ACT Reading: Passage by Passage

The ACT Reading is a brutal section. It has four passages on four distinct topics, Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Prose Fiction, forty questions, and a time limit of thirty-five minutes. Now let’s take a tour of the four passages, what to look out for, and how to approach each one.
There are ways to study for the section, foremost among them, reading. You will do better on this test if you are a habitual reader. If you are an active reader, one who looks for the book’s main ideas, highlights or underlines details, and never fails to comment on them, then you will do well on this test. If you are an eclectic reader and one who looks for books on a wide range of subjects, well, you are even better prepared. But do not worry, for all of these, you will not need to know anything about the topic.
Of course, understanding the context of the passage will help but it is not necessary. For example, if you know that Werner Heisenberg was a vocal critic of the nuclear bomb after World War II, you may rightly guess that in his memoirs he is against nuclear proliferation. Then again, a good passage will provide its own context. You may not know Werner Heisenberg from Werner Herzog but judging by the tone of the passage, you should understand that he is not in favor of more nuclear bombs. Here is a breakdown topic by topic.


The Humanities section will focus more on literature, drama, art, and art criticism. For example, you may get a passage on Leonardo da Vinci’s method of painting The Mona Lisa. Or you may see something on why Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and how much of the story was based on her life. The trick with these is to read the entire passage and then find the main idea. What is the point of the passage? Underline or star it. Every essay will have a thesis, a (hopefully provocative) point that the writer is making and choosing to convey in writing. There will always be a question asking “What is the point,” so always try to think ahead and find it. Also, understanding the main ideas of each paragraph never hurts, too. Just like each passage has a thesis, so too does each paragraph.
Also, find the supports. What are the details that support the thesis? Underline or star them. How does the author hold up his or her thesis and does she do it well? Ask yourself these questions, because they will ultimately come up in the questions.
Next, find the important details and underline or star them. The passages are rather long, and knowing which sections are which will save you some time when you are answering the questions. A good reader is an active one, and is always coming back to the passage to make sure he or she understands it. There will always be questions about these details.

Social Sciences

These questions will deal with sociology and anthropology (the study of societies and people), history, economics, politics, or geography. For example, a passage may deal with recent elections in India, the development of communism in the mid-1800s, or the Boer Wars. A passage could alternately talk about Mexican culture during the 1900s. Do you know anything about any of these events or people? Do not worry, it is not important. All you need to know should be included in the passage itself. Like the humanities passage, find the passage’s main idea, the supports, and the important details and star or underline them.
The social studies passages may be more fact-based, so also be aware that it is important to note those facts you find as important details. This will pay off when you are answering the questions.

Natural Sciences

These questions are all about the science you studied in school. They could cover anything from geology to biology, physics to chemistry, or paleontology to zoology so be prepared. Do not worry if you are not familiar with any of these topics, the information will be provided in the passage. Remember, just like the Humanities or Social Studies questions, the author will have a main idea. It may just be something straightforward like “the newt is a clever animal” but it will be present. The meaning of the passage flows from the thesis, so once you find this you are in good stead.
Do not be worried if there are some words or concepts you do not understand in the passage. You are not responsible for knowing them. You are responsible for understanding the larger meaning of the passage, but do not let one or two examples throw you off the track. Sometimes, in context, these unfamiliar ideas will make sense. You should not have to guess, but if you run up onto a question you simply do not understand, go back to the passage and see if you can get it through reading more about the idea; this may mean looking through more than the lines suggested in the question, but it is worth it for the answer.

Prose Fiction

These questions may be the most difficult to study for. There may not be a thesis. There may not be a main idea. Instead of looking for that, find the story. Once you know more about the story and the players involved, the answers will be easier to find.
The passages are usually written by unknown authors and are rather straightforward stories, so do not worry, there will not be much by way of Milton. The prose will be understandable. The questions will be like those for the other passages; there will be questions about the story, what you can infer from certain paragraphs, and the meaning of certain words within the context of the story. Be prepared to treat the Prose Fiction section like any other, but also know that answering the questions could be less straightforward than finding the facts. Do not be afraid to make inferences.


What is it about?
Who are the characters?
What is the plot?
What are the characters’ motivations?

The ACT Reading will ultimately test your ability as a reader. You will do better if you practice, so crack open those books and get reading.