ACT Reading: Everything You Need to Know

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

ACT Reading is the third section of the ACT. It comes right after ACT Math and before ACT Science.

This section can be a tough one for students, especially when it comes to timing. Students have to work through four dense passages and 40 questions in only 35 minutes.

Plus, one of those passages is a dual passage, which requires students to compare ideas in two shorter passages.

What do you need to know about ACT Reading? What strategies can you use to improve your Reading score?

We’ve got the answers, which we cover in this post! Plus, readers can check out our ACT Guidebook, a free resource for test-takers navigating this test. Grab it below.

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!

Here’s what we’ll discuss:

  1. The ACT Reading Section in a Nutshell
    1. Format
    2. Passage Types
    3. Question Types
    4. Scoring
  2. How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

1) The ACT Reading Section in a Nutshell

ACT Reading

Here’s what ACT, the organization that writes the test, says about Reading:

The ACT reading test measures your reading comprehension. The test questions ask you to derive meaning from several texts by (1) referring to what is explicitly stated and (2) reasoning to determine implicit meanings. Specifically, questions will ask you to use referring and reasoning skills to determine main ideas; locate and interpret significant details; understand sequences of events; make comparisons; comprehend cause-effect relationships; determine the meaning of context-dependent words, phrases, and statements; draw generalizations; and analyze the author’s or narrator’s voice and method.

What does this actually mean?

In simpler language, the Reading section tests your critical reading skills — your capacity to identify main ideas, understand how writers formulate arguments, and analyze key details in a text.

ACT Reading is a very literal test, which means that all of its questions will boil down to main ideas, author’s purpose, and textual details. In other words, you’ll always be able to find answers to these questions in the passages themselves.

Let’s look at the format of the section so you can gain a better understanding of what we mean by this.

Format

ACT Reading is the third section of the test, appearing after ACT Math and before ACT Science.

There are 40 multiple-choice questions on ACT Reading, to be completed in 35 minutes. This is also how ACT Science is structured — there’s a reason why the two sections are back-to-back!

Those 40 questions are attached to four passages, all roughly the same length. Every passage begins with a short blurb that identifies the passage genre, author, title, and any other relevant context.

One of these passages will be a dual passage, which means that students must answer questions associated with two smaller passages in one. Here’s what that looks like:

ACT Reading - Dual Passage

The subjects of these passages will vary within their genres. You may or may not be familiar with these subjects, but don’t worry — that won’t keep you from doing well on this section!

There are still many predictable components of this section: the format, passage and question types, and scoring.

Passage Types

There are four genres of ACT Reading passages, which will be the same on every test and appear in this order:

  • Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction
  • Social Science
  • Humanities
  • Natural Science

Note: Any of these passages can be a dual passage. In very rare instances, there won’t be a dual passage, but this tends to only happen about once a year (if at all).

Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction passages will be excerpts from novels, short stories, memoirs, or personal essays, like this one here:

Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science passages all frequently come from journal or newspaper articles, research papers, books, or other academic sources. Given how general these categories are, the subjects of these articles can be about virtually anything–from rock ants to the Grateful Dead’s management style.

There’s often one thing that all of these passages have in common: they can be very dense and very boring! Luckily, however, we’ve got some strategies to help with that, which we’ll discuss at the end of this post. You can also check out our these 10 ACT Reading strategies to get a high score.

Question Types

ACT Reading questions boil down to three categories of questions, according to ACT:

  • Key Ideas and Details
  • Craft and Structure
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

Key Ideas and Details Questions

These questions are all about passage central themes and ideas. They require students to summarize information and ideas, draw logical inferences from the text, and understand “relationships” between ideas (like cause-and-effect, chronological, or compare-and-contrast).

Here’s an example of a Key Ideas and Details question on Reading:

Craft and Structure Questions

Craft and Structure questions test meanings of words and phrases, text structure, author’s purpose and perspective, and character points of view.

Here’s an example of a Craft and Structure question on Reading:

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas Questions

These questions measure your ability to distinguish between opinion and fact, understand authors’ claims, and to use textual evidence to analyze a dual passage. In some cases, these questions more broadly test your ability to analyze how authors build their arguments.

Here’s an example of an Integration of Knowledge and Ideas question on Reading:

Do any of these Reading question types require outside content knowledge? Not directly. ACT states that “these questions do not test the rote recall of facts from outside the passage, isolated vocabulary items, or rules of formal logic.”

In fact, all answers to ACT Reading questions can be found in the passages themselves!

Students are expected to have knowledge of basic literary devices, however, such as personification, simile, metaphor, and analogy. Similarly, they should be familiar with things like themes, point of view, topic sentences, and transition words.

Scoring

How is ACT Reading scored? Every section on the ACT is scored on a scale of 1-36. So, 1 is the lowest score you can earn on this section and 36 is the highest score. 

The test graders calculate this based on section-specific algorithms that boil down to converting your raw score (the number of questions you get right) to a number between 1 and 36.

All ACT section scores are averaged to generate a composite score on a scale of 1-36. You can find out more about how this works in our ACT scoring guide.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT. This means that you don’t lose points for getting a question wrong on ACT Reading — you simply do not get any points. Students can use this to their advantage by never leaving a question blank on this section!

How many questions do you have to get right in order to achieve a high score? The answer: it depends.

Even though the ACT is a standardized test, no two Reading sections are the same in terms of difficulty and content. A 30 on one Reading section likely doesn’t equate to a 30 on another. 

The key to improving your ACT Reading score thus lies in maximizing your raw score — the more questions you ace on this section, the higher your odds are of earning a competitive score.

We’ll talk more about how to improve your Reading score later on in this post. If you want more insight into what counts as a “good” ACT score overall, check out our other post on the subject.

If you’re enjoying this post, you’ll love our ACT guidebook, which contains all of this information about ACT Reading and so much more. It’s a great, free resource for first-time test-takers, and you can grab it below right now!


2) How to Improve Your ACT Reading Score

The Reading section on the ACT can be a challenge for many test-takers. Many are intimidated by the dense, boring passages.

Timing is also a constant struggle for students on this section — it can feel virtually impossible to tackle 40 questions in 35 minutes on top of those passages!

You’re also not at your freshest when taking ACT Reading, which arrives third in the section lineup. At this point of the test, many students are battling major test fatigue.

There are many ways to improve your ACT Reading score, which we explore more fully in another post. For now, however, the secret to doing well on Reading lies in strategy.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

Here are four of our best strategies for succeeding on this difficult section, no matter where your strengths lie. Find even more strategies in our 10 ACT Reading Strategies to Get a High Score post.

Strategy #1: Prioritize easier passages and questions.

The ACT as a whole does not necessarily set students up for success, especially on ACT Reading. The most difficult passage for you personally, for example, may be first in the line-up. You are also likely to find some question types much easier than others.

Every question is worth the same amount of points on ACT Reading, and there’s no wrong answer penalty. For that reason, be sure to play to your strengths on this section and start with the passages and questions that are easiest for you.

What does “easy” look like on ACT Reading?

Every student will answer this question differently! But, in general, here’s how “easy” tends to look on ACT Reading in terms of passage types and questions:

  • An “easy” ACT Reading passage is one that interests you (even if it’s a teeny bit of interest) — you are more likely to stay focused and answer questions accurately when you are interested in the subject matter!
  • An “easy” ACT Reading question contains a line-reference or concerns a single detail in the passage — these require less overall comprehension of the passage as a whole

Difficult ACT Reading passages are typically dense, technical, and/or detail-oriented. Many students find that the Prose Fiction / Literary Narrative passage on ACT Reading is extremely time-consuming, even if it is interesting.

Tough ACT Reading questions are big-picture questions that require more knowledge of the passage. Always save these for last (or guessing opportunities).

Strategy #2: Annotate the passage while you read it.

Time management is a big challenge on ACT Reading, especially on longer, denser passages. To work through passages more efficiently, read them strategically.

What does strategic reading look like?

Prioritize main ideas as you read, as a lot of the questions will concern these. Don’t get lost in details and elaborations. Take notes as you go, underlining central ideas, keywords from the questions, and author opinions.

These annotations will create a “passage map” — notes that can lead you more easily (and more quickly) to the answers when it comes time to get to those questions. Plus, they’ll help you develop a baseline understanding of the passage as a whole, which is vital for big-picture questions.

Strategy #3: Find your answer in the passage.

We like to call ACT Reading an open-book test. Why? All of the answers are right there in front of you, in the passages!

This means that you shouldn’t have to rely on outside content knowledge or big-leap inferences to answer a Reading question. In fact, if you find yourself doing so, that’s a surefire sign that you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Get in the habit of pinpointing exact moments in the text that answer specific questions. Put your finger on it–literally! You can even do this for more big-picture questions.

Here’s an example of what that looks like.

This question asks about a specific detail from the passage, namely what a study indicates stresses a pika population the most during the summer:

We can hunt in the passage for key details from this question, including the study published in Ecological Applications, pika populations, and stress during the summer. Here’s the bit that includes all of those details:

Reading carefully reveals that “chronic heat stress” or “overall hotter summers” impacts pikas most, so the answer to this question is H. See how we could actually put our finger on that answer in the text? Awesome!

Strategy #4: Get familiar with classic wrong answer choices.

The ACT is a standardized test, which means it is highly predictable. We see this predictability at every level of the test — including the content tested on ACT English and Math and the number of passages on Reading and Science.

We also see it in terms of typical wrong answer choices.

Becoming fluent in types of wrong answer choices on ACT Reading can help you streamline your elimination game and avoid trap answers.

Some classic wrong ACT Reading answer choices include the following:

  • Extreme answers — those that include words like never or always
  • Vague answer choices — those that are too general or broad
  • Answers that go too far — those that sound nice but make too big an inference or logical leap
  • Answers that scramble details from the passage — the details may appear right, but they’re slightly off

These are only four of our very best ACT Reading strategies. Find the rest in our 10 ACT Reading Strategies to Get You a High Score post.


3) Download PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

We’ve covered everything you need to know to jumpstart your ACT Reading prep in this post.

But you’ll find even more helpful information about navigating the ins and outs of ACT test-taking in our free ACT Guidebook, which you can download below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s ACT Guidebook

  • Details about ACT scoring, content, testing options, and more
  • An introduction to PrepMaven’s ACT strategies
  • Information about ACT prep resources
  • Application essentials for the top U.S. colleges

Click here to download a copy of our digital guide!


Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin, Princeton graduates (and brothers) with over 20 years of education experience, are co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They apply research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. They also place a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service for successful college preparation.