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It’s helpful to know how much certain types of questions show up on the ACT Reading section in order to make the most of your studying. We’ve collected data from publicly available ACT tests on the types of questions that show up most frequently.
In this article I’ll go through the different question types, how much they show up on the test, and how this information can help you.
What Are the ACT Reading Question Types?
Before we go through the distribution of question types on the test, I’ll give a brief outline of the different question categories we’ve established and what each one entails.
Type 1: Big Picture Questions
Big picture questions deal with the main subject of the passage or the narrator’s overall point of view. These types of questions require you to look at the passage holistically rather than focusing on one specific section.
Example of a big picture question:
The main theme of this passage concerns the:
A. difficulty of first starting and then maintaining a friendship.
B. process of making a new friend and how the friendship changes the narrator.
C. problems the narrator has dealing with the loss of her former neighbors.
D. differences in the lives led by two pairs of adults who at different times lived in the same house.
Type 2: Little Picture/Detail Questions
Little picture/detail questions will ask about a small piece of factual information in a passage. These are the most straightforward questions because they are completely literal; it’s just a matter of finding the correct information.
Example of a little picture/detail question:
According to the passage, the research that led to the development of the small-comet theory began with a project originally intended to study:
A. the electrical activity accompanying sunspots.
B. water entering Earth’s upper atmosphere.
C. static in satellite transmissions.
D. specks in satellite images.
Type 3: Vocabulary in Context Questions
Vocabulary in context questions ask about the meaning of a word in the context of the passage. They might also give you something in the passage to reference and then ask you to choose the vocabulary word that best describes it. These questions provide a line number for the word they're referencing, so that makes them a bit less time-consuming.
Example of a vocabulary in context question:
As it is used in line 58, the word humor most nearly means:
Type 4: Development and Function Questions
Development and function questions ask how a certain paragraph or phrase functions in the context of a passage, how the argument in the passage is developed, or how the author structures the passage. These questions gauge your understanding of how thoughts should be organized in writing in general or why they might be arranged a certain way for a specific argument.
Example of a development and function question:
The main function of the second paragraph (lines 20-29) is to:
A. identify some of Armstrong’s mentors, such as King Oliver.
B. list some of the early events in Armstrong’s developing career.
C. contrast Armstrong’s opinions of King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson.
D. describe the musical style Armstrong developed jointly with Fletcher Henderson.
Type 5: Inference Questions
Inference questions ask you to make inferences based on a logical extension of information found in the passage. These types of questions are often perceived as difficult and subjective, but they can always be solved by looking at information directly presented in the passage. They just require a couple more steps in your thought process.
Example of an inference question:
It can reasonably be inferred from the passage that the woman most strongly desires to attain which of the following qualities from dreaming?
How does she know....she isn't already in a dream? I have to admit, the special effects almost distracted me from the sheer ridiculousness of this movie.
Big Picture Questions
On each of the four publicly available tests we analyzed, we found four questions that could definitively be identified as big picture questions. This covers main point and point of view questions. Essentially, because there are four topic areas on the ACT Reading section, you should expect to see about one big picture question per topic area. They comprise 4 out of 40 reading questions on average, so they only make up about 10% of the Reading section.
Little Picture/Detail Questions
Detail questions are the most common questions on the ACT Reading section. On the tests we analyzed, detail questions made up from 12 to 21 questions out of 40, so as much as half of the entire Reading section. On average, they’re about 45% of each test.
This is good news because detail questions are the simplest ones to answer! These questions come down to reading carefully and finding the correct details in the passage. They’re more about time management than critical thinking.
Vocabulary in Context Questions
Vocabulary in context questions made up a relatively small percentage of questions on the tests we sampled. On one of the tests, we didn’t find any! On average, you can expect there to be about 3 vocabulary in context questions on the Reading section, so less than 10% of questions. This brings home the fact that knowing vocabulary is not very important on the ACT - it’s such a small portion of the test that it’s not going to be significant overall.
Vocabulary in context questions tend to show up the most often in the Natural Science topic area, so along with the final passage or pair of passages in the reading section.
Development and Function Questions
Development and function questions are the second most common question type on the ACT Reading section. You’ll probably see about 7 to 10 function questions on the Reading section, so about 2 for each passage. They made up about 20% of questions on each of the tests we analyzed.
Development and function questions tend to show up the most often with the Humanities passage or pair of passages, so you'll commonly see them in questions 21-30.
Inference questions are also common, but they're not quite as prevalent as function questions. It seems to depend on the test. I saw a wide range in how many inference questions were tested; on one test there were only 3, and on another there were 10. Inference questions usually make up about 15% of questions on the ACT Reading section. Inference questions are relatively even in terms of their distribution across subject areas.
Your brain after being ENLIGHTENED. This really confuses me though - isn't the lightbulb supposed to be above your brain? Why is the brain inside the lightbulb? I don't have all the answers.
How Does This Information Affect Your Approach to ACT Reading?
Here are a few tips based on what we know about question distribution on the ACT Reading section. You can save yourself time by tailoring your approach to the types of questions you'll see most frequently.
Adapt Your Passage Reading Strategy
The biggest challenge on the ACT Reading section is not the difficulty of the questions - it’s time. Many people run out of time on ACT Reading because they haven’t nailed down a good strategy for reading the passages yet. They move too slowly and miss out on some of the questions.
Because detail questions are the most common questions on the ACT, one strategy is to skip the passage initially and head straight for the questions. For questions that ask about a specific detail, it’s not critical to know the overarching structure of the passage. You just need to do a little search and find to locate the relevant detail.
Once you answer the detail questions, which make up close to half of the questions for each passage, you will likely have a strong enough sense of the main point of the passage to answer more challenging inference, development and function, and big picture questions. Vocabulary in context questions can usually be answered without reading the passage first as well, since the line number is provided.
Of course, if you’re already a fast reader and don’t have trouble with time pressure on the Reading section, feel free to continue to read the passage first. Some people prefer to skim and then head for the questions, but you should know that the distribution of question types on the ACT means that you don’t HAVE to read the whole passage first.
Attention to Detail is Key
As we now know, little picture/detail questions are the most common question type on the ACT. It follows, then, that attention to detail is critical on the test! I want to stress again that most of these questions are not that hard. What makes them difficult is time pressure along with a few tricky answer choices that you might fall for if you’re rushing.
Avoid making assumptions, and don’t rush through the question if you can avoid it. Many of the mistakes students make on the ACT Reading section could be avoided by reading more carefully and paying attention to keywords or details in the passage. If you have any time at the end of the section, go back and check over your answers so that you can be sure you didn’t misread anything.
Keep in mind the fact that all questions on the ACT Reading section, not just little detail questions, can be solved successfully by looking closely at the passage and finding direct evidence for your answers.
Don’t Worry Too Much About Vocabulary
Vocabulary usually gets a lot of attention in standardized test prep because it gives you the opportunity to focus on something concrete. It's evident from the question distribution numbers, however, that vocabulary is almost a non-issue on the ACT.
There will be a few vocabulary in context questions, but the words in these questions are not particularly advanced. These questions require strong reading comprehension skills so you can understand variations in the meanings of common terms based on context. Your passage reading skills will be much more critical than your vocabulary knowledge when answering vocabulary in context questions.
There are five types of questions that you’ll encounter on the ACT Reading section:
Vocabulary in Context
Development and Function
The most common are little detail questions, then development and function questions, then inference questions, and finally big picture and vocabulary in context questions with about the same frequency.
Based on this information about question distribution, you should:
Read passages more strategically
Pay close attention to detail
Reduce time spent on studying vocabulary
Now that you know the types of questions you'll see on the ACT Reading section, you can feel even more secure in your preparedness for the test!