The reading comprehension can be one of the toughest section for both the ACT and SAT. Some students find it easy, while others find it almost impossible to improve. The difference here lies in the level of reading ability that you approach the ACT reading or SAT reading with. Some students are stronger readers than others naturally, but the key to successful reading skills lies in practice, for everyone.
There are a number of strategies that you can use to improve your ACT reading score, and since the tests are so similar, this advice also applies to the SAT, and in fact many standardized tests that have reading comprehension sections. These strategies, in my opinion, fall into 3 groups:
Question based strategies (aka tricks) that you can use to answer questions more effectively. For example, it may be faster to complete questions that direct you to look at a specific part of the passage. This is a strategy that can be applied effectively the first time you use it, but doesn’t really improve your reading overall.
Shorter reading strategies that help you read more effectively during the test, but probably don’t usually help to improve your overall reading skills. For example, reading only the first and last lines of paragraphs if you are running out of time will help you understand the passage in the given time, but it isn’t really targeting your reading skills.
Practical reading strategies that help you become a better reader. For example, summarizing in your head or out loud as you read. This takes some practice before it becomes effective, and certainly takes practice before it becomes automatic, but it will really help you to improve in the long term.
All students should be aware of all these ACT reading strategies, and consider using different ones depending on need. It’s important to recognize whether you’re struggling with the reading section because of a specific test based issue, or whether it’s your wider reading skills that need work. In these articles, I tend to address one of these 3 levels of strategy, so it’s helpful to know what you need to improve about your ACT reading before you begin.
Here’s the thing. In order to improve your reading score on the ACT or SAT Reading sections, you must already be good at reading. Aside from timing (which is more relevant to the ACT than the SAT anyway), you can’t improve your reading score that much unless the basic skill is already there. I’ve written before with a few basic tips to improve, but what you really need to do to improve your reading score is to just do more of it! When I was a kid, the books in my school library were color coded according to reading level. If you’re preparing for the ACT or SAT, chances are you’ve moved beyond this by now!!
But … it’s still true that your reading progresses when you read harder material. If I were to do a reading hierarchy, it might look something like this:
Easy: kids’ books, some magazines, “top 23 things” type internet list articles.
Medium: some teen fiction, popular adult fiction (think the kind of paperbacks you buy in airports), accessible non-fiction (stuff that aims to introduce a topic that’s not familiar to the audience), typical news articles.
Hard: “serious” adult fiction (the kind of stuff that wins literary awards), classic fiction, specialist non-fiction, analytical news articles, op-eds, popular science books.
Ridiculous: scientific papers, legal documents, government policy papers.
Ok, so before anyone criticizes this list, and I know I’ve put some controversial things here, I’m NOT suggesting that any of these categories are more or less valuable. There is a place for Buzzfeed articles, kids’ books and popular adult fiction!! I read all of those things, and enjoy them. It also doesn’t mean that the writing is poor. For example, the Harry Potter series would fall into the medium category here – but it’s incredible writing and storytelling. Which is why it’s so successful. There’s nothing good or bad about any of these categories – they all have their place. But, reading some of the easier material probably won’t help you improve your reading ability overall, because it’s not stretching you.
So if you want to improve your reading score, you should be comfortable reading material that’s in the “Hard” category above. That’s just the level of material that’s on the test. If you’re not there yet, or (especially) if English is not your first language, then this list should be helpful. Oh, and the other benefit is that you’ll actually learn stuff as well as reading!!!
I know you’re in high school and you probably don’t have time to do a lot of reading. Try 15 minutes per day – before you go to bed, when you wake up, when you’re eating breakfast, on the bus, waiting for the bus, in the car, in a boring class … You can make time!! Also, you’re probably reading this article to help you improve your reading score. But remember to enjoy it! Understand what you read, and learn from it!
“Serious” adult fiction: Literary awards are given usually once per year to works from modern writers. Various judges read them, shortlist different books and then award the final prize. That doesn’t mean you’ll like the books, of course, but at least they come with some kind of recommendation. Look at the shortlists and choose what interests you. Here’s a general list of award winning fiction since 1990. You can also just look up the shortlists for major prizes such as the Man Booker prize, Pulitzer Prize, Folio Prize, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Governor General’s Literary Award, National Book Award, Bailey’s Womens Prize for Fiction and of course the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The classics: You’ve likely studied some of these in school. They are works of literature that have stood the test of time. They somehow transcend the time and situation in which they were written and are now defining works in our culture and even form the basis of other works. This category is good practice for the SAT, which usually contains at least one passage written before 1900. I’ve found that these are much a matter of personal taste. For example, I like Tolstoy, but don’t get on with Dickens. Both are known for being quite wordy! This is a pretty good definitive list of them.
Analytical news & op-eds: This isn’t news in the sense of ‘something that just happened’, but more like ‘explaining and opinions about the news’. Most of the articles are persuasive in tone – the writer will be making a case for something. 2 of the ACT passages are this type, and usually 3 of the SAT passages. Op-ed means ‘opposite editorial’. The editorial is a section in a newspaper written by the editor themselves. It usually discusses a large ongoing issue, and to some extent represents the opinion or position of the newspaper overall. An op-ed will be a similar type of article, just not written by the editor. On a website, this is usually organised into an opinion or comment section. My favorite news sites are Guardian , New York Times, Huffington post, Economist and New Scientist. All of these have at least some free content. There are lots of other similar sites too. The last one here is one I just discovered, but love. It collects news articles from across major sites and posts links to them. It’s called Arts & Letters Daily.
Popular Science: This would be a good category to talk about in an admissions essay or interview, if it comes up in conversation (don’t make a big point of mentioning it, you’ll look stupid!), especially if you’re looking at a science based major. There are some awesome books in this category. Writers in this category are usually scientists or researchers who are making their work accessible to a more public audience. The field is quite broad and includes medicine, economics, social sciences such as psychology, sociology, criminology, mathematics and the natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology). I own a lot of these books! Since this is more of a genre, it’s easy to find by just putting ‘popular science’ into the search bar of Amazon or another book store. My personal favourites in this category are Freakonomics (Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt), Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), In Pursuit of the Unknown (Ian Stewart), The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks) and The Code Book (Simon Singh).
Reading comprehension is hands down one of the hardest areas in which to improve your score. You’ve been building your reading skills since age 4/5, so you can’t do much in 2 months to make a difference! If you’re only looking for a small score improvement, or you’ve got more time, you can probably make some difference. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but you must be realistic about what you can achieve or you will end up demoralized and possibly wasting your money too!
For a short term fix (something you can do in less than a month), see this post. For a more long term target (2 months – 1 year), try these suggestions.
Set yourself reading goals. You might want to complete a certain book, a certain number of books, or read newspaper or a magazine (anything where the articles are longer than 500 words, or most of a page is good practice). Good places to look for articles like the ones on the ACT/SAT are magazines like The Economist, National Geographic, or comment/opinion sections in the newspaper. My personal preference for news articles is The Guardian.
Discuss what you read with someone. If it’s a book, look at discussion of it online, or talk about it with a friend who has read it. Look at what you found interesting, what you think the meaning is, any symbols or metaphors in the book.
I know that these strategies sound difficult to apply, and also quite generic, but in my experience, students who read because they enjoy it always do well on reading comprehension. To me, saying you don’t like reading is like saying that you don’t like breathing!
Here are my favourite strategies for reading comprehension. This applies to the SAT, ACT, PSAT and most standardized tests.
Know how you’re going to approach the passage. Here are some suggestions. Which one you choose depends on whether you struggle to finish in time or not.
Skim read the passage, then answer the questions. If anything takes longer than 30 seconds, come back later. With this strategy, you should have time t the end of the test, so go to the passage that you best understood from your skim reading.
Read the questions first, underlining parts of the passage that are specifically referred to in the questions (e.g. first or fourth paragraph, lines 23-25).
Read in detail then answer the questions. This is the ideal strategy, and it is the easiest way to achieve a high score, but it will only work if your reading skills are up to scratch.
If you’re trying to improve your score, try a new strategy. Do 3 practice tests using it before you evaluate whether or not it is better. If it’s working for you, continue to practice using it. Don’t try a new strategy on test day – you’re almost guaranteed to do worse!
Look carefully at how specific the passage is and compare it to the level of detail in the answers. You should try to pick the closest match. For example, there are often two answer choices that say the same thing, but one is more general. Pick the one that’s closer to what the passage expresses.
Practice skimming and stating the main idea/title. Learn to identify the point of the passage by finding a thesis in the introduction or conclusion (this won’t always work, but it does about half the time).
Learn to recognize the question types:
What is the main point of the passage/paragraph?
What does this small detail mean? Where in the passage was the following detailed mentioned?
Inference: What would the author most likely feel/say about about the following hypothetical scenario?
Vocabulary: What does this word or phrase mean in the context of the passage?
Purpose: is the text persuasive, informative, an account, a dramatization, a discussion etc? (This often isn’t the actual questions, but it is implied).
Always be able to reference evidence in the passage for each answer that you choose. Don’t make assumptions that can’t be backed up by the passage. There is usually a wrong answer choice that relies on you doing this.
Make list of your mistakes and why you made them. Also remember to take up questions that you’re not sure about (put a star by them when you’re doing the test).
Train yourself to be faster. First, do a completely passage by reading it fully and answering the questions. Compare the time you took doing this to the time it should take (8.5 minutes for the ACT). Gradually reduce your time by 30 second increments until you can do a passage in 30 seconds less than the time you actually have.
For the ACT, the passages always come in the same order, so you might know that you always do worse on one particular one. Do this one either first (to ensure your full attention on it) or last (to focus on doing well on the others). Try this both ways around so that you know what works best.
Before reading the answer choices, come up with your own answer to the question. Cover them up with your hand, then uncover them and pick the closest one.
If the two passages are related, think about how. Spot specific lines that refer to the other passage, or points of similarity or difference between the two passages.
Know when you’re going to fill in the bubble sheet. I suggest after every passage.
There are actually 11 things in here, but I just couldn’t cut it down to 10!