With these beginning students, I usually find that one of two scenarios holds. Sometimes, the student hasn’t made any markings at all. When I see that, it worries me. I wonder whether the student really read the passage. An unmarked page can be a sign that the student simply allowed their eyes to glide over the words and didn’t try to engage actively with the content of the passage. And even if that’s not the case—even if the student read the passage as diligently as they could—I worry that they’re trying to carry too much in their active memories. When they get to a question that stumps them, how are they going to find a way “back in” to the passage they just read?
Other times, I find that the student has underlined just about every word in the passage. This worries me, too. For starters, when the passage is all marked up, the whole purpose of marking the passage has been defeated. How can you find what’s really important when your markings suggest that everything is? And I haven’t even mentioned the time that’s wasted in all that pencil-dragging.
The key is to find a happy medium, and the way to do that is to know ahead of time what you’re looking for. Here are some things I tell students to look for, and to mark, as they read.
For every kind of ACT passage, circle any word you don’t know. “Serendipitous”? Circle it. “Solipsistic”? Circle it. Consider this: If you don’t know the word, chances are good that a lot of other test-takers won’t know it, either. That’s probably why the designers of the test included it there. And if it’s an unusual word whose meaning can be discerned from the context, then it’s quite likely that one of the questions is going to ask you to discern that meaning. If you can anticipate those questions as you read, you’ll save time later.
Relatedly, mark any language that stands out—any phrase that’s especially colorful, or unusual, or that makes you pause so that you can figure it out. Underline the phrase, and take those few seconds to think about what the author means. Again, it’s likely that one of the questions will ask you to do that. So why not get out ahead of the question?
For fiction and humanities passages, keep in mind that many of the ACT’s literary narratives are not linear; what happens in the first paragraph of the passage is not necessarily the first event in the timeline of the story. The ACT loves flashbacks, flash-forwards, and interspersed plot lines, and it loves asking you to put a story’s events in chronological order. When the time of the plot shifts in any of these ways, I put a big “T” in the margin, to mark the shift in time.
For fiction and humanities passages, I also pay attention to, and mark, any expressions of strong feeling. If the main character says that he is “insanely jealous” of something, or if an author tells you that a character clenched her teeth, mark that! The questions will often ask you about what’s going on, emotionally, in a passage.
Finally, for social science and natural science passages, underline any unanswered questions or any questions that are still awaiting scientific investigation. The ACT loves to ask about these; I guess they want to make sure that, once you’re done reading, you’re clear on what it is you DON’T know. I mark these unanswered questions with a big “U” in the margin.
Those are just a few of my suggestions. And they could all be summarized under a more general piece of advice:
Read actively, and mark the passages selectively to help you in your active reading.
If you see me around, I’d love to hear what you look for and mark as you read. Are there other things I should add to my list?