ACT English

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?

female student .jpg

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?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Writing Strategy Questions

In my experience, while students quickly become accustomed to correcting punctuation and verb errors on the ACT English section, questions about style and rhetoric can come across as much scarier. And indeed, many of the strangest questions on the ACT ask us to momentarily take on the perspective of a writer before going back to line editing comma splices and misused adverbs. Questions that ask about deleting or adding information, reorganizing the structure of a paragraph, or assessing the effectiveness of writing are all a bit foreign. But in a larger context, the apprehension that students have around acting like an author makes sense. Students are often asked in liberal arts classrooms to analyze the meaning of a passage or understand the argument of a historian. However, less time is dedicated to diving into the mechanics of how that meaning or argument is actually conveyed.

The ACT takes the opposite approach on the English section. Students will have the opportunity to show their ability to understand texts during the Reading Section. During the English section, it’s time for students to think like a writer!

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. 

How to Stay Sharp Over the Summer

How to Stay Sharp Over the Summer

As the school year winds down, students are understandably looking ahead eagerly to the summer break. But regardless of where you are in your high school career, Jamie reminds us why keeping our minds sharp over the break is essential.