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ACT Reading Strategies

ACT Reading Strategies for the Prose Fiction Passage: Hitting the High Notes

The prose fiction passage is a full 180 degrees from the natural science passage. First of all, instead of cold, hard fact, you're reading fiction. This passage will be speckled with hints and suggestions about characters' emotions, motives, and personalities. Here are our strategies:

1. Be ready to reason.

Unlike the natural science passage, which will be chock-full of questions that ask you to find facts and details, the most important parts of the prose fiction passage probably won't be clearly spelled out right there on the page. There will be some referring skills questions that ask you to remember details from the story, but the real meat of the prose fiction passage is interpretation. Questions will ask you why the author used a certain kind of language to communicate a certain thing, what the relationship is between the characters, what may have happened right before the passage in the original source, what may happen after the passage, or how the characters feel about the events taking place in the passage. See our section on Reasoning Questions for more information.

2. Read for fun.

As you probably could have guessed, the prose fiction passage will be a narrative, or a passage that tells a story. Although the passage might contain some factual or factual-sounding information, you won't encounter a purely explanatory or argumentative passage in this section. If you love reading novels and short stories, you probably won't have much trouble with this passage. If you're more a fan of nonfiction, or if you're not into reading for pleasure, try smiling while you read—it actually helps! Remember that authors want to entertain their audience, and it might help this section sail by faster and more enjoyably.

3. Read between the lines.

Think of yourself as a literary detective, asking questions like, "What's really going on here?" and "What does he actually mean?" Think about the characters' moods, their emotions, their desires, and their personalities. Are they nervous? Sad? Aggressive? Sometimes there will be clear hints in the passage, and sometimes you'll have to do some mental digging before you figure out how x situation makes y character feel. A good writer doesn't usually come right out and say, "Chris was angry because Erin forgot to buy groceries," or "Erin was sad because Chris was angry with her." Instead, Chris might snap, snarl, or grumble, and Erin might sniff, pout, or cry. Using those emotional clues, it's much easier to figure out how Chris and Erin are feeling.

ACT Reading Strategies for the Social Science Section: Staying Within Your Range

We've been stressing it throughout this study guide, but if you're really interested in history, psychology, political science, or something else that falls into this category, you might want to think about doing this section of the test first. Since the ACT doesn't penalize you for skipping questions, it makes sense to do the sections you're most confident in before all the others. That way, you don't risk not having time for them after you've slogged through the sections that are harder for you. We've included some specific strategies to tackle this section. Read on:

1. Watch for relationships.

Remember, this is social science we're talking here, meaning you are most likely going to be reading something about the interactions of individuals or groups of people. This section is all about relationships: between people, between concepts, between dates, between events. Relationships are typically full of problems, right? Look for conflict, disagreement, social issues, diseases, wars, and all of that not-so-fun stuff that can occur when people come together. You might not have to wrestle with the highly technical language you could see in the natural science section, but you will still need to underline, circle, or draw stars—whatever it takes to clearly mark important arguments and terms.

2. Make it easy for yourself.

If you need to refer back to the passage, you don't want to comb through it for three or four minutes, searching for that little detail you know is in there. If you mark the important stuff clearly on the first read-through, you'll make your life a whole lot easier.

3. Pay attention to the author’s viewpoint.

Don't forget that, unlike biology or physics, social sciences such as history and political science are not always 100% objective. Even though you can be fairly certain that a passage written by a sociologist will be more scientific and therefore impersonal and analytical, an essay by a former slave about the Civil War might have a different opinion. Look for clues that suggest the author's beliefs, attitude, or agenda. Sometimes this won't be obvious or important, but sometimes it will be, so be aware.

4. Watch for main point questions.

Lots of questions in this section will ask you to choose the main purpose, point, or idea of the passage. If someone asked you, “Hey, what was that passage about?” you'd want to be able to say, “Oh, it was about ___.” The answer to this question will probably be broad, and show up in every paragraph, rather than be narrow and specific.

ACT Reading Strategies for the Humanities Section: Be Commercial

1. Play to your (sub) strengths.

If someone asked you, "Hey man, do you like Humanities?" you'd probably say, "Uh, no, what is that?" What if someone said, "Do you like dance? How about piano? Mark Twain?"?" You might have a different answer, and all of these subjects fall under the humanities umbrella. Are you into literature, drama, music, or whatever's being discussed in the humanities passage? If so, answer the questions in this section first, before you conquer the other sections. If not, leave this section for last, and knock off the other ones first.

2. Take careful notes.

Since a humanities passage, unlike prose fiction, can sometimes contain a lot of facts and details, it is important to keep track of these important tidbits. Circle, underline, or otherwise mark important concepts, arguments, and terms. And read between the lines, just as you would in the prose fiction section. That's how you'll catch the author's intentions or attitude toward the topic, as well as the main idea of the passage.

3. Get ready to interpret.

Though some humanities writers are clear and concise, others like to try to dazzle us with big, flashy words that can range from super-technical literary or art jargon to obscure words you have never seen before in your life. These types of writers also tend to bury symbols, images, and meanings in the text, so expect a lot of reasoning skills questions in the humanities passage.

ACT Reading Strategies for the Natural Science Section: Feeling the Beat

Maybe you're a total biology nerd who's been reading Science and Nature since you were in middle school. In that case, you'll probably have no problem figuring out the type of language usually used in the natural science passage. The passage will be in English, of course, but it will be in what we at Shmoop like to call science-y language (that's a technical term). If you're bursting with confidence when you flip the page and see the natural science section, do this section first. No sense wasting your time sweating over the other sections and losing valuable time to shine.

Maybe you have an honest-to-goodness phobia of science class, or maybe you're simply not a fan. If that’s the case, you should probably do this section last, after you've had a chance to flex your muscles on the sections that appeal to you more.

1. Underline key terms.

Or circle them, draw a star in the margin, or write "IMPORTANT." A big part of the natural science passage is understanding tricky scientific language, and unless you're already an expert on the topic, you're going to have to refer back to the passage again and again. Make it easy for yourself by marking the heck out of the passage.

2. Look for points of disagreement and agreement.

If two ideas or theories are being compared, make sure you know the difference between them. It sounds obvious, but this is a really common question in the natural science section. Understanding the differences between two ideas means being clear on what Theory A and Theory B both mean. Another opportunity for underlining, circling, and drawing stars!

3. Expect a serious tone.

Science writers are sometimes purposely dispassionate. That is, they maintain an analytical, impersonal tone and do not get emotionally involved in the subject matter. Lab reports, research findings, or discussions about natural phenomena are not usually punctuated with gems like "along with being a keystone species of their habitat, salmon are just really awesome fish, in my opinion." One notable exception is when the scientist is trying to alert the reader to a problem, such as global warming or pollution—in this case he or she may be more opinionated or emphatic when discussing the harmful effects of these factors on a given ecosystem.

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