The ACT Reading Test Made Simple

Mar 2024

13 Minute Read

Tagged as: ACT

A discussion of the ACT reading test, passage types (with examples), and challenges

The format of the ACT Reading Test

The ACT Reading Test is the third section of the ACT exam. The Reading Test has 40 questions, which are normally spread evenly across 4 Reading passages. Students have 35 minutes to complete the test, which means you have about 8 minutes and 45 seconds to read each passage and answer approximately 10 questions. In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the format of the ACT Reading section so you know what passage types and reading questions you can expect to see.

The ACT Reading Test has four passage types

There are four different passage types you’ll encounter on the ACT Reading Test:

  1. Prose Fiction/Literary Narrative. These passages are taken from fiction or literary memoirs and span modern works to classics. The literary works in this passage come from all over the globe.
  2. Social Science. These passages focus on topics from social studies, geography, sociology, anthropology and more.
  3. Humanities. Topics covered by these passages come from a wide variety of sources: personal essays, memoirs, journal article excerpts and more. The subject of this passage is highly variable: art, media, philosophy, music... the list goes on and on.
  4. Natural Science. Like Social Science passages, these are nonfiction writings. The passages cover topics from Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Space Science, and Physics (i.e. material and concepts that would be covered in any science course you may take in high school).

Note: Beginning in 2021, the ACT began including one graph, figure or table alongside one of the four passages. So, you'll still have four passages, but one of them may be accompanied by a graph or figure.

Passage I: Prose/Literary Fiction

The Prose/Literary Fiction passage often contains questions that ask about the passage’s main theme. Questions about the narrator – his or her tone, purpose, intent and more – are also common.

Take a look at this example from a Prose/Literary Fiction passage from the December 2008 ACT:

The point of view from which the passage is told is best described as that of a young woman who:

  • A. is unsure whether she would like to attend college in the fall but is aware she will have the option.
  • B. has made plans to go to college in the fall but is now convinced that the high cost to attend will prevent her from going.
  • C. had assumed that she would go to college in the fall but is now considering working on the family ranch for a year instead.
  • D. is anxiously anticipating attending college in the fall but is aware of the conditions that could affect her plans.

As you can see, the question is directly asking about the narrator’s point of view and requires the test-taker to analyze the passage as a whole. This is a commonly asked question on this passage type.

Passage II: Social Science

The Social Science passage often contains questions that require you to determine if the author would agree or disagree with certain statements, as well as summarize the information in the passage.

Here is an example of a social science passage question from the December 2010 ACT exam:

The passage best supports which of the following as a possible reason for Morris's obscurity as a writer?

  • A. Her stories failed to capture the spirit of Harlem.
  • B. Her WPA work was sent to a state archive.
  • C. She had asked that her writing not be published in her lifetime.
  • D. She stopped writing once the WPA ended.

In the example question above, the test-taker is asked to choose a statement that is best supported by the passage. This is a perfect example of a question style you may experience from a Social Science passage.

Passage III: Humanities

Humanities passage questions generally focus on topics similar to those found in Prose/Literary Fiction questions. You may be asked about the author’s tone and point of view, the main purpose of a particular paragraph, or the passage as a whole.

A good example of a question associated with a Humanities passage comes from the December 2010 ACT exam:

Through his comparison of Saenredamn's work to photography, the author reveals his belief that photography:

  • A. is a more accurate representation of reality.
  • B. partially distorts reality.
  • C. ignores reality in order to promote a specific artistic vision.
  • D. requires a less exacting eye for measurement.

This question asks the test-taker to determine the author’s beliefs based on what they read. You may find this style of question in the Prose/Literary Fiction passage questions as well.

Passage IV: Natural Science

The last passage type, Natural Science, typically asks more detail-oriented questions. You may be required to make conclusions based on information from the passage, summarize information, and determine if particular statements are supported by the passage or not (not all that dissimilar from some ACT Science questions).

Take a look at this example question from the December 2008 ACT test:

Which of the following statements best summarizes the comments in the passage from D'or?

  • A. Deep-sea exploration is wasteful because so much of the ocean will remain unseen.
  • B. Biologists are getting close to a full understanding of the deep sea.
  • C. New submersibles will be needed to study the ocean's smart, fast creatures.
  • D. A great deal about the deep sea is unknown and will likely stay that way.

In this question, the test-taker must summarize a particular part of the passage – specifically comments made by a researcher. Summary questions are common on Natural Science and Social Science passages.

How difficult is the ACT Reading Test?

The difficulty of each passage type is highly specific to the test-taker. If you are a student who is well-read in the sciences and enjoys articles on research or current scientific discoveries, you may find the Natural Science passage very easy. On the other hand, you may rarely read fiction (except when assigned by you English teacher, and even then, you may just skim. Don’t worry, we won’t tell!). In that case, the Prose/Literary fiction passage may pose a greater challenge for you. As you begin your preparation for this test, you’ll discover which passages suit you best.

Having a better understanding of the format of the ACT Reading Test will help you as you begin to prepare for the exam. Not only will you be able to anticipate the types of passages and questions you’ll experience when you sit for the test, you’ll be able to focus your studying on which passages/question styles challenge you most. We wish you the best as you begin to study for the ACT Reading Test. Happy studying and good luck!

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.

In need of more ACT Reading prep? Our new app Wend has over 450 free test prep questions for the SAT and ACT. Download Wend on the App Store for free test prep, essay writing tips, and more!

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