ACT Reading prep

The ACT Reading Test requires a lot of attention to detail and the ability to read quickly through a lot of text. Your familiarity with the topics on the test is unnecessary. The four general categories are prose fiction, social science or social studies, the humanities, natural science. You won’t need knowledge about black holes in order to read and answer questions from an astronomy passage, but reading a variety of material on a regular basis is great tool for your ACT Reading test prep. Aside from being well-read, this article will lay out several additional reading strategies for ACT Reading prep to help you do as well as possible in the ACT Reading Test.

6 Essential ACT Reading Study Strategies

1. Read … A Lot

As we mentioned above, being comfortable reading a variety of topics from a variety of sources is one of the best things you can do to prepare for the ACT Reading test. Check out magazines from the library. Read books on different topics (not just what your high school teacher assigns in class). Check out the newspaper from time to time. The more familiar you are with reading samples from different sources, the more comfortable you’ll be with all the various subjects and writing styles you’ll encounter on the test.

2. Learn to Identify Questions By Type

We’ve analyzed all the ACT Reading sections that ACT has released in the last decade, and there are several different types of questions you’ll see time and again on the reading test. These question types include identifying details from the reading passages, determining the purpose of a paragraph or the passage as a whole, and defining words based on their context in the passage. As you practice with reading passages, you should begin to identify which question types you excel on and which give you trouble. Focus your attention on the ones that give you trouble. Try approaching the practice questions in different ways until you feel comfortable answering them. Your reading score will skyrocket. 

3. Perfect the Art of the “Heavy Skim”

In the article on the format of the ACT Reading test, we mentioned that you have 35 minutes total. That means that you get a little less than 9 minutes to read the passage and answer ten questions about it. You can’t take a lot of time reading the passage, or you will run out of time. Instead of reading the passage and paying attention to each and every detail (as you may for a reading assignment in English class), you’ll want to practice the “heavy skim.” When you skim an article, you are looking for important words, phrases, the main point of a paragraph, character names and other main ideas, not superfluous details. You don’t have to absorb everything on this first pass. However,  you should be able to answer questions like these after you’ve done your heavy skim:

  • What is the main topic of the passage?
  • Who is the narrator of the passage or who are the major characters in the passage?
  • What are the main purposes of each paragraph?

4. Answer Line-Specific Questions First  

Many reading questions will ask you to look at a specific word, phrase, sentence or paragraph. Complete these questions first, even if you go out of order. Not only will you get them out of the way, but you’ll get a closer read of the passage. This way, when you go to answer questions that do not have a line or lines associated with the answer choices, you won’t have to hunt to find the answer. You’ve likely already read most of the passage now and know where to find the part of the passage that helps to answer the question. Just be sure to go back and double check that your answers are in the right spot on the answer sheet. You don’t want to miss any since you probably didn’t answer the multiple choice questions in order.


This question below is an example of one of these “line-specific” style questions:

When Brand says “I’m not buying a ticket” (line 22), he is most likely making the point that:
A. Patch will have to pay his own way on the train.
B. he’s entitled to ride the train without paying because of his profession.
C. he’s at the station to meet someone, not to catch a train
D. the ticket agent should give him a free ticket on the five o’clock train.

Source: ACT Assessment, June 2011


5. Practice Annotating

One of the best ways to save time on the reading test is to annotate the reading passage, but this practice. As you do your skimming, underline character names, bracket or put a star next to important events, and circle key words or phrases. If you get REALLY good at annotating, you can even add a short note next to each paragraph that summarizes the main point of that paragraph. This may serve to focus your search for the answer to a particular question. Annotating, and annotating well, is a skill. You will start to get better at choosing which details to make note of and which to ignore the more you practice.

While at first it may seem that annotating takes too much time, you’ll soon realize that this saves you time. These small marks make it much easier to find the details you need to answer a question and, therefore, the practice actually saves you time in the end. Try it out and see!

6. Create Vocabulary Flashcards

As you go through various practice tests, you’ll probably run into vocabulary words you don’t know. Since reading comprehension is so important, building your vocabulary is a great way to practice for this test. When you see a word you can’t define or have never seen before, underline it. After your ACT Reading practice session, go back and create flashcards for each of these words. They can be either paper ones or digital ones. Regularly review these flashcards as part of your ACT study plan.

If you are feeling extra ambitious as you’re preparing for the Reading test, any time you come across a word you don’t know (reading for fun, in a school textbook, in the newspaper or a magazine you are flipping through, etc) make a flashcard for that word too. Again, the more you can build up your vocabulary the more prepared you’ll be.

What’s Next?

Read our Ultimate Guide to ACT Test Prep — it summarizes everything you’ll need to know, whether you are preparing to take the ACT next month or in a few years.

Thinking about getting a tutor for ACT Reading prep? Our online ACT test prep will teach you to apply these strategies and many more for success on the ACT. Get in touch to schedule a free lesson or take a free practice test.