How to Stay Focused on the ACT Reading Section

reading in your head

Do you have trouble staying focused while reading the passages on the ACT Reading section? Or maybe you need to read faster? You may have every intention of paying attention, but then you encounter a passage that makes your eyes cross and your head nod. The next thing you know, you’ve run out of time to finish the section or missed questions that you would’ve nailed if you’d paid more attention to the passage. 

Fortunately, staying focused and reading faster on the ACT is a skill you can learn and perfect. And it’s a really important skill to learn; in order to ace the Reading section you must read the passage effectively so you can answer questions without returning to the passage or return to the passage efficiently when you do need to find an answer.  

So how do you stay engaged, no matter the reading material? You stay engaged by creating mental tasks to complete as you read. If your brain has something to do while you read, you’ve transitioned from passive reading to active reading – and that’s where the good stuff happens.

You stay engaged by creating mental tasks to complete as you read.

Stay Focused By Reading Actively

So what is active reading? To answer this question, we’re going to get really specific about how your brain reads – or as we like to call it, your brain voice.

Do you hear the words you read as you read them? If you do, that’s your brain voice! Your brain voice is the voice you hear as you read that pauses at commas or reflects the tone of a phrase. These changes to your internal brain voice offer hints to help you understand what the author is really saying. Think of it as reading aloud to yourself, but much faster because it’s all in your head!

Your brain voice is the voice you hear as you read that pauses at commas or reflects the tone of a phrase. These changes to your internal brain voice offer hints to help you understand what the author is really saying.

Active reading happens when you combine listening to your brain voice with specific mental tasks. There are different mental tasks to complete for each type of ACT Reading passage. 

In the Prose passage, the mental task is to use your brain voice to hear the author’s tone. What is the subtext of the passage – the meaning behind the words the author uses?

In the Natural Science passage, the mental task to complete is to find the main idea and the structure of the passage. Skim over the details and focus on the big picture!

For the Social Science and Humanities passages, the mental task to complete is to rephrase sentences. When you come to the end of a paragraph, take one second to say in your head, “the author seems to think X.”

You can read about this in detail in this post: How to Ace the ACT Reading Section

By staying alert to your brain voice, you stay engaged in the reading passage and are far more likely to retain what you are reading. This is super important because it can save you from spending time returning to the passage later when you’re answering questions!

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How to Read Faster on the ACT

Listening to your brain voice does not mean you have to read (and “listen” to) every word on the page. Once you’ve practiced listening to your brain voice, you can practice speeding up that voice, otherwise known as skimming.

Tips for Skimming on the ACT 

Skimming is sometimes necessary for denser material or if you’re running out of time in the section. Skim the passage by “hearing” with your brain voice only the important words and topic sentences. The rest of the time, you allow your brain voice to mumble (literally) through the details.  

Important words and topics to look out for are transition words (like “on the other hand” or “in other words” or “therefore” or “however”) that tip you off that the author is about to make a point. You also want to pay attention to the characters that appear and the overall structure of the passage. 

What you hear in your head when you skim over the details is a matter of preference. When I skim, it’s like my brain starts fast-forwarding through the text and the words start to blur together, like a mumble. Since I’ve learned to recognize important words, when I encounter them it sets off a little alarm in my head and I know to stop skimming and read more carefully.   

An Example of How to Skim

Let’s take a look at an example passage. The text in bold is what I would make mental notes of as I skimmed this passage:

This passage is adapted from the article “Pinto Madness: Flaws in the Generally Accepted Landmark Narrative” by David Ermann (1999).

“Conventional wisdom holds that Ford Motor Company decided to rush the Pinto automobile into production to compete with compact foreign imports, despite internal pre-production tests that showed gas tank ruptures in low-speed rear-end collisions would produce deadly fires. This decision purportedly derived from an infamous seven-page cost-benefit analysis that valued human lives at $200,000. Settling burn victims’ lawsuits would have cost $49.5 million, far less than the $137 million needed to make minor corrections. According to this account, the company made an informed, cynical, and impressively coordinated decision that payouts to families of burn victims were more cost-effective than improving fuel tank integrity. This description provides the unambiguous foundation on which the media and academics have built a Pinto gas tank decision-making narrative.

The Pinto story has become a “landmark narrative,” a definitive story used to support the construction of amoral corporate behavior as a pervasive social problem. The narrative was first stated publicly by investigative journalist Mark Dowie in a scathing Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé, “Pinto Madness.” Dowie essentially makes three claims about the distinctiveness of the Pinto case.

You can see from the example above that I skimmed over many of the details. This is ok! Maybe I’ll need them, but I probably won’t. And since I’ve skimmed over the words, rather than skipping the passage completely, I’ll probably remember where they are in the passage if I do need to answer a question about it. 

The things I did note were the characters (Ford Motor Company, the Pinto Story, and journalist Mark Dowie) and key “plot” points: the gas tanks ruptured and killed people because of rushed production, that this became a landmark narrative, and that Dowie (who is not the author) makes three claims about the Pinto case. This last point is particularly important because it clues us in to the structure of the passage. 

Also – don’t skip the title! It can give you valuable clues as to what the passage is about. The title to this passage, in particular, gives us a hint about the author’s perspective. Since the title is “Pinto Madness: Flaws in the Generally Accepted Landmark Narrative;” we know that the author is not on board with the accepted narrative and will probably spend this passage explaining its flaws to us. 

Stay Focused by Staying Engaged

Here’s the takeaway: you stay engaged in what you’re reading on the ACT by creating mental tasks to complete as you read. If your brain has something to do while you read, you are actively reading, which helps you retain more information, saving you time and mistakes. 

Practice reading actively by listening to your brain voice and taking note of the tone, emphasis, and transition words you “hear.” Once you have a handle on that, practice skimming through passages and picking out the important parts!

If you’d like more practice, head to to enroll in our ACT course. All of the strategies in this post were adapted from content in the course!

Happy Practicing!

Further reading:
How to Ace the ACT Reading Section
How to Make Time to Read for Fun
3 Things to Know When Switching from the SAT to the ACT
3 Steps to Boost Your ACT Score

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