactly what's on the test is the first step in your preparation, so you're already making progress in your quest to conquer the ACT Reading.


What's Next?

The best way to prep for the ACT is with official ACT practice questions. Check out these 5 official printable ACT Tests, along with 6 strategies to get the most out of your studying.

Are you aiming for perfection on the ACT, one section at a time? This full scorer explains how he got a 36 on the ACT and how his strategies can work for you, too.

What ACT scores are you aiming for? Rather than just seeing what happens, you can take control by determining your target scores and following the test prep plan you need to achieve them. Read all about how to set your target ACT scores here.

Want to improve your ACT score by 4+ points? Download our free guide to the top 5 strategies you need in your prep to improve your ACT score dramatically.

Raise Your ACT Score by 4 Points (Free Download)


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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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