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Skim Reading Tips for ACT and SAT Passages

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The ACT and SAT reading sections require you to do a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. Not only must you read multiple passages of several hundred words each, you must also answer all the questions associated with those passages. Because of the time crunch, skim-reading is a necessity. But how, exactly, should you skim read the passages? The answer depends on whether you are reading a selection of narrative prose or an academic essay.


Narrative Prose Passages

“Narrative prose” passages are those that tell a story. The story could be fictional or non-fictional, but the approach that you should take is the same. First, read the passage in chronological order. Because narrative passages present events in a particular sequence, skipping around in the passage will result in a story that doesn’t make a lot of sense. You’ll actually spend more time trying to piece the story together than you would if you had simply read the passage from beginning to end.

As you are reading the passage, ask yourself the following questions: Who are the characters? What are their personalities and attitudes like? What is the main conflict? Is the conflict physical, emotional, or both? Is there a resolution to the conflict? If so, what is it? If not, is a possible one presented? Focusing on answering these questions will allow you to move through the passage relatively quickly, while ensuring that you get as much out of the passage as you can without reading it word for word.

Academic Essay Passages

“Academic essay” passages are written in much the same way as the essays that you must write in high school. That is to say, an essay-style passage is trying to achieve one of the following goals: to inform, to analyze, or to persuade. While it is important to identify which of these approaches the author of a passage is taking (as this will almost certainly be a question), you can take the same approach to skim-reading almost any ACT or SAT academic essay passage.

Begin by trying to find the author’s thesis: a statement of the question that he or she intends to answer. Often this will be the final sentence of the first paragraph. Occasionally, the thesis will be found in the second paragraph, with the first paragraph being dedicated to contextualizing the essay and its thesis. Once you’ve identified the thesis, read the final paragraph to see if the author has reached any conclusions about it. Next, read the topic sentences of the rest of the paragraphs and skim each paragraph for names, dates, transitional words, and other important details. Don’t dig too deeply into the passage; just try to get a basic idea of how it is structured.

This “mental map” of the passage is your guide to finding the information necessary to answer the questions. As long as you know the thesis and have a general sense of how the passage is organized and where different pieces of information are, you can close-read sections of the passage completely out of sequential order. This approach may seem weird at first, but it is highly effective. Mapping out the passage and then scrutinizing details as-needed is the approach that many academics take when they need to read a large number of works in a relatively short period of time. It is also a skill that will prove useful for completing the lengthy selections of reading that you will be assigned and the numerous research papers that you will be required to write during your college career.


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