During the ACT Reading test, you will be asked to prove your understanding by showing you know how to do these things:
The main idea of a piece is found by asking what the overall purpose or meaning of a piece is. Typically, it is best found (and delivered) by creating a single-sentence summary of the piece as a whole. Asking “what” and “why” is also an effective technique to determine the main idea: what is this about, and why is it being written? A persuasive essay, for instance, might have a main idea such as, “Breastfeeding is usually the best source of sustenance for a child.”
To find significant details, search for pieces of information (facts, figures, or other “solid” points) that reinforce or support the overall piece or paragraph’s main idea. Understanding these details requires a basic understanding of the main idea itself. If you understand the main idea, you will be able to identify and comprehend the arguments and facts used to support it.
As you work to determine sequence of events and actions, search for both indicators of time and indicators of action.
Indicators of time include words such as before, then, next, after, etc. Action words are verbs and adverbs, and the actions must be applied to a perpetrator. As you go along, highlight any action words, or time-identifying words or phrases.
The first step in comparing ideas, characters, and events is identifying these three story elements:
To identify an idea, search for a theme or main idea.
To identify characters, search for the main perpetrators of action in a story. Secondary and background characters will also perform actions, but will not usually have significant roles or attention.
To identify events, find the catalysts within a text: what event moves the story along? What event irrevocably changes the main character? These are significant events within a story.
When you have identified these elements, you can begin comparing. The word “compare” is an important distinction: to compare is to find like elements, while to contrast is to find disparate elements. As you compare, then, search for commonalities among ideas, characters, and events.
When you are seeking the cause and effect, there are several steps you must take. First, identify the effect. This can be found by asking, “what happened?” There are some triggers words that may help identify it, such as “consequently,” “therefore,” and the phrase, “as a result.”
When you have determined the effect, search back in the text, and identify what it was that caused the effect. Was it a character’s actions? The start of a world war? The onset of hunger? Essentially, you are seeking the answer to “why did this event happen?” From there, you may be required to locate additional effects of the single cause, or subsequent effects from the first effect (known as the “domino effect”).
Using context clues is an excellent method to determine the meaning of a word or phrase. If you encounter a word or phrase that is unfamiliar or confusing, identify the word, set it aside, and begin searching the surrounding text. Using the surrounding text, the tone of the piece, and the general information being presented nearby, what is the most likely meaning of the word or phrase? What meaning best fits the rest of the piece? This method will provide meaning based on context clues.
Forming generalizations requires developing a statement about a group that is true of most of that group (though not necessarily all). To create a generalization, you must gather a few things: supporting facts, examples, past experience, and logic/reasoning. For instance, you might look at cats and say your own cat loves playing with yarn. Your aunt’s cat loves playing with yarn. Cats are often depicted as playing with a ball of yarn. From there, you can successfully make the generalization that cats like to play with yarn.
To determine the author’s purpose and tone, ask yourself two questions:
Why is the author writing this?
How does the author feel about this?
Answering why the author is writing a piece (to persuade, to inform, to tell a story, etc) will deliver the author’s purpose, while answering how he/she feels about the piece (academic/distanced, passionate, angry, etc) will deliver the author’s tone.