• Philip Martin

ACT Reading Strategy...Questions First?

When I took the ACT for the first time, I went in blind. However, at my second go, I had a plan that I thought would have guaranteed me a leg up: instead of beginning by reading the passage first, then answering the questions, I would reverse it by previewing the questions first before reading.


I’m not here to bash that strategy. In fact, I think it can be effective for a lot of people. However, I think that “lot of people” need to practice practice practice to ensure that it works for them.


For me, when I tried it, the results were, in a word, BAD. I tried to remember the specifics asked by the questions, then read the passage. However, because I was trying to remember the questions, I failed to pick up what I should have in my reading of the passage (main ideas, etc.). Because there are 4 passages and 40 questions to get through in only 35 minutes, I ran out of time and ended up guessing on a handful of questions that I should have gotten right.

Think of this question from a recent ACT for example:


This question has a lot of detail, and it's those details that I was trying to hold on to when I went to read the passage for the first time.



If you are taking the ACT for the first time, or preparing to take the ACT for the first time, here is the basic approach to the four ACT reading passages that I suggest:


First, read the passage. However, even that’s wrong. I don’t mean read like you would at home (there are some high schoolers who still read at home, right?) sitting in a comfortable chair by the fire, occasionally sipping hot cocoa. That kind of reading is passive, meaning laid-back or “at your own pace.” Employ this reading style, and don’t be surprised when the proctor calls out “5 minutes remaining” as you’re wrapping up the third passage.


Instead, you need to try active reading, a kind of pace slower than skimming but faster than passive reading. Imagine the bell rings for class in 4 minutes, and as soon as it does, you are going to have an American History quiz that you forgot about on a handout from your teacher from the previous day. You would read the passage, but you would do so quickly.


Second, as you read, you need to annotate. I don’t mean annotating to the depth required by some of your English and other teachers. Instead, I mean: a) Summarizing paragraphs in 1-3 words in the margins after you read them (maybe doing this for both the first and second halves of larger paragraphs), b) Underlining key words in paragraphs, or c) Doing both of these. No matter how, such a reading style trains your brain to think in terms of main ideas and leaves breadcrumbs later when you need to look up answers.


Third, get to the questions. If you actively read the passage in 3 1/2 to 4 minutes, you have left yourself 4 minutes and 45 seconds to 5 minutes and fifteen seconds to answer the questions.


With that kind of time, you are sure to give yourself a good shot at a good showing in all four ACT Reading passages!