[NOTE – This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. 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 this is by design. unlike ACT English, ACT Reading is intentionally designed to make it next to impossible to achieve a winning balance of speed and accuracy.
But don’t fret. In the 10+ years I’ve been helping students increase their ACT Reading scores, I have developed a set of highly effective time management tactics. Before getting to those, however, I must warn you that perhaps the most important key to ACT Reading “time management” is simply to fully master ACT Reading accuracy tactics. In a nutshell, that means mastering the skill of Hyper-Literal Reading.
“But wait … Hyper-Literal Reading involves examining the relevant parts of the question and passage very carefully, then meticulously matching up the answer in the passage with an answer choice. That sounds like it would slow me down, not speed me up. How can mastering accuracy tactics increase my speed?“
Great question. Here’s the answer: Mastering Hyper-Literal Reading increases your speed by drastically reducing the time you spend in DELIBERATION.
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, your stress levels rising with each passing second, until finally penciling one in on your bubble sheet (still feeling uncertain that you’ve made the right choice). 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!
With ACT Reading, as with many skills, mastering the correct general technique is itself a big help in increasing speed. Additionally, focusing too soon on time management proper can actually impede quickness.
To illustrate these truths, I ask you to imagine yourself trying to teach a 4-year-old to tie her shoe laces. Every day, without giving it any conscious thought whatsoever, you yourself tie your shoes flawlessly. You don’t have to think about the steps involved. You don’t make mistakes and have to start over from the beginning. On top of that, you tie your shoes with lightning speed.
To you, pointing this out may seem silly. Of course you know how to tie your shoes! However, from the perspective of a 4-year old who hasn’t yet learned to tie her shoes, your unfailing deftness and blurring celerity in the art and science of lace looping is nothing short of miraculous!
Imagine that you’re babysitting your 4-year-old cousin, who has just gotten her first pair of lace-ups. But, for whatever reason, she hasn’t yet learned the first thing about how to tie them. Now imagine that your 4-year-old cousin watches you tie your shoes. Her eyes grow wide, and she exclaims, “Wow! I want to be like YOU! I want to learn to tie my shoes FAST! Teach me how to tie them quickly, like you did!”
You can see the problem: before your intrepid young apprentice can learn to tie her shoes fast, she must first learn to tie them at all. In fact, if she were to focus on speed right away, it would actually be counterproductive – it would increase the time it took her to learn how to tie her shoes, thus increase the time (and effort) for her to learn to do so quickly. It would also increase the amount of frustration involved in the entire process.
And this could initiate a downward spiral. What if the delay and frustration, caused by focusing too soon on SPEED instead of GENERAL TECHNIQUE, continued for a long time? Your perfectly capable novitiate might develop a sense of inferiority and insecurity. She might convince herself of something silly, like “I’m just not good at tying shoes.” Do you see where this is going and how it relates to ACT Reading time management?
On the other hand, what do you think might happen if you convinced your young cousin to FIRST focus not on tying her shoes quickly but rather to set speed aside and first learn to tie her shoes correctly? Do you think that if she took your advice and consistently practiced simply properly tying her shoes, that speed would follow just as naturally as day follows night? Did you ever deliberately focus on tying your shoes fast? Very unlikely. And yet, just look at you go!
This last point is worth emphasizing. How did you get to the point where you could tie your shoes so briskly? Was it from studying shoelace time management tactics? Did you take a “speed lacing” class? Of course not. You probably never gave a single thought to tying your shoes quickly. You just learned how to tie laces, very clumsily and ploddingly at first, then continued practicing it every day, day after day, until eventually you could do it easily, with high accuracy and with impressive speed.
The moral of the story is that standardized tests are like shoe laces. Do I offer my students specific time management tactics for ACT Reading? Yes, I do. However, before jumping into tactical tips aimed directly at buying time on the reading section, it’s important to remind yourself that, by a long shot, the absolute best thing you can do to increase your speed is to continue practicing accuracy tactics, most notably Hyper-Literal Reading, until executing them flawlessly becomes second-nature, just like tying your shoes.
That said, in Part Two of How to Beat the Clock on ACT Reading, I’ll share some proven methods for ACT Reading time management that you can put to use AFTER you’ve exhausted the pacing benefits to be gained from mastering general technique.
Until then, happy practicing!