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Thomas Broderick

Active Reading on the ACT

So Magooshers, today we’re talking about reading, the thing you’re doing at this very moment. Believe it or not, there are a lot of types of reading. For example, there’s reading for enjoyment and reading for information. And yes, there’s even ‘reading’ the terms and conditions of certain tech company’s music software. Today we’re talking about active reading, which is one of the most important ACT strategies for success on the test.

“But,” you protest, “I know how to read. I’ve been doing it for years. Just look at my extensive library: Proust, Steinbeck, Faulkner, James…” Yeah, yeah, yeah…I get it; you read. Wait, did you say  James? I hope that’s ‘Henry,’ and not ‘E.L.’ Anyway, if you don’t know how to actively read, all the literature in the world won’t be able to help you on test day.

What is active reading?

As Webster’s defines it (not really), active reading is reading with the intention of learning something specific from the text, and/or evaluating the material with a goal in mind.

Note: This doesn’t mean rereading the material. A person can read a passage ten times, understand the meaning of every word, and have no idea what the passage is about.

Yes, students, you need to learn how to read with purpose. Why? Glad you asked.

Think back to the last time you read for fun. Why did you keep reading? You probably wanted to know how the story ended, or how the main character was going to solve the big problem. A combination of anticipation and ignorance kept you hooked until the final pages. The entire time the author was in the driver’s seat, taking you on a journey.

During the ACT Reading and Science Tests, however, you’re in the driver’s seat. If you’re not in control, however, you’re going to go somewhere, but certainly not where you intended. You need to learn how to read with a destination in mind. You need to learn how to actively read.


Active Reading ACT Strategies -Magoosh

Pictured: Someone who doesn’t know how to actively read on the ACT.


Let’s do this.

How to Actively Read on the ACT

The ACT Reading Test (and to an equal extent the Science Test) relies on your ability to actively read. Fortunately for you, active reading on the ACT is a lot easier than it might seem at first glance. The following guide comes right from my ACT Playbook, so you might find differences between my advice and other guides on the internet. Remember, the goal is to find what works best for YOU.

On the Reading and Science Tests, try the following, in order, when you come across a new passage:

  • Read the questions first.
    • For each question, mark/underline what the question is asking.
    • If a question mentions a specific line(s)/character, mark that too.
  • Skim the passage.
    • Skim the passage for mentions of the characters/specific lines the questions ask about and mark them. These visual clues will help you later.
    • The goal of your first skim is to understand the general gist of the passage. Keep this question in mind as you read: “What is passage’s main idea and/or point?”
  • Start with the most specific questions first.
    • These are the questions that ask you to look at the specific lines/characters.
    • For these questions, you may need to re-skim the sentences immediately before/after the indicated lines to have a complete grasp of what the question is asking.
      • Since you marked these parts of the passage earlier, you save precious seconds by not having to search for them again!
  • Finish with the general questions.
    • These questions might ask you how something or someone changes throughout the passage, so you need to know more than one or two specific pieces of information.
      • Fortunately, by answering the specific questions first, you’ve already given yourself a general overview of the passage. At this point, you should have to do very little work to answer these general questions.

Active Reading Seems Like a Lot of Work.

It is, especially if you’re never tried active reading. Yet with practice, it will become an unconscious part of your study schedule. And on test day, your efforts will be rewarded by successfully finishing the Reading and Science Tests within the 35-minute allotted time.

After all, that’s why active reading is one of the most important ACT strategies. Time is a thief, and once that clock starts, it’s not going to stop until it reaches zero. Hey, I’m not trying to scare you. Active reading is the best weapon at your disposal, and with it, you’ll never again feel afraid of the clock.

Final Thoughts

Well, Magooshers, that’s all for today. Take these active reading tips and apply them to your next practice test. Of course, go discover what others have to say on the subject, too. Best of luck in your studying, and I’m sure you’ll do your best on test day!

About Thomas Broderick

Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.

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