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An Approach to ACT and SAT Passage-Based Reading

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As we’ve said before, there is no single best approach to the passage-based reading sections of the ACT and SAT. The “correct” strategy is the one that works best for you. That having been said, some strategies tend to be more effective than others. What follows is a step-by-step method for tackling the passages that many of the students that I tutor find helpful. If your current approach isn’t working, try this one and see if your practice scores improve.

Skim the Passage
Skimming a passage before answering the questions can make it much easier to locate the text that supports the correct answers. Like many aspects of the ACT and SAT, however, effectively skimming a passage differs from its “real world” equivalent. You’ll want to focus less on comprehension and more on structure. Instead of trying to understand what the passage is saying, pay attention to how the passage is organized and where important-sounding terms and concepts are located. The idea is to construct a “map” of the passage in your head, one that can help guide you to the supporting evidence needed to answer the questions correctly.

Answer Questions with Line Numbers
Answering questions that cite specific line numbers first can make it easier to answer the rest of the questions. When you combine this with skimming, you’ll cover most of a passage’s content without actually having to spend valuable time reading the passage line by line. Remember that some citation questions will require you to read more of the passage than just the referenced line numbers. Start at the cited lines and move up and down a few lines at a time until you find the supporting evidence that you need to answer the question.

Answer the Rest of the Questions
Now that you’ve answered the citation questions, you should have a much clearer idea of where the details that you need to answer the rest of the questions are located. Since you’ve already covered most of the passage in two different ways, you should also have a solid understanding of what the passage repeats over and over. This is the information you need to answer “main idea” questions. The ACT and SAT equate main ideas with recurring ideas. You will never have to “tease out” or infer the main idea of a paragraph or passage. Simply go with the answer choice that reflects the concept that occurs most frequently.

Double Check Your Answers
Before moving on to the next passage, verify that your choices are indeed correct. Double-check that your choices are directly and unambiguously supported by the passage. Also ask yourself the following question: Would this choice still be correct if I knew nothing about the world except for what is written in the passage? If your answer is “no,” then your choice can’t be correct. In order for the exams to be objective, the process of choosing a correct answer can’t be dependent on outside knowledge or personal experiences that might vary from student to student.

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