What’s on the ACT Reading Test?

Okay, so the ACT has a reading test, but what should you expect from it, exactly? Are the passages like the literature that students read in school? Do students need to have read certain books or articles beforehand? We’ll go over these questions as well as offer some tips and strategies to best prepare for the ACT reading test!

The Specifications:

The ACT Reading Test is a 35 minute section of the ACT given to students after both the English and Math sections (it’s the third section of the test). It contains 4 passages, each containing 10 questions, for a total of 40 questions. The passages are grouped into 4 distinct categories that always appear in the same order: Prose, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science.

Just how much reading is on this test?

Let’s go over what those categories mean.

PROSE: The first section, prose, is distinct from the other reading passages. While the other passages generally fit into a classic essay or article format, this category pulls a section from a novel or short story. It is almost always a piece of fiction/literature.

SOCIAL SCIENCE: This section usually contains a newspaper or journal article dealing with topics like psychology, sociology, and geography (the social sciences). It is usually presented in essay format with an author arguing a specific point of view or thesis on a given topic.

HUMANITIES: Humanities covers anything from art to philosophy. It may be an essay but also might source from a biography of a historical figure (for example). It is sometimes similar to the prose section in subject matter, but is still usually an essay, in format.

NATURAL SCIENCE: These passages deal with any of the sciences you may have studied in school: biology, chemistry, physics, etc. They are usually pulled from scientific journals and newspapers. They will either argue a specific thesis or be an overview of a particular scientific subject.

Question Types:

There are a few different question types you can expect to see on the ACT Reading test. They include but are not limited to:

Main Idea: Main idea questions start with phrases like:

  • Which of the following statements describes the main idea of the passage?
  • The overall purpose of paragraph 2 is….

They focus on identifying the thesis of an essay or topic of a body paragraph. Always look for the thesis statement usually found in the 1st paragraph, or the topic sentence of the body paragraph, for reference. Sometimes a concluding sentence of a body paragraph can also be helpful to look at.

Details: Detail questions usually start with phrasing like:

  • According to the passage…
  • The passage states…
  • In lines 24-28 the author claims…

Sometimes detail questions refer to specific line numbers and sometimes they do not, but they will always have evidence in the passage. The best approach for these is look at the key terms or details in the question itself and find those same words (or synonyms close to them) in the passage. Then, see which answer choice links up with the area surrounding the identified part of the passage.

Words-in-Context: Words-in-context question will look something like this:

  • As it is used in line 8, the word crested most nearly means…
  • Which of the following words is the best definition for the word deliverance in line 45?

They require students to define words based on its context in the passage. Usually, the ACT is asking you about a certain word because a definition of that word is being used that you may be unfamiliar with. That’s why it’s always important to go back to the passage and read the context area around a given word! Do not just choose the first answer that seems to be a synonym for the word.

Author’s Point of View: Point of View questions deal with the author’s opinion or feelings about the subject matter he/she is writing on. They will look like this:

  • The tone of the passage can best be described as…
  • From his statement in lines 3-8, it is clear that the narrator believes that…
  • The author’s tone in paragraph 4 can best be described as…

At first, these questions can feel particularly tricky because they seem to be a matter of opinion rather than fact. However, there will always be clues in the passage or the ACT wouldn’t be asking the question! Focus on how the author is writing, what kind of language he is using to describe his subject matter, tone, etc.

Are students expected to have read certain texts beforehand?

No! All passages will (most likely) not be something students have read before, or be a subject matter they are expected to have prior knowledge about. Though on certain passages (especially natural science) it may help if the topic is something you are already familiar with, it is not necessary to complete the question. Every question will only pull from the passage itself and never require outside knowledge.

How do I prepare for the ACT Reading Test?

The best way to prepare for the Reading section is (perhaps unsurprisingly) to work through lots of reading passages and questions! The reason for that is the Reading section is methodology focused.

We divide the ACT sections into two types: content and methodology focused.

The former references the Math and English sections — content focused means they require prior knowledge to complete (grammar rules, mathematical formulas, etc.).

The Reading and Science sections on the other hand are methodology focused, meaning they require no prior knowledge to complete.

However, there are specific methodologies we teach to approach the reading passages and their questions that are best practiced by simply doing as many reading sections as you can! While a one-on-one Testive coach could be your best resource for these methodologies, in the next section we’ll go over a few basic tips & tricks to up your ACT reading score.

Tips & Tricks

Objective vs. Subjective: The ACT reading is an objective (not subjective) test, meaning while certain questions may feel like a matter of a opinion, they will always have direct evidence in the passage you can use to prove your correct answers. So even when a question feels like something you have to agree or disagree with, or come to your own conclusion about, the answer will always be based on text from the passage!

Standard Essay format: Except for the prose passage, passages will almost always be presented in standard essay form, just like the essays you write in school! That means the location of certain key information is also fairly standardized: thesis statements at the end of intro paragraphs giving the argument of the essay, topic sentences detailing what a body paragraph is about, a concluding paragraph summing up the essay, etc. These can be helpful places to look both when searching for specific information for a question or just to get the general idea of what a passage is about (especially when said passage is particularly rigorous).

Always go to the passage!: On any question (but especially those with specific line numbers) go to the passage for your answer. Like we said above, every answer choice should have proof in the passage, so use that fact to your advantage! A good rule of thumb (on specific line questions) is to read 4 lines before and after a given quote. Usually the answer is not in the given lines but from the lines around them.

That’s the ACT Reading Test in a nutshell! Now that you understand what’s on the test, we highly recommend that you schedule a test prep consultation call with one Testive’s Student Success Advisors to discuss your college goals and what you or your child can do to best ensure success on the ACT. It’s totally free!

By |2020-03-10T17:09:34+00:00March 10th, 2020|ACT, Uncategorized|

About the Author:

Luke has been tutoring standardized tests for a little under four years now. He’s worked with countless students of varying learning styles, academic levels, and personalities. His experience has given a tool belt of strategies and methodologies needed to help any student succeed! When not tutoring, he is a comedian and filmmaker living in beautiful Los Angeles, California.