How to Beat the Clock on ACT Reading – Part 1

[NOTE – This is Part 1. You can read Part 2 by clicking here.]

For most students, including academically high-achieving students, the very tight time limit on ACT Reading presents a major challenge. If you’re struggling to beat the clock on ACT Reading, you should understand that you are by no means alone and that your struggle with ACT Reading timing is by design. Unlike ACT English, ACT Reading is intentionally structured to make it next to impossible to achieve a winning balance of speed and accuracy.

But don’t fret. In the 15+ years I’ve been helping students increase their ACT Reading scores, I have developed a set of highly effective strategies and tactics for improving both accuracy and speed. I’ve organized these strategies and tactics into seven categories, which I call the Seven Pillars of ACT Reading:

  2. Use SKIMMING.
  4. Focus on ELIMINATION.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the most important pillar: Hyper-Literal Reading. This is by far the most critical key to improving your speed on ACT Reading. (It also helps tremendously with accuracy!)

When it comes to achieving speed on ACT Reading, Enemy Number One is DELIBERATION. By “deliberation” I simply mean being stuck trying to decide between two answer choices. This is a common dilemma. While it’s sometimes easy to eliminate one or two answers, on SAT and ACT Reading, students often struggle to eliminate all three wrong answers. It is at this stage that a lot of time gets wasted. Hyper-Literal Reading will DRASTICALLY cut down on the time you lose deliberating between two answer choices that seem equally plausible!


Before I get into the nuts-and-bolts of Hyper-Literal Reading, a warning: Hyper-Literal Reading is a SKILL. Though the concept of Hyper-Literal Reading is easy to understand, your goal is not simply to intellectually grasp this fundamental strategy. Your mission is to apply it effectively. Your goal should be to hammer it in through practice until using it consistently becomes second nature.

When it comes to improving ACT Reading scores, Hyper-Literal Reading CAN work miracles. But don’t expect it to add ten points on your first try! Success comes to those with the patience to treat Hyper-Literal Reading as a skill, committing themselves to developing their facility with literal reading through steady practice. So, approach Hyper-Literal Reading as you would other skills such as playing a sport or learning an instrument. (On the other hand, don’t worry – though practice is key, mastering Hyper-Literal Reading does NOT take as much time as learning to play the violin or perfecting a golf swing!)


In a nutshell, Hyper-Literal Reading involves closely examining every important word in the question and in the precise answer provided by the passage – putting each word “under the microscope” – then meticulously scrutinizing every word in the answer choices to identify mismatches with the answer in the passage.

Hyper-Literal Reading is an extreme sport. It requires:

*Extreme Precision: every word must register. No ideas in the relevant texts can escape your notice. This may sound obvious, but test-takers constantly lose points simply because they fail to “see” a word in a question, in an answer choice, or in the precise answer given in the passage. Always remember: Every. Word. Counts.

*Extreme Accuracy: it’s critical to understand EXACTLY what each word/phrase actually means. Not what the word “basically” means. Not what the word “means to you.” But rather the actual, dictionary definition(s). Never make assumptions about what terms mean. Don’t carelessly conflate different words/phrases, treating them as interchangeable when they are not.

ACT Reading loves to “split hairs,” so don’t assume that having a rough idea of a word’s meaning will be good enough. Sometimes it will. But often, it won’t. Throughout the entire exam, you must always be thinking carefully about a word’s EXACT dictionary definition/s. Remember: this test will deny you points based on so-called “minor technicalities.” Often, the difference between the wrong and right answer will be the fact that a SINGLE WORD in one of those answer choices is off by “just an inch.”

*Extreme Literalness: Don’t “interpret”. Don’t “read between the lines”. Don’t draw “inferences” (in the usual sense of the word – more on inferences later). Don’t read subjectively, but rather objectively. Base your understanding of the text on the PLAIN MEANING of the words that ACTUALLY APPEAR in the text, nothing more, nothing less. In summary, don’t be creative; don’t “think for yourself.” Rather, read like a robot: force yourself to only “see” what is ACTUALLY ON THE PAGE.

Especially on fiction, the literal approach is very different from what most students experience in the classroom, where many teachers encourage students to interpret texts in a subjective, creative way that makes the writing personally meaningful to them. On the other hand, the literal style of reading is exactly what the ACT Reading section rewards. (And the more personalized style of Reading encouraged in many classrooms is exactly what ACT Reading punishes!)

“But wait…all of this over-the-top attention to detail sounds like it would slow me down, not speed me up! How in the world can mastering Hyper-Literal Reading increase my SPEED?

Great question. Here’s the tripartite answer:

  1. Hyper-Literal Reading applies to relatively small portions of text: questions, answer choices, and the precise answer in the passage (usually only a few lines).
  2. Once made into a habit, Hyper-Literal Reading requires far less time than most people imagine.
  3. Most importantly, mastering Hyper-Literal Reading increases your speed by drastically reducing the time you spend in DELIBERATION.

Hyper-Literal Reading means ALWAYS sticking to the text’s PLAIN MEANING. Don’t “go deep.” Instead, limit yourself to the text’s surface meaning. In other words, Hyper-Literal Reading means NEVER ascribing meaning to the text that is not EXPLICITLY expressed by the text itself.


I touched on the problem of deliberation above, but the problem is so pervasive, and so critical to improving ACT Reading scores, that it deserves some more attention. If you’re like most students, you often get ACT Reading questions down to two plausible-sounding answers, at which point you find yourself stuck. You then debate the merits and drawbacks of those two answers for a while, stress levels rising with each tick of the clock, until you finally feverishly pencil in an answer, praying to the standardized testing gods that you’ve made the right choice. Needless to say, this approach is not optimal! By consistently using Hyper-Literal reading, you will significantly lower the time you spend in such deliberation. You’ll also walk away from the question feeling more confident that you chose correctly.


On ACT Reading, Hyper-Literal Reading is by far the most powerful strategy. Unfortunately, it’s also the strategy that students struggle most to consistently implement. Lack of consistency with Hyper-Literal Reading is the number one factor keeping most test takers from finishing ACT Reading on time and achieving their highest potential score. This can seem puzzling. Hyper-Literal Reading is not a particularly difficult concept to understand. So what could be so hard about it? The answer is that it’s not comprehending the idea that is hard. The challenge comes when you try to IMPLEMENT that idea. On every question. Without fail. What I’m driving at here is what I mentioned above: Hyper-Literal Reading is a SKILL. As with all skills, it can’t be mastered simply by understanding how it works. Understanding Hyper-Literal Reading is simple. The trick is mastering its execution. And that takes PRACTICE.

Practice! Practice! Practice!

Read Part Two of How to Beat the Clock on ACT Reading to learn more proven ACT Reading time management methods that hundreds of my students have used to quickly increase their speed and improve their scores.

4 thoughts on “How to Beat the Clock on ACT Reading – Part 1

  1. Pingback: How to Beat the Clock on ACT Reading - Part 2 | Quiz Hacker

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