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ACT Reading Strategies

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Teacher/Instructor Devorah Goldblatt
Devorah Goldblatt

Summa cum laude
Perfect scorer on the SAT & the ACT

Devorah is the founder of Advantage Point Test Prep and the author of the book “Boost Your Score” The Unofficial Guide to the Real ACT.

I'm visiting San Francisco now and it's really confusing to get around here. Lots of streets and lots of stuff going on and I'm from Cleveland, things are just a little quiet over there. So, to avoid getting lost, I've been using a map and that way I always know exactly where I am going. How does this relate to reading? Well, when you read, we're going to talk about, how you want to mark up, make kind of a road map for yourself, so you don't get lost and bug down in the details in the passages. In this episode, we're going to talk about some great strategies for how to tackle the passages and then we'll practice with a real passage.
General Strategies; Hi, welcome to reading strategies, the passages. Now in the pacing episode, we talked about some general pacing strategies for the reading section. In this episode, I want to really dig into the passages and talk about exactly what you need to look for on the passages on the test, so you can nail the questions. But first, two really important things; first of all, I want you to watch this episode with the next episode, together in one sitting. Let me tell you why. In this episode, we're going to go through the passages and some really good strategies for reading them and what to look for, but it's the next episode we will talk about the question types, things like eliminating wrong answer choices and then we'll answer the questions that go with the passage that we're going to look at right now. So I don't want to leave you hanging, try to make a commitment to watch both episodes at the same time. Next important thing, print out the passage that goes with this episode right now before you keep going. You know, I'll have chunks up here as we go through it, but it's not the same as having the whole thing in front of you and just circling it and going through it and reading it, how you would read it on a real reading test. So before we start, make a commitment to watch this episode with the next episode and print out the passage that goes with the episode.
So let's get started looking at some general strategies for the reading. First of all, we talked about this a little bit when we did pacing, don't read the passages in order. Remember we talked about how you're going to want to read them in the order that feels the most comfortable to you. Let's say you're more of a natural sciences person, make sure you read that passage first and the cool thing about the ACT remember, it's really predictable, so you'll know exactly what order the passages are going to go in. Skip around, find your favorite passages, do those first while you feel really fresh and really feel good and you can get those questions and then leave that passage that you're not as crazy about, leave those for the end when you're getting really cranky, when you know time is running out, and you probably won't take long anyway because they are not your favorites. So you're going to want to go in order of your preference, not in the order that the passages appear.
Next, mark up your passage. There is nothing worse on the reading section that a naked passage. You want to mark all over it and we'll talk on this episode about exactly what to look for so you can answer the questions effectively. Next, don't worry about the details, students always ask me, you know, there are so many details here, what do I need to know? It's really complicated and the passage is so full of this lots of complex details, don't worry about the details at all. A cool thing about the ACT is that there are a lot of questions that has detail but, they're usually line reference numbers on those questions. So, if you need a detail, you'll know exactly where to look in the passage for the detail most of the time. So instead of focusing on the details, don't worry about them at all, just make a note, "Oh there are some details here" and instead, you're going to want to be a macro reader. You want to think big picture, you know, what's others overall purpose here. What's the main idea?
So in this episode, we'll talk about some strategies so you can really just pull the main idea out of this really long complex passages, but first, let's just look at, a quick look at the format, just so you have an idea of what it looks like. We did talk about this earlier when we did the intro, so I'm just going to rush through this. Remember, each of the four passages is about 750 words long, there's 10 questions of mixed difficulty on each passage and 35 minutes for 40 questions and four long passages. Not a lot of time, a lot of reading, which is why you need some great strategies that we'll get into in a minute.
We talked a lot about how we have four really complex passages that are long and not a lot of time. So we need a really aggressive strategy to put exactly what we need to nail the questions. Now we're going to look at that strategy, you're going to want to do two sweeps through the passages, one really quick one and one longer one, from top to bottom. Let me tell you about them and then I'll tell you a little bit about why you want to do this. So, first sweep, that's 20 to 30 seconds long, so we're not talking a big time commitment here, just a really quick sweep through the passage. What are you going to look for? Let me tell you. First, just what passage are you looking at and what's the source? You know like the little title on top, is it humanities, is it natural science? What kind of passage is it? And then you'll have a little blurb at the top, usually about a sentence that just tells you the context. You know maybe it's from this essay, you know maybe it's from this book, okay. Just read it, you'll get an idea of where the passage is coming from. Next, you're going to want to just skim some key parts of the passage. Let me tell you what those key parts are. The big deal is just that first paragraph that you'll see, the beginning and ends of each subsequent paragraph and if you have time, skim the last paragraph that you're going to see. Think about it, this makes a lot of sense, when you read a good essay or when you read a good essay, what's important? Well, your first paragraph tells you what you're going to say. Usually that's the thesis, that's the jest, right? And then your subsequent paragraphs, just elaborate and usually the first and last sentence of the paragraphs, well, the first one introduces what the paragraph is going to talk about, where in that middle it just usually has some examples then that last sentence usually just sums up what that paragraph just said, and usually it transitions to the next paragraph. So those are the most powerful sentences in the paragraph in each one is a first and the last. And then if you keep reading, you know you got to the last paragraph, usually that will sum up what just happened in the passage. So you just skim through these really quickly, remember 20 to 30 seconds, you'll already have a really good sense of the passage and what's going on.
Also, you're going to want to adjust the strategy according to the passage type. So as you just do this quick skimming, just a couple of things to look for depending on the passage type. Just really fast. Prose; just look for things like the characters, what's going on? Who are the characters? What's the setting? You know, where is it taking place? Not a big deal. As you skim through social science, you know, what's the topic being discussed? Is it some philosophical topic, is it government? You know, just what's going on. Humanities; do you notice anything about the topic here? What discipline is being discussed? Is it somebody's art, is it somebody's music? Okay, and science too. What kind of science is it? You know, is there some big cause and effect or some big theory being discussed here. Again, very quickly, just sweeping through. Let's go on the second sweep and see what that looks like. The second sweep is reading the passage from start to finish. Now, before we go on with the second sweep, you might be thinking to yourself, "Devorah, this is kind of strange, so I just read a bunch of stuff, now you're telling me I'm going to be reading again from start to finish, what's the point? Why don't I just read it once from start to finish?" That's a great question and students always ask me that. This is a big deal, you really want to have the two sweeps, you really want to have that first 20 to 30 seconds sweep. I'll tell you why, first of all, it increases your comfort level with the passage tremendously. You know, there's a completely different feeling. If you go in to reading a passage from top to bottom with that second sweep and you already know from your first sweep exactly what it's talking about, you know, the main idea, the context, you feel really good. You almost feel a little snorted. Like you can look around the room and think, "I know something you don't know." Like you know about what the passage is going to talk about before you go through it. Instead of just digging right in and there is all this jargon and it's really complicated and all these ideas and you're reading it from top to bottom, it's a completely different feeling. If you already know a little bit before hand from that quick 30 seconds sweep, it will help your accuracy on the questions and your comfort level tremendously.
Next, helps if you run out of time. There might be times when you just are running out and you know, you're halfway through the passage and you think, "Oh my God, I got to answer the questions, I don't have time to finish reading the passage," and you get a little stuck. But, if you've already done that one quick sweep, you know about the overall, just of the passage and the flow already. So a lot of times, you can answer five out of the ten questions just from that first 30 second sweep. So, if you're stuck, if you're running out of time, not a problem, at least you can run through, get the questions that you recognize, that you have an idea about from that first quick sweep, and then usually, you could even make some educated guesses on the rest of the questions just because you've done that first sweep. And you already have a much better hand on the passage, even if you're running out of time. So that's why you want two sweeps.
So, second sweep, read from top to bottom. And let's go into exactly what you're going to do when you do that reading from top to bottom. Start to finish, you're going to read, and you know what? Set a pace a little quicker than normal reading. I mean, you know this because you don't have a lot of time to read, so you're going to read quickly. Mentally summarize each paragraph. So after each paragraph, you're going to read it, just take a second and think to yourself, what just happened? This makes you answer it yourself, you know, what did I just read? Otherwise, I always have students tell me, "You know, I just realized I read through paragraphs and I had no idea what they just said." You know this always happens when you read something really boring, so make a habit to stop after each paragraph and just take a second. What just happened in that paragraph? Just a quick sentence in your head to summarize. Concentrate on the central message. Remember we talked about not getting bugged down in details at all. So, as you read, think, what's the overall purpose here? What's the main idea? And you're get a focus on the big picture. Draw inferences as you read. So, train yourself to ask is like, 'I wonder' questions. We actually do this with books and material that we really like. You know you'll be reading through this book you're really into and some guy will say something to some girl and you're thinking, "Why would he say that to her, I wonder. Is he coming on to her? Is there some baggage there I don't know about?" You know kind of these read between the lines sorts of things. The ACT has a lot of questions about inferences and we'll get into them a little later when we talk about the question types. But as you read keep an eye out for this kind of innuendoes or times reading between lines and train yourself even though it's really boring to get kind of interested, if you can. What's going on here? and ask yourself, I wonder why would the author put that example there? I wonder why would she say that to him? I wonder why are they in this place at all? Things like that, drawing inferences as you read the passage.
Next mark up your passage. We talked about this already. You want to mark all over it and we'll talk about exactly what to look for. Okay in prose passages, you're going to look for emotional content. They're going to ask about things like people's moods, they're going to ask you about insight into relationships between characters, character development, things like that. So keep an eye out for just a feeling, the tone of the passage, is it kind of triggery, is it kind of peppy, are the characters like excited about something, what's the mood, who is the narrator? Things like that, things that you would think about when reading a story. And then your strategy on the other three passages is going to be different because those are factual right? Those are none fiction. In the other three passages you're going to look for these things. First, cause and effect dynamics. ACT loves to ask about things causing other things, so if you see something happens and later along the line it causes something else to occur, mark it up. Author's opinion, overall purpose, remember we talked about main idea, really important. So when you see something like 'and this was my mission' or sometimes it's a little more settle or it'll be just a really strong sentence, maybe the first sentence of the paragraph and you know that everything else is falling from that sentence, mark it up, that's the main idea. So keep an eye out for author's purpose and the main idea of the passage as a whole. Next examples; remember we talked about not getting bugged down in detail so don't worry too much about examples but you want to mark where they are, just 'cause they'll give a sense of the structure of the passage. And comparisons and contrast, the ACT loves different instances or different theories or different people being compared to each other. Any time you see any kind of comparison or contrast, mark it up and we're going to do an example so you'll see what I'm talking about.
We talked about some great strategies for reading the passages, so now let's practice on a passage. Remember that you should have this printed out already so you can see the whole passage in full. Here what I've got is each paragraph coming up one at a time and remember we're going to do two sweeps. First we're going to just take 20 to 30 seconds to sweep through and get the main idea, looking for some key things we talked about earlier and then after that, we'll go back and do a whole second sweep. We will actually read it from top to bottom and underline the important things. Okay first sweep, so remember we're going to look at the title here. Humanities, okay this is a Humanities passage. Remember those are the ones about art or music or sometimes a writer's essay. And we've got a little blurb on top. 'This is an excerpt from "A Room of One's Own," a book written by Virginia Woolf.' Okay cool maybe you've even read some Virginia Woolf in school and you have some context, if not don't worry about it. And now we're going to do that first sweep and remember we're going to look at the first paragraph as a whole, really, really quickly, then the first and last sentences of each paragraph and then the last paragraph. And as we read we're also going to look for any major people or major concepts that just happen to pop out as we very quickly read. And remember this should take you 20 to 30 seconds since I talk a lot and since I'm demonstrating is going to take a little more today.
So okay, paragraph one, we read the whole thing together. 'It was disappointing not to have brought back in the evening some important statement, some authentic fact. Women are poorer than men because-- this or that.' Okay she's looking some kind of fact about women, their relationship to men. 'Perhaps now it would be better to give up seeking for the truth, and receiving on one's head an avalanche of opinion hot as lava, discolored as dish water. It would be better to draw the curtains; to shut out distractions; to light the lamp; to narrow the enquiry and to ask the historian, who records not opinions but facts, to describe under what conditions women lived, not throughout the ages, but in England, say, in the time of Elizabeth.' I want to stop here but just the general, just saw the paragraph we know she is looking for something having to do with the role of women in history and she is disappointed, we know that from that first sentence.
Second paragraph, here we just do the beginning and the end. 'For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.' Huh interesting so probably this paragraph is about why weren't women writing anything good, why was it always the guys? Okay, last lessons, 'But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.' Doesn't tell us anything, this happens keep going but usually the beginning and end sentences tell you a lot.
Okay next paragraph, 'I went therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan's HISTORY OF ENGLAND.' Okay now we know she's looking in the history book. Probably this paragraph is going to talk about what she found. 'It was still the exception for women of the upper and middle class to choose their own husbands, and when the husband had been assigned, he was lord and master, so far at least as law and custom could make him.' So probably this whole paragraph and the whole passage really is about women and their role and their relationship to men and seems like marriage wasn't that great for women back then and she's looking at history books to find out.

Paragraph four; Yet even so, Professor Trevelyan concludes, 'neither Shakespear's women nor those of authentic seventeenth-century memoirs, like the Verneys and Hutchinsons, seem wanting in personality and character.' Huh interesting so women, actually in writing, women, female characters aren't lacking in personality. They've got a lot of stuff going on and we've got our last sentence here, 'Not being a historian, one might go even further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginnings of times,' so lots of really vibrant stuff written about women and a long list of examples; 'Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary,' okay. 'The names flock to mind, nor do they recall women lacking in personality and character.' So lots of really you know, lots of really complicated and interesting women in literature.

Last paragraph, again this is the last paragraph so we're going to do the whole thing. 'Indeed if women had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.' How powerful was this first sweep? Awesome right, we got really the whole gist here. It's all about the role of women, turns out, in literature they look great, they're really powerful, they are beautiful, they've got a lot going on and she says in real life, they were beaten they were thrown around. We get the whole gist of the paragraph and remember on your own this should only take about 30 seconds. You'll read really quickly, you'll skim through and you won't kind of deliberate like I did trying to teach it. So that's it for sweep one. Let's move on and do sweep two, we'll go through the whole passage from top to bottom and mark up what we need to know.
So let's try with sweep two, remember we're going to go through and mark up and we are looking for things like cause and effect, comparisons and contrasts, authors view and main idea sorts of things and examples. We don't actually have to mark up and underline the examples but keeping an eye out for where they are and maybe just labelling where there is an example. So let's get started, 'It was disappointing,' first paragraph, so let's get started. 'It was disappointing not to have brought back in the evening some important statement, some authentic fact.' So first of all we've got this word disappointing, this is the writers view, right? So she's disappointed about whatever she's looking into and you know it, that kind of shows that she's passionate about it, she's got something invested here, she's bumbed. And we know probably from our first read it's about the role of women or maybe her research about the role of women. Okay, 'women are poorer than men because this or that,' so she's looking for information why are women poorer than men? And this seems to be, because it's right at the beginning, really the main idea of the passage. Why are women worse off than men? She wants to know more about it, so I'm going to underline this as a main idea. 'Perhaps now it will be better to give up seeking for the truth,' so yeah, see she's invested, she's is seeking for a truth,' and receiving on one's head an avalanche of opinion hot as lava, discolored as dish water. It will be better to draw the curtains; to shut out distractions; to light the lamp; to narrow the enquiry and to ask the historian, who records not opinions but facts,' so I'm going to stop there for a second. Any time you've got a big contrast between the author was doing this, now she's doing that, they're usually going to ask about that, so it's a lot to mark up I wouldn't underline it but keep in mind she's saying now maybe it's better to give up seeking for the truth, instead I'm going to shut everyone out, draw the curtains, shut out distractions and I'm just going to ask the historian. And then we've got another contrast here, a shorter one so I'm going to underline it 'who records not opinions but facts.' So when you see not this but this, the ACT tends to ask about it, so mark it up. So 'the historian, records not opinions but facts, to describe under what conditions women lived not throughout the ages, but in England,' another one this gives us kind of context here. She's not looking at how women lived always but just not throughout the ages but in England, okay. 'Say in the time of Elizabeth' so that's a little more specific. Let's keep going to the next paragraph but before we do, quickly you want to ask yourself, what happened in this first paragraph just a really quick one line summary. Well the author is disappointed she is doing some research about why women are not as well off as men and she's going to look, ask the historian okay.
Next paragraph 'For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.' Another really important contrast here, right? No women are writing these things but men are, this is important so 'no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature and every other man was capable of sing or sonnet.' This a big deal, we have a big contrast between what men were doing and what women were doing at that time. 'What were the conditions in which women lived?' so this seems to be her main question here in this paragraph. 'I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that it is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like spider's web attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare's plays for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures,' this a really long example you guys but bare with me, 'but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.' A lot of times on the ACT when there's a really long convoluted example of the author's point, the more long and complex it is, the less likely they are to ask about it. This is one where it's just kind of all over the place, I'm going to label it with a big E right here, so I know that it's an example and I'll know exactly where to look and I'm going to leave it at that and see if I even really need to delve into why that's going on.
So let's first summarize this paragraph then we'll move on to the next paragraph. Here she's wondering why were there no female writers of all these great songs and sonnets, when there were so many male writers? And then she's saying well what were the conditions women lived in. Okay, paragraph three 'I went, therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan's HISTORY OF ENGLAND.' okay 'Once more I looked up Women,' this interesting 'Once more' again this is back to that author's view. 'Once more' means she's done this before, again you get the sense of someone who is really invested in this topic, really passionate about it. So 'Once more I looked up Women,' she's looking at this entry 'found' position of and turned to the pages indicated; 'Wife beating' I read, was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low... Similarly, 'the historian goes on, 'the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents' choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room,' kind of a minor cause and effect thing going on here. You know if women were refusing to do something, there was a lot of abuse going on. I'm going to underline it but just something to keep in mind. So you know we've got this whole 'daughter who refused to marry being locked up and beaten', not so important to underline but just the idea that you've got a cause and effect, if women weren't doing what they were told bad things were happening to them. Okay so 'the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents' choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock being inflicted on public opinion. Marriage was not an affair of personal affection, but a family avarice,' here's another one it wasn't this but it was this. This is kind of a comparison contrast thing going on, I'm going to underline it; 'So marriage was not an affair of personal affection, but a family avarice. Particularly in the chivalrous upper classes...Betrothal often took place while one or both of parties was in the cradle, and marriage when they were scarcely out of the nurse's charge. That was about 1470, soon after Chaucer's time.' This is a place where when she throws in these things you might want to say I wonder why would she tell us it's about 1470 soon after Chaucer's time? Maybe to gave us context about what time this is all occurring. The next reference 'to the position of women is some 200 years later in the time of the Stuart.' So she's kind of skipping ahead and that the next she reads about women, 200 years into the future. 'It was still the exception for women of the upper and middle class to choose their own husbands, and when the husband had been assigned, he was lord and and master so far at least as law and custom could make him'. Okay, so these are if you just sum up this paragraph, she's kind of going into the history of how women were treated. She opens up this historical volume, she learns that marriage wasn't something that you did because you loved somebody, it was something that was set up way in advance, women were beaten if they didn't do what they were told. And she kind of goes into some of the history you know 'in 1470' this is whole part about wife beating being okay and then even 200 years later, a man was the lord and master. When you look for reading between the lines sadulty kinds of stuff, this is an interesting line here. 'So far at least as law and custom could make him' so to the extend that law and custom made men in charge, they were. So you kind of have to think to yourself, why would that be there? There were probably cases where it wasn't like that, it's hard to believe that all relationships were that way, but probably, legally, I mean men had the upper hand.
Alright, let's go onto the fourth paragraph. 'Yet even so 'Professor Trevelyan concludes, 'neither Shakespeare's women nor those of authentic seventeen-century memoirs, like the Verneys and the Hutchinsons, seem wanting in personality and character'. So that's an example of memoris here, okay. 'Certainly, if we consider it, Cleopatra must have had a way with her; Lady MacBeth, one would suppose, had a will of her own; Rosalind, one might conclude, was an attractive girl,' lots of characters and how they were pretty interesting women. This whole paragraph really looks like a lot of examples about women so I may put a big E next to it when we're done. Where am I? 'Professor Trevelyan is speaking no more than the truth when he remarks that Shakespeare's women do not seem wanting in personality and character. Not being a historian one might go even further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time- Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady MacBeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Milliamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes- the names of flock to mind, nor do they recall women, lacking in personality and character.' So we can look at this whole paragraph as really being one major example of a lot really powerful women in literature, I'm going to put a big E next to it. Okay, and if you stop and talk about the gist of this paragraph, we've got a bunch of women literature, we have one main idea here which is that 'neither Shakespeare's women nor those of authentic seventeenth-century memoirs, really seem wanting in personality and character.' Okay that might be something you want to underline, maybe not, but the gist here is we've got a lot of great women in literature although we know actually life for women just wasn't that great.
Last paragraph, 'Indeed, if women had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is women in fiction. In fact as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.' So you have a huge contrast here, right? This is really, really important, we have a major contrast between how women were portrayed in literature written by men and how they actually lived in real life. And this whole paragraph really is that big contrast, that's important you can bet they're going to ask about it on the questions. So just to indicate that, it would be a lot of underlining to underline the entire passage, I'd underline the key contrasting words, things like 'But this is women in fiction, in fact' something else occurred 'she was locked up and beaten and flung about the room.' So you have the sense it was different in fiction, in the real life women were treated horribly.
So, that was a lot of information, take a deep breathe you're going to do great as long as you practice this strategies, it will get really intuitive to you. It would get really intuitive to you you'll know exactly what to look for when you read a passage and you're going to do great when you answer the questions. So make sure to watch the next episode, where we do the question types right away, because that's when we're going to tackle the questions that go along with this passage. And you'll see how our great marking of this passage and our great sweeps help us easily answer the questions. First though let's just quickly recap this episode. What did we talk about? We talked about some general reading section strategies, things like marking up your passage, this like not getting bugged down in details, thinking main idea. We also talked about reading in sweeps, sweep one; the one that just pulls out the main idea, 20 to 30 seconds helps you feel really comfortable, almost kind of sneaky. When you do your second sweep, when you actually get into the passage, you already know what it's talking about because of your first sweep and you'll just do a run through and do the marking up that will help you answer the questions really effectively.