02 Oct 2017

ACT Reading In-Depth Part 1


As mentioned in a previous blog, the ACT Reading Test has 4 passages with 10 questions each, is 35 minutes long, and is scored on a scale of 0-36.  The passages always come in the same order: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science.   Today, and in the following weeks, we’re going to take a closer look at the reading section, beginning with the Prose Fiction. (However, remember that YOU don’t have to start with the Prose Fiction just because it’s first, although that’s exactly why I’m starting with it.)

The Prose Fiction is approximately 700-800 words long, and is more technically called a Literary Narrative, as it may actually be adapted from a memoir and not a novel or short story.  However, it doesn’t matter what it’s adapted from, as your approach should always be the same because the author’s purpose is always the same: to tell an engaging story.

There are, as with all of the reading passages, 3 approaches you can take: Read the passage first, Skim the Passage first, or Directly to the Questions.  I’m going to discuss the first approach today, because skimming the fiction is pretty difficult, and going directly to questions is a pretty self-explanatory approach.

To begin with, it’s important to remember the goal of reading the Prose Fiction: to answer as many questions correctly as possible.  To that end, it’s helpful to think of what kinds of questions the ACT will ask so that we can focus on those features of the passage.  There are always questions about the main character and his/her relationship to other characters in the passage.  There are always tone questions. There is almost always a plot question. There are 1 or 2 detail questions.  So what should we focus on when reading?  Pay attention to the 4 basics: Character, Tone, Conflict, and Motivation. By the time you’ve finished reading the passage, you should know who the main character is, what her relationship to other characters is, the tone (which is evidenced through the adjectives/adverbs the author uses), what happened (usually nothing), and why that thing happened.

After you’ve read the passage, remember this key rule when answering the questions:

  1. No credited (correct) answer choice will say anything negative about the emotional or ethical state of the main character. The answer the ACT likes will always be as close to neutral as possible, but with a taint of positivity.

For example, look at these answer choices from the ACT’s 5 Reals Practice Test 3, Question 5 (reproduced below)

Which of the following best describes the difference between Ted as a little oy and Ted at the time he builds and occupies the fort?

  1. By the time Ted builds the fort he has lost the lighthearted manner he had as a child and has become more of a brooder who avoids the company of others.
  2. As a teenager Ted is physically clumsier and more angular than he was as a child, but he retains the humor, cautiousness, and seriousness that distinguished him at an early age.
  3. As a child Ted was constantly observing others for indications of how he should behave, but as a teenager he looks more to nature for guidance.
  4. As a child Ted was outgoing in a way that appealed to adults, but as a teenager he was introspective in a way that alarmed them.

Knowing that Ted is the main character, and knowing that the ACT will never say anything negative about him, we can immediately eliminate A/D, because those are obviously negative. Then, if we’ve paid attention to the conflict and motivation of the passage, we can eliminate C. So we’re left with B. Now, it can be argued that “physically clumsier and more angular” is negative, but that is in a physical sense, not a moral sense. Characters can be handicapped, or limited in their abilities, but they are never limited in the scope of their actual “character.” If you keep this cardinal rule in mind, answering the Prose Fiction questions becomes much, much easier.

Next time, we’ll focus on some of the other key points to answering the Prose Fiction questions.

Until then, thanks so much for reading, and if you have any questions, please contact us at [email protected].


Until next time, here’s a sloth.

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