ACT Reading

My Favorite (Free!) Website for ACT Reading Preparation

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Most of my students struggle with the ACT Reading section not because they can’t read, but because it is so difficult to manage the short time given. This is entirely understandable, the ACT is a unique experience that is hard to prepare for. Think about it this way, in the real world people normally don’t open up the New York Times and give themselves 5 minutes to read the top front page article. That would be just weird. Even if you wanted to do this, you wouldn't know how long the article should take you to read anyway. With every second counting, guessing an article should take you 6 minutes to read when it really should be 5 minutes can be quite costly.

This is why I love JSTOR’s, the world’s leading digital library of academic journals, daily (free!!!) blog based on the papers they publish.

Sourced and written by their own high-quality writers, the content is on par with what you may see in an ACT Reading section. Even better, they divide the website topically so you can practice the passage type (expect fiction) that gives you the most trouble. Best of all, each article is listed with a reading time so you can time yourself even if don’t have time for a full section. Perfect for when you just have 5 minutes to practice.

JSTOR’s blog is the best free website out there to help you prepare for reading the ACT’s deep academic content under time pressure.

You can find the link here: https://daily.jstor.org/   

Good luck and enjoy!

Advice for the ACT Reading Section

In his last post, Andrew provided some useful tips for the SAT Reading section. To balance things out a bit, I want to offer some advice for the ACT Reading section, where the time pressure (40 questions in 35 minutes!) is even greater than on the SAT.

When I meet with a beginning student to go over a practice ACT, one of the things that I look at, right off the bat, is the student’s note-taking, the markings they made on the reading passages. What phrases or sentences did they circle or underline? What marginal notations did they make?

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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?

Top 5 ACT Verbal Tips You Need to Know Before Test Day

With the ACT coming up this weekend, we've compiled a list of need-to-know Verbal tips to think about as you're getting ready for test day. 

1. Fail to prepare, and you prepare to fail

The day before the test is not the day to learn anything new. Test preparation is like preparing for a marathon: the work you do 2 months before is more important than the work 2 days before.

 

2. Read full sentences 

In the midst of the test, you can sometimes begin to get tunnel vision and break the test down into pieces that are too small. Tone and context are important, so if something doesn’t make sense, simply read it again as a full sentence.

3. Keep it simple

When in doubt keep things short and simple. Concise, clear writing is elegant writing. Remember, the ACT hates redundancy, loves clarity, and always tricks students by throwing in extra commas. 

 

4. Watch the clock

Have the confidence to stop one hard question from derailing your progress on the test. The Verbal section is a full 75 questions! So, if you aren’t 100% sure about one question you need to find a way to keep your momentum going.

 

5. Trust your gut

At some point you will have to rely on their intuition—that is perfectly okay. The hope is that all the practice you have put into the process has refined your intuition--even somewhat unconsciously. 

Improve Your ACT Score by Practicing This Skill

A lot of students starting out the ACT or SAT prep process freeze up when it comes to the reading section. They'll say, "I'm just not a fast reader," or "not a good reader," or "I don't remember what I read." Often, they're already better readers than they think they are ... but there are ways to get even better.

Reading is a skill you practice and improve at throughout your whole life. The more you do it, the better you'll get at moving quickly and absorbing what's on the page ... and you'll also get good at recognizing what your brain needs to hold onto, and what's less important. So here are some tips to maximize your reading skills, not just for the test but for life -- which, of course, is what it's all about.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE 

As with anything in life that you want to be good at, it all comes down to practice. Results don't show up overnight but over a sustained period of dedicated application. And the best way to build practice into your life is to ...

 

MAKE IT A HABIT 

If you just say to yourself, "I'm gonna practice my reading this week -- I really mean it this time," the week is likely to come and go (again) without you ever cracking that book. But if you say, "This week, on Monday through Friday from 7:00-7:30 pm, I'm going to sit in my favorite chair with [book that I'm really excited about] and try to get through X number of pages," your odds of actually doing it go way up. Best of all, before long it becomes second nature: instead of having to force yourself to sit down at the same time every day, you'll find it feels strange NOT to.

 

PICK SOMETHING YOU LIKE 

The best way to keep yourself practicing anything is to find the joy in it, and reading is no different -- so choose something you think you'll like. When I was going through a Stephen King phase in high school, I had a teacher scoff, "It's like chewing gum for the mind ... there's no substance!" Maybe, maybe not, but who cares?! It doesn't have to be "great literature" ... it just has to be fun!

 

GET A READING BUDDY 

Find someone who wants to read the same book, and challenge each other to get through chapters so you can talk about it, the same way you would about Game of Thrones or anything else you love. Even better: do it together, in the same time and place, so you can really hold each other accountable.

 

SEE, DON'T HEAR

Many people, when reading, hear themselves actually saying the words in their head as they go along ... meaning you're only reading as fast as you can talk, which is a fraction of the speed you're actually capable of. This is called "subvocalization," and you want to train yourself out of it. Instead of hearing or listening to the words, try to visualize what the words represent, and suddenly the book will become a fast-paced movie in your mind.

 

"CAST" THE STORY WITH YOUR OWN PEOPLE AND PLACES.

This is similar to the memorization technique called a "memory palace." Here's how a memory palace works: in order to memorize something -- say, items in a long list -- you envision yourself walking through a familiar environment, such as your house, and "placing" the different items at locations in the house. The premise is that, by linking these new items with places that are familiar to you, it will create associations that you can hold onto. The same idea can work when you read. If a new character is introduced, maybe imagine that she looks like your second-grade teacher, and it might be easier to remember the things she says because she has a familiar voice. If the book takes place in some grand mansion, maybe it can look like that art museum from that class trip last year, and you'll remember that the first scene in the book happens in the room with your favorite painting on the wall.

 

Whatever you do, recognize that your "inner reader" will really kick into gear when reading is not a chore, but a pleasure. If you've never liked reading, I can practically guarantee you it's just because you haven't found the material you click with or the reading habits that work best for you. So if this sounds like you, keep looking ... and keep reading!

How to Stay Sharp Over the Summer

As the school year winds down, students are understandably looking ahead eagerly to the summer break. Regardless of where you are in your high school career, keeping your mind sharp over the summer is essential.

For freshmen, your sophomore year will offer a more challenging course load, sometimes featuring your first AP classes. It is crucial to build on the success you established your first year or turn the page and start anew if you struggled.

For sophomores, junior year will be seen as the doorway to college acceptance since you will likely be taking ACTs and SATs for the first time, along with juggling your busiest course load of high school.

Juniors who have finished with the SAT or ACT still have the rigors of college applications and a challenging fall semester to look forward to, while those who have not finished with the tests will have to gear up again for the fall exams.

And even for the seniors who are already accepted into college, I would remind you that the level of comprehension necessary for college courses far surpasses that of high school classes.

With all this in mind, I recommend that students do their best to avoid the trap of summer complacency, which can make starting the new school year all that much more painful. You should all pursue intriguing, unique experiences over the summer, but there are simple steps you can take to keep your mind functioning at a high level.

For most students, the most important step is to read consistently at a high level. Some of you are ambitious enough readers to tackle full novels, in which case you should check out our summer reading list here.  For those of you who feel overwhelmed by the commitment of a novel, challenge yourself to read one article each day in a publication such as The Atlantic, Popular Science, Scientific American, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. These publications are written at a level similar to or above that which you will usually find on the SAT or ACT.

For those of you trying to get ahead on your SAT or ACT prep or make a strong final push for the fall exams, I would strongly recommend a consistent review of the English rules and math equations, as well as steady practice with your past mistakes. Even 10 to 15 minutes of work each day can make a significant impact on your readiness at the start of the next school year.

So challenge yourself to stay sharp and keep yourself ahead of the curve this summer!

 

-Jamie K, Test Prep Advisor & Instructor