In order to be successful on SAT and ACT Reading, it’s critical that you read the passages actively. The more actively you read, the better prepared you’ll be for the test questions. You can practice active reading on practice tests and outside reading materials alike.
Active reading is all about asking questions. Throughout the passage, make sure to pause and ask yourself what’s going on. What is being described? What is the main point of the passage? How does everything fit together? Why did the author take the time to write this?
In a non-fiction passage, what’s being described is usually pretty clear. In a scientific or technical passage, however, you may need to spend a little more time than you normally would getting your bearings and making sense of the information provided.
In a fiction passage, what is being described is not always immediately clear. The passage often reveals what’s actually happening only as the story progresses. In that case, make sure to reconsider the first part of the passage in light of the new information that comes later. Can you make sense of the passage’s beginning based on what comes later?
The main point of the passage is the passage’s main idea: pretty much everything in the passage exists to convey this one idea. It’s usually described explicitly in the first or second paragraph and the concluding paragraph (especially in the final sentence or two). You should also look at passage titles and descriptions, because these can also reveal what the passage is primarily about.
How everything fits together is very important. Does the author make a partial shift in topic or opinion halfway through the passage? Why, and what does that change mean? You also want to always ask yourself how any particular part of a passage relates to the whole passage. If you find a paragraph or two especially confusing, try to see how they fit into the passage as whole. This can help you better grasp what’s going on.
The last major question to ask yourself is why the author took the time to write the passage. What are the author’s own thoughts, opinions, and feelings? Is the author passively conveying information, or does s/he feel strongly about that information? Try to pinpoint the author’s exact sentiments.
As you ask yourself these four questions, consider annotating the passage. You can draw line breaks where the passage undergoes major shifts in topic, which will help you keep better track of the argument and know where to look for particular questions. You can also write down the main idea or topic next to a paragraph or group of paragraphs. Just make sure not to annotate so much that it seriously slows you down.
At the level of individual paragraphs, pay special attention to the opening and closing sentences. This is where the main point of the paragraph is usually conveyed. You can then read more quickly through the body of the paragraph, since it usually just provides details to support the main idea. Try not to get too caught up in the details. You don’t need to memorize them, but if you remember the topic of the paragraph, you’ll remember where to find them if you need to for a question.
A final tip to help you read more actively is to get excited about the passage topic. Even if you wouldn’t normally be interested in that topic, try to find some way to connect it to one of your interests. Maybe the passage is about bats, and you have absolutely no interest in bats. Fair enough. But if you were really into Batman as a kid, then think about the passage as background information about Batman.
Pretending that you’re going to be in a debate with the author is also helpful. If you read the passage as if you’re preparing for the debate, you’ll become more passionate about what you’re reading and increasingly engaged. Combine that level of engagement with these strategies and you’ll be in excellent shape on the SAT and ACT reading passages.