What’s Actually Tested on the ACT Reading Section? Skills You Need

Just like the ACT has four different sections, the ACT Reading section has four different types of passages for you to read. This article breaks down exactly what’s on this section of the ACT so you can plan your best approach.

First, let’s consider how the ACT Reading section is formatted.

Format of the ACT Reading

The ACT Reading section asks 40 questions in 35 minutes. There are three single passages and one set of paired passages (usually either in the Prose Fiction or Humanities subject areas). Since there are four different categories of passage, this means 10 questions after each one. Each of these questions has four answer choices, A, B, C, and D (or F, G, H, J).

This chart shows the breakdown of the time allotment per question on the ACT Reading section:

Section Time in Minutes # of Questions Time Per Question
ACT Reading 35 minutes 40 (multiple choice) 52 sections

While you theoretically have 52 seconds to answer each multiple choice question, in actuality, it will be considerably less since you’ll be spending a portion of your time reading. This is a doable task, but you’ll want to spend some time working on the best ways to manage your time.

In terms of the entire test, the Reading section is the third section you do, right after you have a break. This can be really good timing, as the first two sections get you warmed up and then you have a quick break to refresh and refocus.

Just like the order of sections, the ACT Reading section is consistent in what kinds of passages it presents to you. Let’s take a look at the subject areas from which the passages are taken.

Types of Passages

The five passages on the ACT Reading section always come from these four topic areas: humanities, social studies, natural sciences, and prose fiction/literary narrative. You’re not expected to have any preexisting knowledge about any of the passage topics. Everything you need to know to answer the questions will be right there in the text.

Since these topics can cover a large number of subtopics, this chart breaks it down a little more specifically, along with some examples of passage sources from sample ACT Reading questions that introduce passages and help you put them into context. As you can see with the Natural Sciences passage, the blurb might define any subject-specific words that you might need to know to understand the text.

A typical social studies passage might be taken from a textbook, a natural sciences passage from a scientific article, a literary narrative direct from a novel, and a humanities passage from an essay or memoir.

Passage Subject Subtopics Sample ACT Passage Introductions
Social Studies anthropology, archaeology, biography, business, economics, education, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociology This passage is adapted from the chapter “Personality Disorders” in Introduction to Psychology, edited by Rita L. Atkinson and Richard C. Atkinson (1981).
Natural Sciences anatomy, astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, ecology, geology, medicine, meteorology, microbiology, natural history, physiology, physics, technology, and zoology This passage is adapted from the article “How to Build a Baby’s Brain” by Sharon Begley (1997 by Newsweek, Inc.). In this selection, the term neuron refers to a specialized cell of the nervous system, and tomography refers to a method of producing three-dimensional images of internal structures.
Literary Narrative/Prose Fiction short stories, excerpts from novels, memoirs, or personal essays This passage is adapted from the novel The Men of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1998).
Humanities architecture, art, dance, ethics, film, language, literary criticism, music, philosophy, radio, television, and theater This passage is adapted from “A Poem of One’s Own,” an essay by Mary Jo Salter in which she discusses feminist literary critics’ recent reappraisal of women’s writing. The essay was taken from Audiences and Intentions: A Book of Arguments (1994).

If you feel much more confident about reading about the natural sciences than about social studies, for example, you might choose to locate that passage in your Reading section and do that one first. Not only can that help boost your confidence, it can ensure that you’re answering as many questions as you can correctly. (For more information on how the ACT is scored, check out this article.)

Some students skip around so they can answer questions about their favorite subjects first. The questions are not ordered by difficulty, so it’s fine to choose your own order as long as you’re not wasting valuable time trying to decide where to start.

Now that you have a sense of what kind of passages you’ll encounter, let’s talk about the skills tested on the ACT Reading section.

Content Covered

ACT, Inc. divides the content of the ACT Reading section into three major content buckets: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.

Here’s what each of these content areas tests for:

Content Area Concepts Tested
Key Ideas and Details Determine central ideas and themesSummarize accuratelyDraw inferences and conclusions by understanding sequential, comparative, and cause-effect relationships
Craft and Structure Determine word and phrase meaningsAnalyze authors’ word choicesAnalyze text structureUnderstand authors’ purpose and perspective and characters’ point of viewDifferentiate between various perspectives and sources
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas Understand authors’ claimsDifferentiate between facts and opinionsUse evidence to make connections between different textsAnalyze how authors construct argumentsEvaluate reasoning and use of evidence

The ACT breaks the percentage of questions asked into these three buckets, too. Let’s take a look at how those percentages break down:

Content Area Percentage of Questions Asked Actual # of Questions
Key Ideas and Details 55-60% 22-24
Craft and Structure 25-30% 10-12
Integration of Knowledge 13-18% 5-7

This information can be really helpful for you as you study. Since you know that most of the questions on the exam fall under the category of Key Ideas and Details, it’s most important for you to know how to spot those in a reading passage so you can maximize your score.

Also, most of the concepts tested in the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas content area involve comparing and evaluating, so you can be sure you’ll see those types of questions when you’re asked to compare two reading passages.


Skills Tested on ACT Reading

What skills do you need to bring to the table to understand and answer questions about these passages? According to the ACT, you must use referring and reasoning skills to accomplish the following:

  • Understand main ideas
  • Locate details within a passage and interpret them
  • Interpret sequence of events and flow of ideas
  • Make comparisons
  • Understand cause-effect relationships
  • Determine the meaning of words, phrases, and statements in context (these are usually straightforward, but may be used in an unusual or significant way in context)
  • Draw generalizations
  • Analyze the author’s or narrator’s tone and purpose

These are all skills that you develop and improve upon in your English classes. You can further hone your skills by reading widely and often.

The ACT asks 5 main types of questions in order to test these skills. I’ll break down these 5 question types and give examples below so you know exactly what to expect and how you can prepare.

Types of ACT Reading Questions

The 5 main types of questions on the ACT Reading test these skills of understanding main ideas, locating details, and interpreting purpose and voice.

Not only will you keep a close eye on what’s directly stated, you’ll also be called upon to interpret and analyze implied meanings. There’s not huge leeway for interpretation, though—even seemingly subjective questions will only ever have one 100% unambiguously correct answer.

If you finish reading this section and want to learn more about the ACT Reading question types, be sure to check out our in-depth article that breaks them down.