Ultimate Guide to the ACT: Reading Section
tl;dr: Welcome to the ACT Reading Section guide! Here, we'll break down the question types and give you strategies to get an awesome score on the reading section. We'll go over logistics, tips and tricks, and the 3 main types of questions: main idea, specific detail-oriented, and vocabulary. Be sure to interact with the text, time yourself, and don't stress if you don't know every answer. Good luck!
ACT: Reading Section Tips and Tricks
Welcome to the ACT reading guide! We'll break down the question types and give you some strategies to make sure you get an awesome score on the reading section! 🎉
❓ What are the ACT Sections?
When you sit down to take the ACT exam, you will have 4-5 sections on the test, depending on whether you choose to take the essay section! 📃The sections are:
- English (aka Grammar) 📑
- Math 📊
- Reading 📚
- Science 🧪
- Writing/Essay 📝 (OPTIONAL ⚠️)
After the math section of the test, you'll dive right in to the reading section of the ACT! 🤩 AKA THE BEST PART!
⏲️ Logistics and Types of Questions
The reading is the 3rd section of the ACT standardized test. You will answer 40 questions in 35 minutes. This works out to be around 53 seconds per question, so this section is fast-paced! ⌚
❓Breakdown of the Questions
The ACT reading test will contain 4 sections. 3 of the 4 sections will have 1 long prose passage, and 1 of the 4 sections will have a pair of shorter prose passages. There will be approximately 10 questions for each of the 4 sections. You will not need any outside knowledge about the topics presented in the passages to answer the multiple-choice questions.
The passages that you will be asked to analyze can be split up by subject:
- 📚 Literary Narrative
- 🌎 Humanities
- 💭 Social Sciences
- 🌳 Natural Sciences
Each of these will test different skills, which is what we will talk about next!
According to the ACT, there are 3 main categories that the test is assessing you on. Each of the categories also has some specific skills that you need to be aware of. Here they are:
🔎 Key Ideas and Details (55-60% — 22-24 questions)
- Read texts closely to determine central ideas and themes.
- Summarize information and ideas accurately.
- Read closely to understand relationships and draw logical inferences and conclusions including understanding sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationships.
📑 Craft and Structure (25-30% — 10-12 questions)
- Determine word and phrase meanings.
- Analyze an author’s word choice rhetorically.
- Analyze text structure.
- Understand authorial purpose and perspective.
- Analyze the characters’ points of view.
- Interpret authorial decisions rhetorically and differentiate between various perspectives and sources of information.
🔁 Integration of Knowledge and Ideas (13-18% — 5-7 questions)
- Understand the authors’ claims, differentiate between facts and opinions, and use evidence to make connections between different texts that are related by topic.
- Some questions will require students to analyze how authors construct arguments, evaluating reasoning, and evidence from various sources.
Standards taken from the ACT website.
General Tips and Tricks 🎉
Before we move into the specific kinds of questions, let's go through a few general tips and tricks that you can use on the ACT reading section:
1. Interact with the Text ✍
As you're reading, make sure you are actively engaging with the text. Whether this involves circling important ideas or quotes, underlining words you don't know, or jotting down notes about the text in the margin, this will help you better comprehend the story and stay awake! 😴
As you're studying, you might want to use certain markings that indicate different types of annotations — for example, you might use a circle for all vocab words that you don't know. If you're consistent, this will help you on the exam! 🙂
2. Time Yourself ⏱
As stated earlier, this section doesn't give you too much time! Therefore, it's important that you make use of every second given to you. As you read, try to take note 📝 of the main ideas and themes which could possibly help you when answering the questions.
Additionally, skim through the questions before you start reading the passage. Then, as you go through the passage, make notes of words 🔤 or sentences that might help you answer the questions.
3. Don't Stress 🙂
It's okay if you're not certain about every question! Do your best, and if you can't figure out a question, circle it, choose a random answer, and move on! Then, you can come back to the question at the end of the exam if you have time. You don't need to get every question correct to get a good score! 🙌
Types of Questions with Examples and Strategies ⁉
Let's go through each of the types of questions you'll see on the ACT reading section. There are 3 main types and we'll go through each of them!
1. ACT Main Idea Questions 📃
With these questions, you are asked to either look at the passage as a whole OR look at a specific portion of the passage as a whole. The questions will ask you to determine either the main idea (generally for the literary narrative) or the main argument (for the other passages - humanities, social science, and science.)
📄 Main Idea Questions - Tips and Strategies 🤓
- 🔎 Identification: Figuring out which questions are looking for the main idea should be pretty easy. They will have the terms "main idea," "purpose," "focus," in them, and could either refer to the entire passage or a specific paragraph.
- 🤔 Figuring Out the Main Idea: As you read, think about the following question: If you had to summarize the entire passage in ONE sentence, what would it be? This probably is going to get you to the main idea.
- 📑 Let's say you are asked for the main idea of a paragraph. The main idea of a paragraph is NOT going to be the same as the passage. When looking for the main idea of a paragraph, you should be looking for specifically what THAT paragraph is trying to convey.
💡A variation of this type of question would be when you are asked about the purpose or function of a paragraph. In this case, you're looking at both the main idea of the paragraph AND the main idea of the passage. Then, you're looking to see how the paragraph fits into the passage and WHY it helps to support the main idea of the passage. 📑
- 💬 Thinking about Tone: In many of the paired passages, you may be asked to identify differences in the tone between the two presented texts. Think about this as you are reading, and try to figure out how the author is trying to convey their attitude towards the sub
Let's look at a main idea practice question through a science (specifically natural science) passage:
It's clear when reading the question that it is asking for the main idea of the passage as a whole. This means you are NOT looking at a specific paragraph, but the entire selection. 📑
As you read through the passage, you might notice that the first and second paragraphs focus heavily on the shape of the 🌐 galaxy, with mentions of a plum-pizza structure and the warped disk of the galaxy. The third paragraph begins with a question: "Why does the Milky Way have such an odd-looking structure?" After this point, the passage presents an analysis done by Jeremy Bailin, which discusses the interaction between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy. 🤔
Based on what we've read, you can see that almost the entire passage is devoted to A) discussing the shape of the galaxy and B) a detailed analysis of the evidence that explains why the warp in the Milky Way galaxy may be present. 💭
Based on this, it is clear that the main idea 📄 of the passage is best described by answer choice D — the evidence (Jeremy Bailin's study) suggests that the warp in the Milky Way's disk (mentioned in the first 2 paragraphs) results from the Milky Way's interaction with a small satellite galaxy (discussed throughout the rest of the passage). 💭
Additional Practice Question - Literary Narrative:
The narrator of the passage can best be described as a swimmer who primarily: A. recalls the swim of his life and the factors that motivated him during that swim.
B. remembers the events that inspired him to participate in a time trial at the Junior Nationals.
C. contrasts the joy of winning competitions early in the season with his later struggles to succeed.
D. chronicles his swimming career, from childhood through high school.
Question taken from ACT Practice Test 2020-2021
Answer & Explanation
This passage is based on a character who discusses one of the best swims he had in his life, and what happened during his swim. This is a consistent idea that is developed as the story progresses. Therefore, the answer is A.
2. ACT Specific Detail-Oriented Questions 🤔
Detail-oriented questions are the second type of ACT reading question we're going to talk about! These questions often ask you to examine why a specific detail is important in the larger context of the paragraph or passage, and ask you to utilize your reading comprehension skills to find this out. 🙌
Another way these questions may appear is through the form of an "inference" question. You will be asked to use specific details or parts of the passage to make an inference.
Detail Oriented Questions - Tips and Strategies 🤓
- 🔎 Identification: Figuring out which questions are the detail-oriented questions is pretty easy! Many of these have a specific line number reference, or begin with "according to the narrator/passage." These phrases may help you narrow down your search.
- 🔁 Matching: You need to be able to match what is asked in the question with specific detail in the story. Often, the correct answer choice is a paraphrased or summarized version of what is in the actual passage.
- 🤓 Skim or Read? For the detail-oriented questions, it may be more helpful to skim the reading. If you tend to get most of these questions correct, then it might be helpful to skim the passage as soon as you read the questions to see if you can answer any of them right off the bat. On the other hand, reading thoroughly will help you with the main idea questions.
- ❌ Elimination: This type of question is a great example of where elimination can be super helpful. Although eliminating is useful for ALL multiple choice questions in any subject, because these questions are detail-oriented, you can immediately cross off 1 or 2 choices that are likely very obviously incorrect.
- 💭 Craft Your Own Answer: This strategy is especially helpful for inference questions. When presented with an inference question, you should first look at the lines where the information from the question is. Based on these lines, try to craft your own answer—whether that's on paper or in your head.
Let's look at an inference-based detail question!
Question taken from ACT Practice Test 2020-2021
This question is asking WHEN "centers of crop diversity" are crucially important. First, let's start reading at least from the 📑 beginning of the previous paragraph. Through this paragraph, we learn about how it is important to know where food 🌱 comes from, and how the variety of food is extremely important in dealing with food insecurity, famine, and other issues. It discusses how when existing food supply is not enough, we end up relying on variety.
This is further established in lines 74-79, when the "centers of crop diversity" are mentioned, and how the diversity 🌐 is so important each time our "society whittles the resilience in our fields and orchards..."
Through this, we can assume that when there are problems, a key solution is variety in crops. This is reinforced further by the new varieties that were "nurtured" ("brought to life"/cultivated). 🍎
What matches this the best? Answer choice B — problems with a cultivated crop requires experts to research a new variety. 🎉
Additional Practice Question - Literary Narrative:
Question taken from ACT Practice Test 2020-2021
Answer & Explanation
In this question, we're looking for a specific place in the passage where the narrator makes a comparison between practicing in the outdoor and indoor pool. We can see this in lines 45-48. The narrator talks about the joys of swimming in an outdoor pool, and compares that to the "dank and moldy indoor pool." This makes the best answer choice C — the indoor pool was less appealing than the outdoor pool.
3. ACT Vocabulary Questions 🔤
The next type of question we're going to discuss is the one that involves vocabulary! With this type of question, you will be asked to determine what a word means based on context clues. These questions will be presented in two ways...which leads us into our section on tips and tricks! 🎉
Vocabulary Questions - Tips and Strategies 🤓
- 🔍 Identification: The two types of questions are...
- 📑 In Context: These questions will present you with a line number ("in line 40, _____ most nearly means....") and you will be asked to use context clues to find what the specified word means.
- 📖 Reading + Context: These questions will often ask you to choose the answer choice (vocabulary word) that best represents a certain section of the passage.
- 📝 Use Context Clues Effectively: This is the biggest strategy for these types of questions. If the question asks you about a word that is in line 40, it's wise to start reading at the beginning of the paragraph that line 40 is located in, and read a few sentences past line 40 as well. This will help you figure out exactly what to do.
- 👀 Watch out for words with multiple definitions! Often, words that are tested in the vocabulary section, especially the "in context" questions are words with multiple meanings. Make sure you don't choose a definition just because it is the common definition. You MUST use context clues to answer these questions, not just prior knowledge. ‼
- ❌ Elimination: The elimination strategy is especially useful with vocabulary questions because if you know that a definition does not fit, you can immediately cross it off. Then, you have a higher chance of getting the question right!
Let's look at a few example questions.
The first one is from this literary narrative passage:
Question taken from ACT Practice Test 2020-2021
This question is actually a combination of 2 types of questions: the detail-oriented question and the vocabulary question. This question doesn't necessarily ask for a definition of the word end, but rather what the "end" signifies to the narrator. 🤔
If you look at the sentences preceding line 80, the narrator talked about his previous pursuits in swimming 🏊♂️ and the task before him now. Throughout this passage, he also discusses how this was his last chance to qualify for 🎖 Junior Nationals and how there are no more "laters." This indicates that the answer is G. 🎉
This next question is more of a standard vocabulary question. For this question, an excerpt of the passage is included, although you can read the entire passage here.
In this question, you should begin by reading from around line 28. This is the start of the previous paragraph, and this should give you enough context. As you read, you can see that the history of music 🎶 is being studied. In the sentence, we're trying to determine what the word "court" refers to in "court history's favor." By the process of elimination, we can assume that Berry's geniality did not cause him to fail in romantically pursuing history—that's weird. 😂 This means we can eliminate G.
We are left with choices F, H, and J. Based on the part immediately following the colon ("it wasn't in his nature to call attention to himself or his playing," it can be inferred that his quality of being genial meant he wasn't trying to get attention. Another way to say get attention? "Seek to attract." Therefore, the best answer is F. 🎉
Additional Practice Question
In this question, think about what "named and nurtured" would mean in the context of apple varieties. It seems unlikely that apples would be fed, encouraged, or groomed. Here, by the process of elimination, you can guess that the answer is G. The apples were identified (named) and cultivated or grown (nurtured).
ACT Reading Practice Section 📝
Let's test your knowledge with a practice section. This passage is from the 2020-2021 released test, and you've actually answered one of the questions already! 🤓
Astronomers sometimes describe the shape of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, as a thin-crust pizza with a plum stuck in the middle. The plum is the slightly oblong central bulge, protruding about 3,000 light-years above and below the galactic plane, comprised mostly of older stars; it makes up the core of the Milky Way, and includes a black hole two and a half million times the mass of the Sun. The crust of the pizza is the galactic disk-the source of most of our galaxy's light. Thin and flat, the disk is 100,000 light-years across, about 1,000 light-years thick, on average, and includes more than 80 percent of the galaxy's hundred billion or so stars.
The plum-and-pizza picture works well enough, but like most simple metaphors, it breaks down if you push it. For one thing,. the galactic disk isn't a rigid body, but a loose agglomeration of matter streaming around a common center of gravity. (The swirling pattern of a hurricane far better resembles our spinning galaxy.) For another thing, our galaxy's disk isn't flat; it's warped. Picture a disk of pizza dough spun into the air by a skilled chef: our galaxy goes through the same kind of floppy, wobbly gyrations, though at a rate best measured in revolutions per hundreds of millions of years.
Why does the Milky Way have such an odd-looking warp? No definitive answer has emerged. One thing we do know: when it comes to warps, our galaxy is hardly unique. About half of all spiral galaxies are warped to some degree. Theoretical and computational models have shown that a number of physical processes can warp a galaxy, so it's a matter of figuring out which scenario applies. (line 33) An innovative analysis of the problem by Jeremy Bailin, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has implicated a small satellite galaxy (line 36), currently being ripped to shreds by the gravity of the Milky Way.
The Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy was discovered in 1994. It appears to be in a roughly polar orbit around the Milky Way-that is, above and below the galactic disk-about 50,000 light-years from the galactic center. That orbit brings the dwarf galaxy far too close to the huge gravitational tidal forces of the Milky Way for the dwarf to remain intact. As a result, the Sagittarius Dwarf now looks something like strands of spaghetti spilling from the front of a pasta-making machine, the galaxy's matter being drawn out over hundreds of millions of years by intergalactic tides.
Gravitational collisions between small satellite galaxies and big spiral galaxies have long been regarded as possible culprits in the warping of a larger galaxy's disk. The best-known satellite galaxies orbiting the Milky Way—the Large and Small Magellanic clouds—are too far away, and have the wrong orbital characteristics, to have warped our galactic home. Sagittarius Pwatf seems a much more likely candidate simply because it is only a third as far from the center of the Milky Way as the Magellanic Clouds. But in astronomy— unlike in real estate—location isn't everything; to show a direct connection between warp and dwarf, the orbital motion of the Sagittarius Dwarf must be linked to the rotation of the Milky Way's disk.
Bailin's study is the first to find such a link. His analysis of the galactic warp is based on angular momentum—a measure of how much a system is spinning or rotating. Just as objects moving in a straight line have momentum, objects spinning or orbiting around an axis have angular momentum; and just as the momenta of two objects combine when they collide, so too do their angular momenta. Imagine two figure skaters coming together for a combination spin. When they make physical contact, their individual spiraling motions combine to produce a single, unified whirl.
Starting with the latest measurements of the structure and spin of the Milky Way, Bailin deduced the angular momentum of the warped portion of the MilkyWay's disk. He then compared that measure with the angular momentum of the Sagittarius Dwarf-and found for the first time, within the margins of measurement error, that the two angular momenta are identical in both quantity and direction. Such a coupling of the angular momenta of two bodies almost never happens by chance; usually, it takes place only when two spinning systems, like the skaters, come into contact. The coupling isn't enough to prove cause and effect by itself, but it's solid circumstantial evidence that the interaction of the Sagittarius Dwarf with the Milky Way disk created the warp in our galaxy.
1. Which of the following statements best expresses the main idea of the passage?
A. Bailin began studying the Sagittarius Dwarf when he was a graduate student in astronomy.
B. The gravitational tidal forces of the Milky Way are destroying the Sagittarius Dwarf.
C. Most astronomers have come to an agreement that evidence about how galaxies have formed is, at best, circumstantial.
D. Evidence suggests that the warp in the Milky Way's disk results from the Milky Way's interaction with a small satellite galaxy.
2. It can reasonably be inferred that the problem the author mentions in line 33 refers to:
F. a particular aspect of Bailin's theory for which there is little evidence.
G. a mathematical computation that led Bailin to focus on the Sagittarius Dwarf.
H. the question of which physical processes caused the warp in the Milky Way.
J. the potential impact of wobbly gyrations on the Milky Way's rotation.
3. It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that the small satellite galaxy referred to in lines 35-36 is:
A. the Small Magellanic Cloud.
B. the Sagittarius Dwarf.
C. a known but as yet unnamed galaxy.
D. a hypothetical galaxy that is believed to exist but has not yet been found.
4. Based on the passage, which of the following statements best describes Bailin 's study as it relates to the field of astronomy?
F. It led astronomers to the discovery of a warp in the Milky Way's disk.
G. It convinced more astronomers to focus their attention on the center of the Milky Way.
H. It revealed problems with the basic assumptions held by most astronomers.
J. It provided evidence for an idea that scientists had long considered a possibility but had not yet proved.
5. According to the passage, Bailin discovered that the angular momentum of the warped portion of the Milky Way and the angular momentum of the Sagittarius Dwarf are:
A. identical in quantity but different in direction.
B. identical in direction but different in quantity.
C. identical in both quantity and direction.
D. different in both quantity and direction.
6. According to the passage, the central bulge of the Milky Way is comprised of:
F. 80 percent of the galaxy's stars.
G. older stars and a black hole.
H. a galactic plane and several dwarf planets.
J. a loose agglomeration of unidentified matter.
7. The author refers to the swirling pattern of a hurricane primarily in order to:
A. help explain the shortcomings of the plum-andpizza metaphor.
B. argue that the unpredictability of the rotation of spiral galaxies requires a new metaphor.
C. emphasize the particular aspects of the Milky Way that make it unique.
D. describe how the movement of the Milky Way creates gravitational tides.
8. The passage directly compares the Milky Way's disk as it is affected by its warp to:
F. a pasta maker churning out spaghetti.
G. pizza dough being spun in the air by a chef.
H. a thin-crust pizza balanced on top of a plum.
J. two figure skaters coming together for a combination spin.
9. According to the passage, which of the following statements best describes the movement of the Sagittarius Dwarf with respect to the Milky Way?
A. It appears to be in a roughly polar orbit around the Milky Way.
B. It appears to orbit the Milky Way at an angle of roughly forty-five degrees.
C. It follows the movement of the stars in the Milky Way's disk, though at a slightly faster rate.
D. It once followed the movement of the stars in the Milky Way's disk, but now seems to move erratically along its own path.
10. The passage describes angular momentum as the amount of a system's:
F. vertical deviation within an orbital path.
G. movement in a straight line through space.
H. gravitational pull.
J. spin or rotation.
Passage and questions taken from ACT Practice Test 2020-2021
In Closing... 🎉
Good luck on your ACT exam! We also have guides for the other sections of the exam (English, Science, Math, Essay) as well as resources for all AP courses! If you need more practice for the ACT Reading section, check out How to get a 36 on the ACT Reading Section and ACT Reading Practice: Craft and Structure. If you're studying for the ACT in bulk, take a look at these compiled resources that provide the best ACT practice and strategies for your next ACT exam!
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