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ACT Reading Section: A Complete Guide

ACT Reading Section: A Complete Guide

5 min Read|April 07 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


This guide dissects the ACT Reading section, providing a comprehensive overview of its structure, the types of questions you'll encounter, and effective strategies for preparation and test-taking. Whether you're aiming for a perfect score or simply looking to improve your reading comprehension, this article will equip you with the knowledge and tools necessary to excel. Through well-defined sections, we'll break down complex information into manageable parts, use examples to make abstract concepts more concrete, and guide you through specific processes to enhance your understanding and navigation of the ACT Reading section.

Format and Structure of the ACT Reading Section

The ACT Reading section challenges your reading comprehension skills through a variety of passages and question types. Understanding its format and structure is the first step for effective preparation and strategy.

Overview of the Section

ACT Reading Section Structure and Top Tips

ACT Reading Section Structure and Top Tips

  • The ACT Reading section includes 40 questions to be answered in 35 minutes, translating to less than a minute per question.
  • It comprises four passages, each followed by a series of multiple-choice questions.
  • These passages are drawn from four distinct areas: Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction, Social Studies, Humanities, and Natural Sciences.
"Many students underestimate the stamina needed for the Reading section. Simulating test conditions during practice can help build endurance," advise our experienced ACT tutors.

Types of Passages

  • Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction: These passages are excerpts from novels, short stories, or memoirs. They often explore themes through character development and plot, testing your ability to grasp narrative techniques and interpret characters' actions and motivations.
  • Social Studies: This category includes passages from disciplines such as economics, psychology, sociology, and political science. Questions in this section test your ability to understand argumentative structures and the use of evidence in social sciences texts.
  • Humanities: Passages under this heading draw from art, literature criticism, philosophy, and more, requiring an understanding of ideas, themes, and arguments within cultural and historical contexts.
  • Natural Sciences: These passages cover topics in fields like biology, chemistry, physics, and earth sciences, focusing on your ability to comprehend scientific arguments, data, and concepts presented in a text.

If you're looking to gain a more detailed of the ACT's structure, check out our guide to the ACT exam format.

Scoring in the ACT Reading Section

Like other sections, such as ACT English and ACT Math, the ACT Reading section is also scored on a scale of 1-36, with 1 being the lowest score achievable and 36 being the highest.

Raw Scores and Scaling

Your performance in the Reading section generates a raw score, which is simply the total number of questions you answer correctly. There is no penalty for incorrect answers on the ACT, so it's to your advantage to answer every question, even if you're unsure of some answers. This raw score is then converted into a scaled score ranging from 1 to 36, which reflects your performance relative to a nationally representative sample of test-takers. To learn more about how your ACT exam will be scored, refer to our guide to ACT scoring.

Scoring Categories for ACT Reading Section

"Understanding the scoring rubric can help you prioritize your efforts during the exam. Focus on securing the easy and medium questions first before tackling the hard ones," suggest our College Admissions tutors.

The overall score one receives in the Reading section is based on the following three reporting categories:

1. Key Ideas and Details

  • This category assesses your proficiency in identifying the core themes and narratives within a text. It involves your capacity to accurately summarize the information provided and to grasp the nuances of relationships between characters, events, or arguments. Demonstrating an understanding of these elements is crucial for achieving a high score in this section.

2. Craft and Structure

  • Your ability to dissect and appreciate the construction of the text falls under this category. It encompasses a broad spectrum of skills, including determining the meanings of words and phrases within their specific context, analyzing the impact of word choice on the tone and mood of the text, and understanding the structural elements that contribute to the overall effectiveness of the passage. Moreover, recognizing the author's intent and perspective, as well as interpreting characters' viewpoints and motivations, are key aspects of this category.

3. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

  • This segment evaluates your capability to critically engage with the text, particularly in terms of understanding the author’s arguments and distinguishing between factual statements and opinions. It also tests your ability to synthesize information and make reasoned connections between texts that share a common theme or topic, showcasing your ability to integrate knowledge from multiple sources to form a cohesive understanding.

Types of Questions Encountered

The ACT Reading section tests your comprehension and analytical skills through a variety of question types. Understanding these question types is key to developing effective strategies for tackling this section of the exam.

Main Idea

Main Idea questions ask you to identify the central theme or overall purpose of the passage. This type of question tests your ability to grasp the big picture and synthesize information presented across the entire text. For example, a question might ask, "What is the main argument of the passage?" requiring you to discern the primary focus or argument from a broad perspective. According to English tutors, when tackling these questions students should always look for the author's thesis statement, which is usually in the first or last paragraph.


Detail questions focus on specific facts or pieces of information mentioned in the passage. They test your ability to recall and locate specific details without necessarily understanding the broader context. An example of a Detail question could be, "According to the passage, what was the outcome of the experiment?"

Vocabulary in Context

Vocabulary in Context questions assess your ability to understand the meaning of words or phrases as they are used in the passage. This involves not just knowing the dictionary definition of words but being able to interpret their meaning based on how they're used in a specific context. For instance, you might be asked to determine what a word "most nearly means" within the passage.

Function & Development

Function questions ask about the role a particular sentence, paragraph, or section plays within the passage. They test your understanding of the structure of the text and the author’s purpose in including certain elements. Development questions may ask you to identify how ideas are introduced and evolved throughout the passage. An example might be, "How does the third paragraph contribute to the passage's argument?"


Inference questions require you to read between the lines, using evidence from the text to draw conclusions that aren't explicitly stated. This type of question evaluates your ability to understand implied ideas and read critically. An inference question might pose, "What can be inferred about the author's viewpoint on X?"

Each of these question types demands a slightly different approach but collectively, they require a deep engagement with the text, an analytical mindset, and the ability to apply critical reading strategies effectively. Understanding these questions and practicing with them can significantly enhance your ability to navigate the ACT Reading section successfully.

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Approach to Answering Questions

Successfully navigating the variety of question types in the ACT Reading section requires specific strategies. Whether you're dealing with main idea, detail, inference, or vocabulary questions, a strategic approach can significantly improve your ability to select the correct answers.

Using the Process of Elimination

One universally effective strategy is the process of elimination. This is particularly useful for questions where the correct answer isn't immediately apparent. By methodically eliminating options that are clearly incorrect, you narrow down your choices, increasing your odds of selecting the right answer. This approach is especially valuable for inference questions, where answers are not directly stated in the text and require critical reading and deduction.

Critical Reading for Inference Questions

Inference questions demand that you read between the lines. To tackle these effectively, focus on understanding the implications of the text rather than just its explicit content. Ask yourself what the author is suggesting or implying with the information provided. This may involve interpreting the tone of the passage, the context of certain statements, or the relationships between different parts of the text.

Interpreting Complex Passages and Questions

For complex passages or detail-oriented questions, it's important to slow down and ensure you fully understand what's being asked. Reread passages or specific lines if necessary, paying close attention to the nuances that may influence the correct answer. For vocabulary questions, don't just look at the word in isolation; consider its meaning in the context of the sentence or paragraph, as this can significantly affect its interpretation.

"When stuck between two answers, always go back to the passage. The right answer is the one directly supported by the text," emphasize our AP tutors.

Detail-Oriented and Vocabulary Questions

When dealing with detail-oriented questions, the key is precision. Be wary of answers that seem correct but contain inaccuracies or exaggerations not supported by the passage. For vocabulary questions, be alert to common traps, such as choosing a synonym of the word that doesn't fit the specific context in the passage.

By applying these strategies—elimination for uncertain answers, critical reading for inferences, careful interpretation of complex texts, and precision for detail and vocabulary questions—you'll enhance your ability to navigate the diverse and challenging questions of the ACT Reading section. Regular practice with these strategies will build your confidence and skill, leading to better performance on test day.

Navigating Paired Passages

In the ACT Reading section, students often encounter paired passages—a distinctive format where two related texts are presented together. These passages, typically connected by theme, topic, or argument, offer a unique opportunity to evaluate and synthesize information across different perspectives. The challenge and importance of these paired passages lie in their ability to test a student's comprehension, analytical skills, and capacity to draw connections between separate but related pieces of writing.

Understanding Relationships Between Passages

The key to mastering paired passages is recognizing the relationship between them. This could involve identifying contrasting viewpoints, parallel themes, or differing methods of presenting information. By understanding the primary purpose or argument of each passage, you can better anticipate the types of comparison questions that may be asked.

Strategies for Effective Approach

Expert Tip: "Paired passages can be tricky. Students should identify the tone and purpose of each passage first—this usually helps in answering comparative questions," recommend our English tutors.
  • Read for Structure: Initially, focus on grasping the structure of each passage—its thesis, supporting arguments, and conclusion. This foundational understanding makes it easier to compare and contrast the passages effectively.
  • Annotate Differences and Similarities: As you read, make brief notes on the margins about significant similarities and differences between the passages. This can include contrasting viewpoints, complementary information, or differing examples that illustrate similar concepts.
  • Synthesize Information: Practice synthesizing information from both passages to answer comparative questions accurately. Questions may ask about the authors' attitudes, the arguments' strengths, or how one passage illuminates the other.
  • Focus on Authorial Intent: Pay close attention to the authors' purposes. Understanding why each author presents their material in a certain way can be crucial for answering questions that ask about the passages' comparative effectiveness or the authors' contrasting viewpoints.

Practice Techniques and Resources

Effective preparation for the ACT Reading section goes beyond understanding its structure and familiarizing yourself with the types of questions; it involves practice and utilizing the right resources. Here’s how you can maximize your practice sessions and make the most of the available study materials.

Types of Materials to Use

  • Official ACT Practice Tests: Nothing beats the value of practicing with official materials. These tests best mirror the format, content, and difficulty level of the actual exam. Aim to complete several full-length reading sections to acclimate yourself to the test's timing and pressure.
  • High-Quality Unofficial Resources: Several reputable education platforms offer practice tests and reading materials that closely resemble the ACT. While not a substitute for official materials, they can provide additional practice and help diversify your preparation.
  • Varied Reading Materials: Incorporate reading from a wide range of sources into your study routine. This could include scientific journals, literary works, historical texts, and contemporary essays. The goal is to become comfortable and efficient at understanding different writing styles and subjects.

Frequency of Practice Sessions

Consistency is key when it comes to ACT preparation. Dedicate specific times each week for focused reading practice. For most students, short daily sessions are more effective than lengthy, infrequent study marathons. This consistent engagement helps improve reading speed, comprehension, and analytical skills over time.

Benefits of Reviewing Mistakes

One of the most critical aspects of practice is reviewing your mistakes. Understanding why you got a question wrong is crucial for learning and improvement. After each practice session:

  • Analyze Your Errors: Identify patterns in your mistakes. Are you consistently missing a certain type of question? Is there a particular passage type that challenges you?
  • Adjust Your Strategies: Based on your review, modify your approach to reading passages or answering questions. For example, if inference questions are your weakness, focus on enhancing your critical reading skills.
  • Seek Feedback: Don't hesitate to ask for help. Teachers, online tutors, or study partners can provide valuable insights into your errors and offer strategies for improvement.

Incorporating a variety of practice materials, maintaining a regular study schedule, and critically reviewing your mistakes are foundational steps in your ACT Reading preparation. These practices not only bolster your reading skills but also build the resilience and adaptability you need to excel in this challenging section of the ACT.


As you embark on your journey to conquer the ACT Reading section, remember that success lies in understanding the test's format, mastering the question types, and developing robust active reading and analytical skills. Equally important is adopting effective practice techniques and utilizing a range of resources to hone your abilities. Regular review of your performance, especially your mistakes, and adjusting your strategies accordingly, is crucial for improvement. This guide has laid out the foundational elements and strategies to help you navigate the Reading section confidently. Keep practicing, stay persistent, and approach each practice session with a goal to learn and improve. With dedication and the right approach, achieving a high score on the ACT Reading section is well within your reach.


How often should I take full-length ACT practice tests?

Taking full-length ACT practice tests is crucial for understanding the test's pacing and improving your overall performance. Ideally, you should aim to take a practice test every two to four weeks. This frequency is a balanced approach that allows enough time for detailed review of your answers, understanding mistakes, and focusing on weak areas without causing burnout. Completing full-length tests under timed conditions helps in building stamina, which is necessary for the actual test day. It also familiarizes you with the test format, types of questions, and time management strategies. Analyzing your performance on these practice tests can guide your study plan, helping you to allocate your preparation time more effectively to areas where you need improvement.

Can reading fiction books improve my ACT Reading score?

Reading fiction books is an effective way to improve your ACT Reading score, as it enhances several critical reading skills. Engaging with fiction develops your ability to quickly comprehend complex narratives, recognize subtle themes, and understand character motivations—skills directly transferable to the ACT Reading section. Fiction often employs sophisticated vocabulary and diverse sentence structures, which can help expand your language skills and improve your ability to understand and analyze texts of various styles. Moreover, regular reading increases reading speed and stamina, both of which are beneficial for the time-pressured environment of the ACT. Diversifying your reading material, including both contemporary and classic fiction, can further enrich your understanding of different writing styles and historical contexts, making it easier to tackle a wide range of passages on the test.

Are there any common themes in ACT Reading passages?

The ACT Reading section typically features passages that cover four main themes: literary narrative or prose fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural sciences. These themes are selected for their breadth and depth, challenging your ability to analyze and interpret different types of texts. Literary narratives might explore character dynamics, plot developments, or thematic elements. Social studies passages could discuss historical events, sociological studies, or economic theories. Humanities passages often focus on personal essays, critiques, or analyses of cultural phenomena. Natural science passages might present scientific studies, theories, or experimental results. Familiarity with these common themes can aid in quicker comprehension and analysis during the test, as you become more adept at identifying main ideas and critical details relevant to the questions asked.

How is the ACT Reading section different from SAT Reading?

The ACT Reading section and the SAT Reading section differ in several key aspects, impacting how students should prepare for each test. The ACT Reading section is known for its straightforward questions and emphasis on speed and direct comprehension of the text. It requires students to find specific information within the passages and understand direct statements or implications. On the other hand, the SAT Reading section places a heavier emphasis on evidence-based questions, requiring students to interpret the meaning of the text and support their answers with specific evidence from the passage. This makes the SAT Reading feel more analytical, with a greater focus on inference and the relationships between parts of the text. Additionally, the SAT includes questions that require students to analyze data from graphs and charts, even in the context of reading passages, a feature not present in the ACT Reading section.

What are effective note-taking strategies for the ACT Reading?

Effective note-taking strategies for the ACT Reading section can significantly enhance your ability to quickly recall information and answer questions accurately. Since time management is crucial, your note-taking should be concise and strategic. Start by underlining or highlighting key details, such as names, dates, and important terms. You can also annotate the margins with brief summaries of paragraphs or the main idea of each passage to help you quickly locate information. Additionally, noting the author's tone or the purpose of the passage can be helpful for answering more abstract questions. These strategies keep you engaged with the text and improve your comprehension by forcing you to process the information actively. However, it's important to practice these techniques during your preparation to ensure they don't slow you down during the actual test.

How can I improve my speed in the ACT Reading section?

Improving speed in the ACT Reading section is a common goal for many students, given the limited time available to read passages and answer questions. To enhance your reading speed, incorporate timed practice sessions into your study routine, focusing on both speed and comprehension. Techniques such as skimming for the main idea and scanning for specific details can help you quickly grasp the passage's structure and locate information more efficiently. Regular reading outside of test prep, especially of complex materials, can also improve your overall reading speed and comprehension over time. During practice sessions, challenge yourself to read passages and answer questions more quickly than required, gradually reducing the time you allot for each passage. This practice not only improves your speed but also builds confidence in your ability to manage the time constraints of the ACT Reading section.

What role does prior knowledge play in ACT Reading comprehension?

Prior knowledge plays a relatively minor role in the ACT Reading section, as the questions are designed to be answered based solely on the information provided in the passages. The test assesses your ability to read and understand texts of varying complexity and content, rather than your knowledge of the subjects covered. However, having a broad base of general knowledge can occasionally help you feel more comfortable with certain passages and may aid in quickly understanding context or thematic elements. That said, the most effective way to prepare is to focus on improving your reading comprehension and analysis skills, practicing with a wide range of passage types to become adept at quickly extracting and interpreting the necessary information from any text.

Can I skip questions and return to them in the Reading section?

Yes, in the ACT Reading section, you can skip questions and return to them later. This strategy can be particularly useful if you encounter questions that you find difficult or time-consuming. By moving on to easier questions, you can ensure that you collect as many points as possible before returning to tackle the more challenging ones. It's important to manage your time wisely and keep track of skipped questions to make sure you have enough time to revisit them. Some students find it helpful to mark their best guess for skipped questions before moving on, just in case they run out of time, ensuring that every question has an answer.

Are there any apps recommended for ACT Reading practice?

For ACT Reading practice, there are numerous apps and online resources available that offer practice questions, timed tests, and strategies for improving reading comprehension and speed. Official ACT preparation apps provide practice questions that mimic the format and content of the actual test, ensuring that your practice is as relevant as possible. Other educational apps offer gamified learning experiences, making practice more engaging and less monotonous. Reading comprehension apps can help you work on your ability to quickly understand and analyze texts, while vocabulary-building apps can improve your understanding of complex passages. When choosing an app, look for features like progress tracking, personalized feedback, and a variety of practice passage types to round out your preparation.

How do I balance my study time across all ACT sections?

Balancing study time across all ACT sections requires a strategic approach to ensure comprehensive preparation. Begin by taking a full-length practice test to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Allocate more study time to sections where your performance was weaker, while maintaining regular practice in your stronger areas to keep those skills sharp. Create a study schedule that divides your time according to these priorities, including both focused practice on individual sections and full-length practice tests to work on stamina and time management across the entire exam. Incorporate review periods to go over mistakes and understand concepts you're struggling with. Remember, quality of study is more important than quantity; focused, intentional practice is key to improving your scores across all sections of the ACT.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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