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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

ACT Reading Prep and the Two-Point Coversion

I call the program I developed to raise ACT reading scores the “Two-Point Conversion” because that’s the minimum amount of gain a literate high school student can expect from this regiment. Let me be upfront, the target audience for this approach is students who score between a 16 and a 22 on practice ACT tests. However, students who score higher than 22 will benefit from some of the techniques that have to do with building speed. Students who “honestly” score below 16 are not at a point where they will benefit from this regiment.

The Best Practice Materials

It should be no surprise that the best ACT test prep materials are the released tests produced by the ACT; therefore, acquire as many of those tests as possible. A good place to start is with the book Getting Into the ACT. Additional released tests are available from the ACT. The rationale for having students use released ACT test materials whenever possible is that all other ACT prep materials are an approximation of the ACT. Again, my advice is to keep it real and use actual ACT questions when preparing for the test.


ACT reading passages are approximately 750 words in length. They appear in the following order: Prose Fiction, Social Science, Humanities, Natural Science. Each passage is followed by 10 questions. Students will have 35 minutes to answer 40 questions. Getting half of those right translates into a 19 or 20. At this level there is usually a 1 to 1 correspondence when going from raw (number right) to scale (number reported on score report) score. People are usually astonished when they learn that an average score on the ACT corresponds to getting 50 percent of the questions correct. So in reality, getting a few more items right on test day can mean a significant score improvement.

Minimize Time Sucks

On the day of the test we want to minimize the amount of time students spend wasting their time. Reading the instructions on test day is a time suck. Make sure that students understand the directions long before they take the actual test. Explicitly instruct them not to read the directions on test day.

Students also spend a lot of time agonizing over what passage to start with on test day. Many start with the first passage. The first passage is prose fiction and requires a different mindset than the rest of the test. In addition, prose fiction requires a more sophisticated reading than nonfiction. My advice to students is to knock out at least two nonfiction passages before going after the fiction section.

Taking It to the Nonfiction Passages

It is very important that students take the test on their own terms. Students need to start with the nonfiction passages they are the most comfortable with. People are comfortable with what they know. If students have accurate prior knowledge of a topic and it shows up on the test, bingo—there I the zone. Obviously it becomes important to preview the passages to see what’s out there. The preview process should take no more than 10 seconds. Here it is:

  1. To get an idea of what the passages are about read the blurbs at the top.

  2. If possible, select a passage that you know something about. Never underestimate the power of accurate prior knowledge.

  3. If you have no prior knowledge, start with social science (Passage 2)

In the next entry, I’ll get into how to boot-up the brain to get the most out of “cold” reading passages.


Take a look at my test prep posts. They are free, and they have worked with city kids. If you have any questions drop me a comment. All comments are posted to my email first. I will never post any email addresses in the comment section. So if you want to contact me, drop me your email and I’ll get back with you. It is my hope that my expertise in this field will help someone out there. Let me know.

Posts Concerning Test Prep

Quick and Dirty Guide to Raising PSAE Scores
PSAE Test Prep Strategies that Work
ACT Reading Prep and the Two-Point Conversion
Maximizing Brain Power on the ACT Reading Test
Realizing Focused Active Reading During the ACT

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