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Reading Strategies


ACT Reading*

*This is a free excerpt from our Online ACT Test Prep

Tackling the Questions: Planning Your Performance

All Idol contestants know that the judges have an internal checklist. They want to see you make the song your own; they want something edgy and new but also commercial and hit worthy. It can be mind-bogglingly confusing, and you yourself have winced (or laughed hysterically) at a few of the more embarrassing moments on Idol. Pants on the ground, anyone? You need to plan your performance and know how to win over your audience.

How you approach the questions is just as important as how well you read the passage, because the questions contain the points. No matter how great of a reader you are, you must correctly answer the questions in order to get a good score on this test. The questions ask you to go back over that passage with a fine-toothed comb and find all the important details and themes. We have strategies to help you approach the questions in the most efficient and effective way possible.

1. Answer the questions in order, but skip the hard ones and come back to them later.

This strategy is especially helpful when taking the ACT because the questions are in order of difficulty.

The first four or so questions test referring skills: they will point you to specific parts of the passage and ask relatively straightforward questions.

The next six questions will be a jumble of main point questions, tone questions, more difficult questions that test referring skills, questions that test reasoning skills, and so on. You should use the first few easy questions to warm up, and then as you move forward, you can slow down a little and take more time on the last few questions. If you don't understand the second-to-last question, answer the last one and then go back at the very end and tackle the ones you skipped.

2. Cross out the answer choices that you know are wrong.

Narrowing down your answer choices will greatly improve the odds of you picking the correct answer. Maybe two of the answer choices mention stuff that is totally irrelevant to the passage itself. You can go ahead and cross them out, giving yourself a 33% chance. Not too shabby. If you can eliminate even one answer, you should make an educated guess. Actually, you should always guess if you don't know the answer, regardless of how many answer choices you can eliminate. It's totally worth it.

3. Find clues in the context.

Some questions will point you to specific sentences or phrases within the passage, and in these instances, it is important to read a little bit above and below the area in question to get the gist of the section. Also, some of the passages (especially the natural science passage) might include words you haven't heard before or can't really define. Don't let this worry you. We repeat, don't let this worry you!

Sometimes the language will be specific to a certain field. For instance, a passage about biology might include some scientific terms you haven't heard before. Circle them. If knowing the meaning of a word or phrase is crucial to understanding the passage, the next sentence or paragraph will clue you in to what the unfamiliar word or phrase means. To be on the safe side, always read the sentence before and the sentence after to get an idea of what is being discussed.

For instance, if you see the word "Phalaenopsis," the next sentence will probably be something like this: "This Orchid genus has approximately sixty species." We can tell from the sentence that "Phalaenopsis" is a kind of orchid. See how easy that was? Don't know what the heck an orchid is? The sentence right before the sentence in question says, "There are thousands of night-blooming species of orchid in the Amazon rainforest alone." At this point, you can probably guess that an orchid is a type of flower. Context is rad.

4. Fill in the blank.

Some questions (usually about three total in the Reading section) will ask you the definition of a word found in the passage. If you can take a stab at what word or idea fits best in the blank before looking at the answer choices, you will help yourself immensely because all you will need to do is find an answer that matches your guess. Much like the previous strategy, you should use contextual clues to figure out a confounding word in an otherwise benign sentence. (Could you figure out what “benign” means by taking a guess? If you guessed "not harmful" or "non-threatening," you're on the right track.) Sometimes you will see a single word that you don't know:

"Although ostensibly about 'population control,' it is clear that annual round-ups and auctions of wild horses are simply another example of humanity's need to tame and domesticate nature."

If you covered up the word "ostensibly" and read the sentence again, what word would you use to fill in the blank? We would pick "supposedly," since that makes sense with the sentence as a whole. Boom. You just defined a tricky word by coming up with a close synonym. Easy as pie. Mmmm...pie.

5. Forget what you know.

We know this sounds a little strange in a test prep course, but bear with us here. Keep in mind that ACT Reading is an open-book test and you can ONLY be tested on information that is in the passages. Knowing about or having interest in a particular subject, such as jazz music or great white sharks, can help keep you interested in the passage, and interested reading is active reading, which is good.

However (and this is important), you must not bring outside knowledge in when tackling the questions. Let's say that a question asks you about something that was symbolically important to Holden Caulfield in an excerpt from Catcher in the Rye. In our imaginary scenario, you have already read the entire book for school and you loved it. The answer choices are

A) The ducks in Central Park B) The merry-go-round C) The Egyptian exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum D) The red hunting hat

Now, if you've read the book, you realize right away that ALL of these things are symbolically significant. Then which is the right answer? What can be found in the passage, which happens to be about the ducks in Central Park? You have to suspend your prior knowledge in order to choose the correct answer choice.

6. Save EXCEPT/NOT questions for the bitter(sweet?) end.

These questions are the most time-consuming questions on the ACT. Why? Because instead of looking for the correct answer, you will be given three right answers and one wrong answer—the wrong answer is the one you want. A typical question might ask you, "The author suggests each of the following about William Shakespeare EXCEPT…," so three of the answer choices will be things that the author does say about Shakespeare and the fourth will be the EXCEPT part—the one answer choice that cannot be found anywhere. You will need to examine each and every answer choice to see if it is referenced in the passage. If it is not in the passage, you have the right answer.

Save these questions for the end, and answer them after you've gotten a feel for the passage and the rest of the questions. (In terms of question type, EXCEPT questions are usually referring skills questions because they are looking to see if you can find what is directly missing from the passage…more on that later.)

Free excerpts from Shmoop's online ACT subject material:

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