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Kristin Fracchia

Question Types on the ACT Reading Test

Out of all the sections on the ACT, the Reading test is the one students tend to approach with the least rhyme or reason: read the passage, answer the questions, there’s not much more to it than that, right?


In addition to learning how to reading strategically, getting familiar with the question types on the ACT Reading test can help you learn how to approach certain questions, which questions you might want to skip or save for last, or which questions have certain tricks or traps. By understanding how the test works, you’ll be able to get more questions right.

Hopefully that’s enough to convince you. Now. let’s break it down.

There are 8 basic question types on the ACT Reading test:

  • Detail
  • Main Idea
  • Comparative Relationships
  • Cause-Effect Relationships and Sequence of Events
  • Inferences/Generalizations
  • Meaning of Words
  • Author’s Voice
  • Author’s Method/Purpose

Here’s what you need to know about each of them:


Detail Questions

Detail questions ask you to (go figure) find details in the passage. Most of the time, they involve nothing more than simply locating a word or phrase in the text. These are the easiest questions out of the bunch. The trick, though, is that ACT Reading passages are long, and detail questions often don’t give line numbers or paragraph references, so don’t get caught up in a three minute long fruitless search of the passage as you attempt to find out whether the girl’s coat is yellow or blue. If you can’t find the answer within 30 seconds or so, take a guess and move on to the other questions. Often, you might find the answer you are seeking as you search the passage for other answers.

Example: The passage states that, on average, students in 2015 applied to how many more colleges than students in 2005?


Main Idea Questions

Main idea questions ask you to determine the primary message of a paragraph, section, or an an entire passage. You will see a main idea question on just about every single ACT Reading passage so you should always be prepared to answer it. After you finish reading the passage, summarize for yourself the main idea of the passage so you have it straight in your mind and won’t be tempted by distracting answer choices that misstate what the passage says or pick up on only one part of the passage. For questions that ask you about a specific paragraph or section, remember that the first and last sentences of paragraphs are often key.

Example: The main purpose of the third paragraph is to demonstrate the author’s:


Comparative Relationships

Comparative relationship questions ask you to evaluate how two or more people, viewpoints, events, theories, or so on compare. They are certainly more higher-level than detail questions, but they aren’t too scary. To get these questions right, you just need to understand the gist of two things.

Examples: According to the author, the significant difference between the director’s opinion and the star actor’s opinion was:

According to the passage, high school students today are different from teenagers in the past because:


Cause-Effect Relationships and Sequence of Events

Cause-effect and sequence of event questions are categorized separately by the ACT, but I am grouping them together because they are fairly similar. Basically, they both require you to understand what happened before something else or what happened to cause something else. These questions are like detail questions in that the answer will be directly stated in the passage. The only thing you need to be careful about is realizing that the order events are discussed in the passage is not necessarily the order in which they happened.

Example: The narrator conveys that her dismissal from her first job directly resulted in:



Inference and generalization questions are typically the hardest questions on the ACT because the answer won’t be directly stated in the passage but will require you to take a lot of information and boil it down. The most important thing to remember with these question types is never to infer TOO much. You will only ever have to make a teeny, tiny leap beyond what the passage states. So if you find yourself rationalizing how an answer choice could be true, STOP, you are going too far.

Example: It would be reasonable to infer that the boy was not surprised by the arrival of his mother because:


Meaning of Words

Meaning of words questions are also known as word-in-context questions. Typically, you are not being quizzed on difficult vocabulary here. Most of the time, the passage will pick a word that might have multiple meanings depending on the context and ask you to pick out the right one. There are two main strategies to approach these types of questions. The first is to put a blank where the word is in the passage and then fill it in with your own word. Then go to the answer choices and see which one best matches up with what you chose. The other strategy is to read each of the answer choices back into the passage and see which one makes the most sense in the context of the passage (even if it doesn’t grammatically make sense).

Example: As it is used in line 58, combed most nearly means:


Author’s Voice

Author’s voice questions ask you to draw a conclusion about how an author (or narrator) feels about his or her subject. These can be difficult questions, but you should know that about half of  ACT Reading passages are going to ask you a question like this, so you should prepare for them as you are reading. It can be really difficult to go back and determine tone without rereading (which you likely don’t have time for). As you are reading, look for clues that indicate how an author or narrator feels about something: often these are strong choices in adjectives, adverbs, or verbs.  Tone or voice questions are often particularly important on the fiction passage.

Example: The narrator recalls her childhood in a remote area of Canada with a feeling of:

Author’s Method/Purpose

Author’s method or author’s purpose questions ask you to draw conclusions about what an author is trying to achieve with a passage or why he or she developed the passage in a certain way. These are not incredibly common questions, but you should be prepared for them. The best way to prepare for these question types is to pay close attention to the structure of the passage as you read and how each paragraph builds on the previous one.

Example: In the context of the whole passage, the author most likely chose to include the examples of the extinction of certain bird species in order to:


About Kristin Fracchia

Kristin makes sure Magoosh's blogs are chock-full of awesome, free resources for students preparing for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

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