One of the most challenging sections on the ACT is the reading test. It’s designed to test your reading comprehension skills with a variety of different genres, and you may not be familiar with much of the content. There are four passages, each with a set of questions and each in a different category: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, and Natural Science. Some are easier than others to read and understand, but it’s best to be prepared: read from a variety of sources, not just one genre. Brushing up on the classics won’t help you much when you have to slog through a passage on eel migration (seriously, there has been an ACT reading passage on eel migration).
While we’re not covering what you should specifically read in each category, we do have some fundamental tips that will give you a better edge on the ACT reading test.
3 Ways to Improve Your Reading Skills on the ACT
Read: Read! Read everything you can get your hands on: the newspaper, magazines, research papers, classic books, young adult, fiction, nonfiction, etc. If you think you’re a poor reader, the best way to improve your reading skills, hands down, is to read more. Take a little time every day to read even a couple pages from one of the genres listed earlier.
If you don’t have a habit of reading, look at how you spend your day between school and bed. More than likely, much of that time involves electronic entertainment—your phone, the TV, the Internet, or video games. Commit 20 minutes a day to substituting some of that free time with reading. Start with comic books, get a head start on your reading for English class, or find a magazine about a field that interests you (the library has dozens of magazines available for every hobby). If you can build this habit, it’ll be easier to read each time, your vocabulary will increase, and your develop a taste for different genres, which is a great way to prepare for the different passages on the ACT reading.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that reading is BY FAR the best thing you can do to improve your comprehension skills.
Learn a New Word Every Week: If you are reading lots of different materials, you are going to come across new words you don’t know or don’t understand. Sometimes it’s easy to infer meaning from the context (and this is also a good habit), but do yourself a favor and look up the word to confirm your guess. Otherwise, you miss out on other meanings the word can have. If the word appears on the ACT but is used in a different context, you risk choosing the wrong answer.
As a bonus, when you look up a word, try using it in a sentence. It doesn’t have to sound academic; it can be as ridiculous as you want to make it. Doing these two extra steps goes a long way toward cementing the word in your long-term memory. Who knows? You just might see it again on the ACT, and what would’ve taken several minutes is now a 10-second effort to snag an easy point.
Turn off Distractions: Many young people like to study or read in front of the television, with the radio on, or with headphones playing music. Maybe you’re one of them; maybe you think it helps you focus. However, you risk being distracted (especially if the TV is on), which prevents you from retaining what you’re reading.
Background music or coffee shops are okay, but if you find yourself people-watching or starting a karaoke session with the song that’s playing, you are going to have to find a quieter environment. It can be your room, a quiet corner of your house, the library, or the park. Either take the headphones out or put the music on low so that you can’t clearly hear all the words. And for goodness sake, turn off the TV!
Making a habit out of reading free from other distractions and looking up new words as you go will drastically improve your reading skills. The result is you will spend more time reading, you’ll read faster, and you’ll remember what you read. Each of these gives you a special advantage on the ACT reading test, which translates to more points and a higher ACT score.