The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages


The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

Last year, the average ACT Reading score was 21.3. If you apply a strategic approach to reading passages quickly and efficiently, you should be able to increase your score and break away from the average.


In this article we will review the types of passages you should expect to see on the ACT Reading section and discuss the most efficient way to read the passages and answer questions within the allotted time.

Types of Passages on ACT Reading

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

The ACT Reading section consists of four sections with passages from literary fiction, social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. Usually, each section consists of one passage but sometimes, you may come across one section that contains two shorter passages. All of the passages are prose, so you don’t have to worry about analyzing poetry or anything super subjective or experimental.

Passages might draw from the following topics (not an exhaustive list):

  • Literary fiction: short stories, novels, memoirs, and personal essays.
  • Social sciences: anthropology, archaeology, biography, business, economics, education, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociology.
  • Humanities: architecture, art, dance, ethics, film, language, literary criticism, music, philosophy, radio, television, and theater.
  • Natural sciences: anatomy, astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, ecology, geology, medicine, meteorology, microbiology, natural history, physiology, physics, technology, and zoology.

The questions that follow each passage are meant to test reading comprehension and analytical skills.

Skills Tested on ACT Reading

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

According to the ACT, you are expected to use reasoning and referring skills to

  • Determine main ideas
  • Locate and interpret significant details (sometimes the question will refer you to a specific line in the passage and sometimes you will have to find the detail yourself)
  • Understand sequences of events
  • Make comparisons (these questions specifically relate to two shorter passages instead of one longer passage)
  • Understand cause-effect relationships
  • Determine the meaning of words, phrases, and statements in context (these are usually straightforward but you should understand how they function within context)
  • Draw generalizations
  • Analyze the author’s or narrator’s voice and method

In order to test these skills, the ACT Reading will ask you 6 main types of questions.

Types of ACT Reading Questions

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

The ACT Reading section asks you 40 questions in 35 minutes. Some of these questions will test your understanding of what was directly stated in the passage and some will ask you to determine what various lines imply. For examples of official ACT question for each questions type, check out our article on the detailed breakdown of the ACT Reading section. As a quick review, the 6 main types of ACT Reading questions you will encounter are:

  1. Main idea – the main point or theme of the passage
  2. Detail – usually refers to a line in the text and asks what it means and how it functions
  3. Vocabulary – usually straightforward, but some words may be used in an unusual way in context
  4. Development – how ideas are arranged within the passage
  5. Implied ideas – these are inference questions. While these might seem subjective, there is only one unambiguously correct answer.
  6. Voice – what is the author’s or narrator’s tone, style, attitude, or perspective?

Consider how the types of questions correspond to the list of skills tested above. For example, by asking what the author’s tone is, the question tests your ability to analyze an author’s voice or method. To succeed on ACT Reading, you should make sure to practice locating evidence, that directly supports a correct answer, within the text.

All this might sound like a lot of work for 35 minutes! The biggest challenge most students have on the ACT Reading section is getting through all of the questions and passages in 35 minutes. So, let’s talk about how YOU can read and understand the passages efficiently.

How to Read the Passages

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

One of the reasons ACT preparation is useful is that it allows you try out different strategies and find out which one works best for you. Below, we will discuss a couple of passage reading options that work well for most students. You can consider both options and then determine which one works best for you.  Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to read these passages:

Step 1 – Read the Introductory Line at the Beginning of the Passage

Do not skip this step! The introduction can tell you where the passage is from, who the author is, provide specific or approximate time reference. It will often give you a sense of passage’s context which is helpful for answering main purpose questions. For example,


From this excerpt, we can expect an informative essay about life and work of Eleanor Roosevelt. We can assume, that the passage will include discussion of FDR, and the Great Depression.


From the title of this passage “Wherever he went, joy was sure to follow” we can get a lighthearted feeling. The excerpt also names a place “Tin Pan Alley” and hints that the passage is going to talk about music.


While title of this passage “Needles & nerves” does not give us specific information, reading the first few lines we can understand that the article is about how the ancient practice of acupuncture stimulates nerves. Because the article was published by Walt Disney Company should hint that the passage is not going to be overly serious.

After the first step, some students read the passage and then answer questions, and some look over the questions before reading. We will consider both of these options (as well as a third one) in Step 2.

Step 2 – Reading Strategy

Students have differing opinions on what strategy works best, but it all comes down to what type of reader you are. We will discuss 2 different strategies that work for the majority of students. The third one, while preferred by many, is really only effective if you are a very strong reader but, otherwise, is a time-waster.

Option A – Read Questions First, Read Passage Later

If you read the questions before reading the passage, you will get a sense of what content you are looking for and train your eyes to pick up on specific information. For questions that reference a specific line, underline the lines in the questions and mark them on the passage to remind you to pay special attention to it when you read.

When you come across main point or main purpose questions, circle them and leave them for last. By leaving those questions to the end, you are giving yourself opportunity to answer all the other, more detail-oriented questions first and get enough information about the passage before answering main point questions. Make sure to mark the passage.

In this example See this ACT practice test for reference, I circled questions 32, 35, and 36 because they are dealing with main ideas and main purposes. I’ve underlined and bracketed all line references and important points in both the questions and the text to make sure that I pay special attention to those lines as I read.

For example:


Once you’ve marked the passage, go ahead and read the passage quickly. Do not read closely or try to understand every line, and do not re-read. Instead, skim the passage, paying closest attention to the first and last line of the first paragraph – this is where the thesis is found, the first sentences of each paragraph, and the conclusion. Also, watch for transitions words like “however,” “therefore,” and “moreover” because they can signal continuation, contradiction, or shift of ideas.

Some people believe that this is the best passage reading strategy because the ACT does not allow time for detailed reading and this strategy focuses you on the important parts of the passage and helps you pick out important details instead of wasting time on reading the unimportant parts.

Option B – Skim the Passage First, Answer Questions Later

This option is loved by an equal number of students as option A. Some students find it distracting to look at the questions before reading. They prefer to skim the passage first, get a sense of its content, structure, and purpose and then answer questions. In this approach, you will still be skimming the passage, and you should still mark up the important parts in order to focus your attention on the lines that are actually referenced in the questions.

To determine which approach works for you, I recommend trying both approaches by taking timed practice tests. You can compare the scores to determine which option works best for you – are you more focused and less stressed out when you read the questions or the passage first?

Option C – Read the Passage Closely

This option is my least favorite because I believe that close reading takes too much time and leaves too little time to understanding questions and finding supporting evidence.

In this option, you would read the passage closely instead of skimming it for important points. After carefully reading the passage, you go on and answer questions.

The purpose of the ACT reading section is to do everything we described above with speed and efficiency. You have about 52 seconds per question, so reading passages carefully really cuts into this time.

Step 3 – Answer Questions

Whether you choose Option A or Option B, you should answer questions that ask for details and reference specific lines first. Leave the main idea and purpose questions for last.

Most of the answer choices on the ACT Reading are wordy and can confuse students by sounding plausible. That is why it is very helpful to come up with your own answer before looking at the answer choices. If you have an idea of the correct answer right away, you can save time by looking for it in the answer choices.

If you are not sure about the answer after reading all of the answer choices, try to use process of elimination to isolate the right answer. While the questions might be worded like they are open to interpretation, they are unambiguous. There is only one 100% correct answer choice that is supported with the information from the passage. If you find yourself over-thinking or trying to talk yourself into an answer, it is probably not the correct one. The ACT makes you overthink by phrasing questions like:

The author would most likely agree with …

In line xx, ‘intense’ most nearly means …

Let’s look at an ACT question that tries to sound open to interpretation, but only has one correct answer:


Based on the information from the related passage as well as the line “it is wrong to the day you live in that you will not sing aloud,” the correct answer is H. “The day you live in” means “this age,” and “sing aloud” means “share your poetry.” While E and G sound reasonable, “morally reprehensible” is too strong of a translation of “it is wrong,” and “stingy and wrong” conveys a wrong kind of message. The word “stingy” does refer to unwillingness to share, it refers to monetary sharing, not sharing of art of poetry. In addition, neither of these choices references “the day you live in,” i.e. time or era.

Sometimes, eliminating wrong answers can help you find the right one. If you are left with two answer choices – make your best guess and move on.

Step 4 – Transfer Answers

Save time on ACT Reading by circling your answers to each passage on the test booklet and then transfer them all to the answer sheet once you are done with the passage. Make sure to keep track of time – you do not want to run out of time with answers in your booklet and not on the answer sheet.

If you are struggling with time management, try starting with the passages you are most interested in or feel most confident about. If your favorite topics are literary fiction, followed by natural sciences, answer questions to those passages first before attempting the other sections. This way you can get through more information faster.

A word of caution: Do not let this time saver become time waster! Do this ONLY if you know that you feel most confident about certain type of passage, do not spend time skimming through passages to arrange them in the order that most interests you.

Consistently practicing these four steps of approaching ACT Reading passages, you should become more and more efficient at reading, locating evidence, and eliminating wrong answers.

Strategies and Tips for ACT Reading Section

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

Having strategies and confidence to tackle even the most difficult ACT Reading question is equally important to having strategies to reading the passages. Believe it or not, the one most important (but least obvious) component of your success on the ACT Reading section is actually your attitude – how you feel and think about ACT Reading section can actually have a significant impact on your performance.

Develop a Positive Mindset

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

We’ve all experienced boredom in one class or another. What happens? Time ticks slowly, the teacher drones on about the topic you are completely disinterested in, you don’t pay attention and sometimes feel you can’t get through a certain topic. Stress and anxiety have been shown to be serious obstacles to learning. They actually use up your mental energy so it is not available to comprehend the given task.

On the opposite side of this scenario, if you are super interested in the subject, you feel engaged, time flies by, and you learn really well. You also absorb the information and practice much more efficiently because you’re personally involved and committed in it.  

You might think that we cannot control what we do and don’t like, but that is not actually true. Gaining control over shaping our own thoughts, feelings, and attitude is a practiced skill – like any other. So, how does the idea related to your own psychology relate to ACT Reading?

If you can approach the passages with an attitude of open and genuine interest in the information presented to you, you will be able to read more efficiently, process faster, and retain more information. Whether it’s an article about social organization of a frog community in Hawaii, an article comparing and contrasting different weapons, or a Charlotte Bronte book, if you approach each practice passage with positive mindset, you are likely to find a higher level of interest and comprehension that will ultimately lead to a higher score.

Once you’ve mastered taking control of your mind, let’s discuss a few more technical strategies for answering ACT Reading questions.

Use Process of Elimination

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

In a perfect world, you might read the question, know exactly where the answer is, and have it jump out at you from the answer choices. However, the ACT Reading is rarely this perfect world, especially in inference questions where the answer choices can be harder to predict. Using a well-practiced process of elimination can help you identify the correct answer by getting rid of the obviously wrong ones.  

Take a more careful look at an Emily Dickinson example above.

Process of elimination becomes especially important if you are wavering between two answer choices – a common scenario on ACT Reading. Next time you are practicing the ACT Reading section, don’t just look for the right answer – ask yourself why the other answers are wrong.

The more you practice, the more second-nature this approach will become because you will have a better understanding of how ACT Reading questions are structured and you will be more confident eliminating answer choices designed to distract you.

Find Specific Evidence

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

In addition to being able to eliminate wrong answer choices, you must learn back up your answers with specific evidence from the passage. Do not just rely on intuition – ACT Reading writers know this and phrase certain answer choices in such a way as to distract and confuse you, leading you to pick an unsupported answer choice.

This is usually a relatively easy task when answering detail and line-specific questions. The questions themselves will point you to a specific location where support can be found. However, you can use the same approach even with the seemingly more difficult inference questions. The questions themselves are not actually that subjective. If they were, the ACT scorers would have a lot of controversy to deal with. Remember the #1 Rule: there can only be one correct answer and it must be supported by the passage.

Know and Practice Key Literary Terms

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

In addition to practicing reading comprehension, you should also spend some time making sure you understand and can identify key literary terms such as theme, style, tone, imagery, symbolism, simile, metaphor, irony, foreshadowing, and hyperbole. If you are not sure what the author’s tone is, how can you answer the question?

Studying the definitions is not enough. You also have to be able to identify ways to describe the author’s tone. No questions will directly tell you what the tone is, but you must be able to recognize that a phrase “sing aloud” (from the Emily Dickinson example above” is a poetic turn of phrase that is symbolic for sharing your poetry with the world.

Be a Motivated Self-Studier

The Best Way to Approach ACT Reading Passages

The best and only way to significantly improve your time management, efficiency, accuracy, pace, and comprehension on ACT reading is to practice, practice, and practice! Consistent studying can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, what skill or information you need to re-learn, and your best approach to reading passages.

If English is your strong subject, or you are planning to study humanities or social sciences in college, you want to impress admission officers by demonstrating a strong score in this section. Even if you are a STEM person, you still want to show colleges that you have college-level reading skills and you will be able to succeed academically once admitted.  


To develop a critical eye and a strategic approach, you must understand the four types of passages and questions on the ACT Reading. In my opinion, skimming is better and more time effective than detailed line-by-line reading. Line-by-line reading is not necessary to be able to answer questions correctly.

Determine what strategy works best for your by taking practice tests. Once you are familiar with the format of the ACT Reading section, continue practicing under timed conditions to get better at pacing and finishing all questions within the given 35-minute period. Use process of elimination, support your answers with information from the passage, and know literary terms!

If we haven’t mentioned it already – the most important thing to do is PRACTICE! Practice reading, practice skimming, practice marking up the paragraph, practice answering questions, practice finding supporting evidence, practice pacing. Continue improving until test day arrives. That way you can ultimately impress college admission officers with your ACT score.

Next Steps

If you haven’t already, start studying with ACT Question of the Day. If you start early enough, these questions will add up and help you target your weaknesses and maintain your strengths.

Looking for official practice tests? Look no further – here is a link to 5 free practice tests.

What is Your Target Score? Do you know how to achieve it? Read this complete guide on the good, bad, and ugly of ACT scores.

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