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Act Reading Test- Overview, Syllabus, and More

Updated on 11 January, 2024

Mrinal Mandal

Mrinal Mandal

Study Abroad Expert

What is ACT?

The ACT, or American College Testing, is a standardized test to select undergraduate college students in US and Canada. The exam evaluates the candidates' mathematical, verbal, scientific and written skills. Since 2015, ACT has been conducted online instead of in pen-and-paper mode. However, this change does not affect the exam's scoring pattern, syllabus, or format.

The exam duration is 3 hours and 40 minutes with the essay section and 2 hours and 55 minutes without it. The ACT score affects your application process and depends mainly on the universities you apply to. The higher the score, the better your options are to attend and pay for the universities. The score is also considered for merit-based scholarships. This is another reason why the exam is advantageous. One of the segments of this exam is the ACT Reading Test.

Overview of ACT Reading Test

The ACT Reading Test is specifically designed to test your ability to read closely and reason logically. It has texts using evidence and various integrated information to test your skill in interpreting the text.

The questions in this section focus on bringing out the candidate’s skills as they comprehend written materials on different subjects. Questions are asked to determine the ability to locate and identify important details. It also judges the candidate’s ability to understand sequential events, comprehend the cause-effect, compare details and understand the meaning of contextual words. The test also evaluates the ability to analyze the author's voice, method, claims, and evidence and integrate information from different sources.

There are multiple parts to the reading test. It can be one long prose or a compilation of shorter paragraphs. The passage has the author's name, source, and background information. Each part comes with multiple-choice questions.

Detailed Syllabus for ACT Reading Test

The ACT reading Test comprises 40 questions to be completed in 35 minutes. The section contains four passages. Each passage represents broad areas like social sciences, literary fiction, humanities, and natural sciences.

The social science passage is usually from anthropology, biography, business, psychology, economics, archaeology, geology, education, sociology, history, political science and geography.

Natural science passage questions are based on subjects like:

  • Meteorology
  • Biology
  • Astronomy
  • Botany
  • Natural history
  • Medicine
  • Technology
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Chemistry
  • Zoology
  • Microbiology

Literary Narrative questions are from various novels, memoirs, personal essays, and short stories. The questions on Prose fiction are usually based on novels and short stories.

In the Humanities section, the questions are from art, dance, films, language, radio, television, ethics, architecture, theatre, philosophy, and music.

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Act Reading Test Score Breakdown

There are five scores reported for the reading section. These five types of scores are of the overall section, three types of reporting categories, and an understanding of complex text indicators. There is a percentage division as well for each of these sections. The following are the different ACT Reading Test Score breakdowns:

Key ideas and details (55-60%)

In this segment, you must read the text closely and determine the theme and specific ideas expressed through it. You must summarize all the information and concepts correctly. The candidate has to understand the relationships to draw logical interference and conclusion. This includes understanding the sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationships.

Craft and structure (25-30%)

In this section, one has to understand the phrase meanings and determine the words. They have to analyze the author's choice of words rhetorically. Furthermore, the candidate must analyze the text structure, author’s purpose, and perspective. They also have to scrutinize the character’s point of view. The authorial decisions must be examined rhetorically based on various perspectives and source information.

Knowledge and idea Integration (13-18%)

This segment is about understanding the author's claims and differentiating between facts and opinions. Evidence is used to draw connections between different texts related to the topic. The question here makes you analyze the author's construct arguments. It also helps to evaluate reasoning and evidence from various types of sources.

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ACT Reading Question types and Solutions

The ACT reading test comprises many referring and reasoning questions. The referring questions may probe students to answer by collecting information directly from a given passage. On the other hand, reasoning questions require them to draw quick conclusions. 

The test ultimately requires students to read through various written materials on varied subject matters. To answer them, you must locate, and determine primary ideas, interpret the critical details, and figure out the sequence of events. 

Students also need to be able to figure out phrases and words in the given context and determine the narrator's tone. The passages are similar to texts students encounter in their first college years. 

To create a complete guide to ACT reading, we have compiled a few samples of questions and their solutions. This will give the candidates an idea about what to expect in the exam:

Several years back, Clifford Jackson, who preferred to be called Abshu in the streets, committed to a lifelong goal. He wanted to make the best of his playwright talent to open avenues for the gifted, young, black kids he saw milling around on every corner of the dark streets. He made the best of his status as the community head center, employing every existing city and state-level grant to invite meaningful puppet shows to teach young kids to stay in school and avoid drugs. He also managed to organize plays in the park, encouraging actors to rap their way through Shakespeare's beautiful play, A Midsummer Night's Dream!

Amidst all of this, Abshu often found himself wishfully dreaming about his whole family living together. All four of his siblings - him, his baby brother, and two younger sisters - ended up in the foster care system. While he understood his mother's situation and the decisions taken by her, he still wondered if there could have been some other, better way to deal with the situation. 

Which of the following best describes the point of view from which this passage is told:

  1. A young man is reminiscing about the best years of life as he stepped into the role of community center manager in a conflict-ridden neighborhood.
  2. The narrator talks about his personal experiences, from his childhood to the cusp of his adulthood and later, and how he began advocating for disadvantaged kids.
  3. An unknown narrator reveals a story of a young man who devoted the significant years of his adulthood to the betterment of conflicted young children in the neighborhood, post his tumultuous childhood.
  4. A relative seems to be in awe of the young man's generosity, who changed the course of a declining community center and helped troubled kids in his neighborhood.

Answer: "C" is the best possible answer in the given context, as the narrator, though unidentified, seems to know a significant amount about Abshu and his turbulent childhood. 

Abshu was placed in a foster home with two other young boys. The Masons, his foster family, lived in a modest wooden bungalow at the edge of Linden Hills. Mother Mason always insisted that the kids must tell other people that they lived in Linden Hills and not the lowly Summit Place if anyone ever inquired about their place of residence. That said, the house was always immaculately set up. Although, what Abshu mostly remembers is how the Masons always struggled to have decent proportions of food at home.

Mother Mason would send the three children to school with precisely one and a half sandwiches made with white bread and margarine sprinkled with a bit of sugar. She would also give half an apple to each kid. Every day, Abshu dreamt of leaving behind the Mason house and having his apartment, which would definitely have a refrigerator that would always be stocked with sumptuous food, which he would savor day and night.

The 1st paragraph of the passage establishes all the points EXCEPT:

  1. That Abshu had two foster brothers.
  2. That the Masons always kept their little house clean.
  3. How Mother Mason felt the location of their home wasn't prestigious
  4. What Abshu remembered about the lunch he would get for his school days.

Answer: The question demands the student to pick the solution that one cannot find in the passage's first paragraph. So, the answer will be 'D,' since it deliberated upon Abshu's memories of his school lunch when he lived with Masons, which was explicitly discussed in paragraph 2. 

5 Tips to Ace the ACT Reading Test 

We have shared a few ACT Reading tips to help candidates prepare better for the ACT reading test. These will help you comprehend the passages better. As a result, answering the questions would be easier too.

1. Learn the structure of the test

It is imperative to be familiar with the exam structure and pattern. To get the maximum score, you should thoroughly know the time limit and number of questions. There will be four passages with ten questions in each. The order of the passages is always the same- prose fiction, social studies, humanities, and natural sciences. You can do them in any order, and starting with your strongest subject is best.

2. Read the entire passage first

Knowing the entire content of the passage before you start answering the questions is essential. The concepts are interconnected, and the questions are often analytical. You must first be familiar with the entire passage to answer them correctly. It will be much faster to answer the questions then.

3. Eliminate incorrect answers

Instead of searching for the correct answer among the options, start by eliminating the incorrection options first. Some of them will be obvious incorrect choices. This way, you can narrow down the options and easily find the right choice.

4. Learn the scoring pattern thoroughly

Knowing the scoring method will help you smartly answer the questions. The ACT reading test has no penalty for a wrong answer. So, the wisest choice would be to attempt the maximum number of questions you can.

5. Rely on line references

Often there are questions referring to specific lines. To find the correct answer, read the lines before and after the quoted statement. These lines would support the passage and help you get the context better.

Disclaimer - ACT® is a registered trademark belonging to ACT, Inc. ACT, Inc. is not involved with or affiliated with upgradabroad.com, nor does ACT, Inc. endorse or sponsor any of the products or services offered by upgradabroad.com.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a paired passage in the ACT reading test?

There is a total of four passages in the ACT reading section. These passages cover many subject areas, such as prose fiction, social science, humanities, literary narratives, and natural science. 

Among these passages, three are full-page long ones, while one is a pair of two different passages. These are called passaged A and B and are equal in length. This paired passage can occur in any subject area and offers a relatively uncommon format to the candidates. 


Is the ACT reading test too difficult?

The reading section in the ACT consists of 40 questions you must answer within 35 minutes. This means students get less than a minute to answer each question. The problem is that the extended passages require some time to read and understand. However, the test time does not take this factor into account. This can make things challenging for many. So, proper mental preparation is required to be able to read faster and ace the test. 

How should you approach paired passages in the ACT reading test?

One of the primary problems students face while answering the paired passage section on the ACT reading test. Due to its unfamiliar and unpredictable structure, test-takers may feel overwhelmed reading and understanding the questions. 

However, some tactics can make this more manageable. While faced with the paired passage, one must: 

  • Make mental notes about each paragraph and relate them to the main idea. 
  • Rely on the intuitiveness of the mind and predict the answers. 
  • Conduct a proper cognitive mapping of the sequence of events while answering. 

Following these strategies will help in the paired passage section and all the other reading passages. 

How to cover all the passages during the ACT reading test?

To finish the ACT reading test on time, one must diligently remain mindful. This takes practice, and candidates must practice well enough to get mentally accustomed to the process. Carrying a stopwatch while answering is helpful as it helps calculate the time taken to answer each section. Over time, you can increase the accuracy and speed, which will help you finish the test with flair.

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Mrinal Mandal

Study Abroad Expert

Mrinal Mandal is a study abroad expert with a passion for guiding students towards their international education goals. He holds a degree in mechanical engineering, earned in 2018. Since 2021, Mrinal has been working with upGrad Abroad, where he assists aspiring students in realizing their dreams of studying abroad. With his expertise and dedication, he empowers individuals to navigate the complexities of international education, making their aspirations a reality.

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