Strategies for finishing ACT Reading faster

The most common issue that students have on ACT Reading is time. Granted, the timing is tight: 35 minutes for four passages and 40 questions, or precisely 8 minutes and 45 seconds per passage/ten question set. The timing, however, is not the whole story.

In reality, what presents itself as a time issue is often something else entirely. Most people assume that they have problems on ACT Reading because they can’t read fast enough when the real problem is that they don’t know how to read effectively enough to locate the requisite information in time. Yes, it is true that many ACT Reading questions are detailed-based and require the identification of a particular fact buried in the middle of a paragraph, but what many test-takers overlook is the fact that there are many strategies they can employ to quickly locate the necessary information — even if they have no recollection whatsoever of where it is.

In a roundabout way, the ACT can actually be more of a reasoning test than the SAT, and if you really want to improve your score dramatically, you need to treat it like one. Simply reading each passage fully, trying to absorb all of the information, and then going through the questions in order will have little to no long-term effect on your score.

The bottom line is that if you want to get through all four passages in time and obtain a high score, you must be willing to be flexible and shift your strategy to fit the question.That includes doing the following:

1) Skip around

When students with solid comprehension skills get stuck below a certain score on ACT Reading, it’s usually not because they spend a little too much time on every question, but rather because they spend far too much time on a handful of questions. When they learn to identify those potentially time-consuming questions upfront and go into the test planning to skip them, their score often jumps two or three points right away.

In general, if a question looks hard or time-consuming, skip it upfront and come back to it if you have time. Figure out a marking system so that you don’t forget do so. Your goal is to get as many questions right as you possibly can, so don’t sacrifice questions you can answer easily for questions that will take a lot of time and that you may not even get right. For example, if you know that “main point” questions are consistently problematic, don’t even look at them until you’ve answered every other question that set.

2) Learn to distinguish between “detail” passages and “argument” passages and treat them accordingly

For passages that focus more on details or descriptions without a real point, you can ignore this process; it won’t really get you anywhere.

For the passages that do focus on a single argument, however, you need to take the time to both determine and write down the main point. Keeping that information in mind when you answer the questions can save you unbelievable amounts of time.

3) Learn what information you can skip initially

This is another strategy that comes primarily into play when you’re dealing with a straightforward “argument” passage. Whenever you encounter a topic sentence that clearly indicates that the rest of the paragraph will just offer supporting details, you can skip the rest of the paragraph. If a question asks specifically about those lines, you can go back and read them closely, but remember: the topic sentence has already told you why those details were important, and there’s a decent chance that’s what the ACT will ask about.

4) Think logically about where information is most likely to be located

This may sound obvious, but very often when asked to locate a piece of information that they don’t recall, people begin re-reading the passage from the beginning. Don’t. If the passage discusses a movement chronologically and the question asks about an event that clearly must have happened toward the end of the movement, focus on the end of the passage.

In addition, when you’re trying to locate information that you simply don’t remember reading, just focus on the topic sentences to help you figure out where the topic is discussed. If you try to skim through the interiors of paragraphs, you’ll most likely just end up lost.

5) Circle major transitions and important information…

and don’t forget to consult those spots when you look back. That’s where the information that gets asked about will probably be. It’s a waste of time to make notes if you just end up ignoring them and skimming through random sections.

6) Take shortcuts

The ACT can be exactly like the SAT here, in the sense that there’s often a “back door” that will let you quickly answer what appears to be a complicated question.

For example: if a question asks about the order of a series of events and the answers list four different combinations, each with a different event first, you just have to figure out the first event. By default, only the answer that lists that event first can be right.

7) Learn when to look at the answers first and when to look at the passage (or your notes) first

Again, this requires that you be willing to shift your strategy to fit the question. If it’s a main point of passage question, you need to consult your notes about the main point. If it’s a main point of paragraph question, you need to read the topic sentence of the paragraph in question. If it’s an “all of the following EXCEPT’ question, you need to look at the answer choices first. You just have to do whatever will get you the answer fastest.

Inference questions: where English and Math meet

One of the reasons that inference questions tend to be so difficult is that most people who take the SAT or ACT have never been exposed to basic formal logic (at least in a non-mathematical context) and consequently have no idea of the rules that the tests are playing by.

While reading is by nature considerably more subjective than math, the basic kinds of reasoning that govern the two sections are far more similar than what most people realize, and nowhere is this more apparent than on inference questions.

It is first of all necessary to distinguish between inference and speculation.

According that all-encompassing source of knowledge, Wikipedia, inference can be defined as “the act of drawing a conclusion by deductive reasoning from given facts.”

Speculation, on the other hand, can be defined as “a conjecture (guess), expressing an opinion based on incomplete evidence.”

Most incorrect answers to inference questions fall into the realm of speculation; that is, they could be true based on the information in the passage, but usually we simply don’t have enough information to judge whether they are actually true. The correct answer is the one that can actually be deduced from the facts presented.

Now, for a given assertion, “If x, then y,” there are two valid inferences: one is the statement itself, and the other is the contrapositive: if not y, then not x.” So, for example, from the statement: “if a creature is a dog, then it is an animal,” we can make the valid inferences that:

1) A creature that is a dog is an animal (rephrasing of the statement)

2) All creatures that are dogs are animals (rephrasing of the statement)

3) if a creature is not an animal, then it is not a dog (contrapositive)

This is the essential basis for inference questions. The tests do not go so far as to deal directly with contrapositives, although using them can help on occasion. Most often, the correct answer to an inference question will quite simply be a rewriting of the of the original statement from a different angle.

For example, if a passage states that the mass of a red dwarf star is smaller than the mass of the sun, the correct answer to an inference question about that fact might be that the mass of a red dwarf star is not larger thanthe mass of the sun. Incorrect answers will simply be outside the bounds of that statement and involve speculation.

They might say things like, “Red dwarves have the smallest mass of any object in the solar system” or “It is more difficult to determine the mass of a red dwarf than it is to determine the mass of the sun.”

The key to dealing with these statements is to make sure that you are absolutely clear about what the statement in question actually says. Take a couple of seconds, make sure you understand it, and write it down in your own words, then look for the answer closest to that statement. It should be correct.

Don’t go too fast on ACT Reading

Here’s a cautionary tale for those of you who don’t have trouble finishing ACT Reading on time.

One of my students who had been doing quite well (around a 30) on ACT Reading suddenly started to see his score drop down into the low 20s. I wasn’t hugely concerned; it was finals week, he was stressed and exhausted, and it was normal for him to be less focused.

Nevertheless, I asked him to do a passage while I watched, just so I could see how he was working through things. I didn’t time him, but after maybe four or five minutes, he got convinced that he was running so far behind that it would be impossible for him to recover.

When I looked at the wrong answers he was choosing, they all seemed to be of the “half-right half-wrong” variety. It occurred to me that he was freaking himself about time, then rushing and missing questions he would have gotten right had he just spent a little bit more time on them.

So I asked him to try an experiment: I would time him on a passage, but I also wanted him to completely forget about time — even go a bit more slowly than normal — and just work carefully. Not only did he did he finish with 45 seconds to spare, but he also got every single question right. He was shocked.

So the moral of the story is: don’t rush. Even if you feel like you’re running out of time, you might not actually be doing so. Perception is not necessarily reality. It’s more important to work carefully and not get through all the questions than to get through all of the questions and get a lot of them wrong.

The ACT Reading curve is huge. Huge. Even if you don’t get to finish the last couple of questions, you can still get a score well above 30. You’re better off leaving a few questions blank and ending up with a 32 than you are trying to answer everything in pursuit of a 36 and ending up with a 28.

Shortcut: paragraph “main function”

The wording of “main function” questions can be very misleading: after all, they inevitably ask about the main function of a paragraph in relation to the passage as a whole. The thing is, though, you don’t really have to really have to deal with the entire passage when trying to answer them. You don’t even have to deal with the entire paragraph that’s being asked about.

In general, you really only have to deal with a few key sentences: most often, the answer will be found in the first two sentences of the paragraph in question, although in some cases you may need to back up and read the last sentence of the previous paragraph.

As always, you should pay special attention to any major transition words (but, however, furthermore, etc.) or “interesting” forms of punctuation (semicolons, colons, quotation marks)  that indicate the relationship between the preceding idea and the current idea.

To reiterate: The first sentence of the paragraph referred to in the question will often not give you the necessary information, so it’s important that you read the first two sentences. Normally the ACT asks about paragraphs that shift the focus from one idea to another, so be particularly on the lookout for anything that suggests contradiction.

Let’s look at an example:

2017/2018 practice test, section 3, question #16:

One of the main purposes of the last paragraph is to state that the:

F. gashes in the rift valley continue to increase in width.
G. seafloor of Atlantic has cooled.

H. entire Atlantic seafloor has issued from the gashes in the rift valley.
J. volcanoes on Earth’s dry land have created the newest, youngest pieces of Atlantic seafloor.

Strategy: The first thing we’re going to do is read the first two sentences of the last paragraph. We do not need to consider any other information.

Yet, what had seemed so foreign to scientists is an integral part of earth’s very being, for at the ridge our own planet gives birth. The floor of the rift valley is torn; from the gashes has sprung the seafloor underlying all of Atlantic.

It’s important to stress here that we don’t even need to know what’s going on in the passage to determine the function of the last paragraph. The paragraph itself provides all the information we need.

The first sentence doesn’t offer a lot of help, but the second sentence is key (note the semicolon). It tells us that the seafloor of the entire Atlantic has sprung from the floor of the rift valley, which is exactly what H says.

How to skim ACT Reading passages effectively

As I’ve discussed before, the point of skimming is not simply to read everything fast, but rather to read many things fast in order to identify the handful of places you need to slowly.

While this is generally true for the ACT, there are also some quirks particular to the Reading Comprehension section that make it necessary to approach skimming a bit differently.

1) Initial read-through

One of the particular challenges that ACT passages pose is that they can either focus primarily on a single argument and its supporting and/or contradicting evidence, or on a collection of facts and details that revolve around a particular topic. In the case of the former, you need to focus on the key places in the argument, the places where supporting and/or contradicting information is introduced.

These key places may only occur every other paragraph or even every third paragraph, but if you focus on topic sentences and keep an eye out for transitions such as therefore and for example, and punctuation such as dashes and colons (which signal explanations) you should be able to pick them out pretty easily. In case of the latter (especially Prose Fiction), you do actually need to read everything quickly in order to get a general impression of what’s going on — there’s just no other way to do it. As you skim, however, circle major transitions, explanations, and words like important to help you when you:

2) Go back to the passage in order to answer specific questions

Since the ACT does not usually give line numbers, Reading Comprehension can feel like some sort of twisted scavenger hunt. The trick is to identify one or two key words in the question and look only for them. If a question asks about the architectural significance of Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, for (real) example, look only for the words Stata Center and ignore everything else. If you have no idea where those words could possibly be, don’t just start reading random bits of the passage — chances are you’ll just get lost and miss important information when it does appear. Instead, focus on reading topic sentences to figure out which paragraph is most likely to contain those words.

As your eye moves down the page, draw your index finger along with it

Establishing a physical connection with the passage helps to focus you and makes it easier to spot the words you’re looking for.

Then, when you’ve found them, read the full sentences in which they appear, thoroughly, from beginning to end, and without skipping over anything. If you have to, put your finger on the page in order to make sure that you don’t miss a single word. Pay particular attention to any major transitions you’ve circled in or near those sentences because there’s a good chance the necessary information will be located near them. If you can’t answer the question from the information in that sentence, read the sentence before AND the sentence after it. There’s a good chance you’ll find what you’re looking for.

How to read passages faster

If you have timing issues on reading, you may want to try the following:

1. Read the introduction slowly until you figure out the basic point of the passage. Underline it.

2. Read the first and last sentence of each of the body paragraphs; if you can skim through the rest, do; if you’re too afraid you’ll run out of time, don’t bother. The goal is to establish a mental outline of the argument being presented. 1 Paragraph = 1 Idea, and the first (topic) sentence will give you the point of the paragraph, which the remainder of the information in it will most likely support.

3. Read the conclusion slowly and underline the last sentence, which usually restates the main point.

As long as you can keep in mind the important shifts (for example, the places where an author switches from criticizing one idea to proposing her own explanation), you’ll have plenty of context when you go back and answer the questions. In fact, working this way can actually make it easier to answer them because you won’t be so caught up in the details.