Hyper-Literal Reading In Action

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As I’ve discussed previously, Hyper-Literal Reading is the single most powerful strategy for improving your ACT Reading score. It increases both speed and accuracy. Hyper-Literal Reading means getting OUT of the habit of reading texts symbolically, figuratively, creatively, subjectively. What a text “means to you” is irrelevant on the SAT.

Hyper-Literal Reading comprises three elements: extreme precision, extreme accuracy, and extreme literalness. This post provides an example of the last (i.e., literalness). Using an actual question from an official ACT, I demonstrate how ACT Reading often uses subjective, non-literal interpretations in WRONG answers, while the correct answer is a precise, accurate, literal paraphrase or summary of the answer provided in the passage.

Hyper-Literal Reading: A “Real World” Example

Below is the relevant text from an official ACT Reading passage, followed by an actual question from the same passage. The narrator is a woman named Fran.

Mother was sitting in her new electric wheelchair in front of the TV, painting her fingernails a neon violet. “You know anyone in Dallas, Mother?”

“Not so as I recall.” She dabbed at her pinky with a cottonball. Mother was vain about her hands. I was used to how she looked now, but I noticed people staring in the doctor’s waiting room. She had lost some weight and most of her hair to chemotherapy, and I guess people were startled to see these dragon-lady nails on a woman who looked as if she should be lying in satin with some flowers on her chest. (excerpted from Official ACT Form 1MC)

QUESTION: When Fran looks at her mother, Fran feels:

A) surprised by how weak and old her mother looks

B) embarrassed by the gaudy colors of nail polish her mother uses

C) pity that so many people stare at her mother in public

D) accustomed to her mother’s frailness and unusual fingernails

Let’s evaluate each answer choice focusing on the literal dimension of the Hyper-Literal Reading approach:

Answer Choice A –

Not many students are taken in by this wrong answer. It is directly contradicted by the passage (“I was used to how she looked now.”) Most students notice the contradiction and correctly eliminate this answer.

Answer Choice B –

A few students fall for this wrong answer. Fran is with her mother as people are staring, partly because of her elderly mother’s brightly colored “dragon-lady nails. Students who chose this answer think that this type of situation might reasonably cause a daughter to feel embarrassment. And maybe it would! The problem is that the passage does not say so.

Answer Choice C –

When students miss this question, it’s usually because they chose this wrong answer. Test takers put themselves in Fran’s shoes. The passage makes it clear that her mother is very ill (“She had lost some weight and most of her hair to chemotherapy.”) In fact, her mother is so unwell that she looks as if she’s already dead (“looked as if she should be lying in satin with some flowers on her chest.” – i.e., Fran’s mom looked like she should be in a coffin).

Because of her mother’s sickly appearance (coupled with her gaudy fingernail polish), people are staring at Fran’s mom. “What a terribly sad scene!” students say to themselves. “Of course Fran feels sorry for her mother! What kind of monster wouldn’t feel pity for her mother in such a situation?” Fair enough. I agree that it certainly does seem reasonable to feel pity for one’s mother in this case.

But do you see the problem? The issue, just as with Answer Choice B, is that the text does not actually state that Fran feels this way. We cannot simply assume that she does. Doing so is subjective interpretation. On ACT Reading, we must be objective. We must be literal.

Answer Choice D –

This answer choice precisely, accurately, and literally summarizes the answer provided by the passage.

The precise answer in the passage is: “I was used to how she looked now.”

Read in full, the answer says that “when Fran looks at her mother, Fran feelsaccustomed to her mother’s frailness and unusual fingernails.”

The phrase “used to” in the answer literally means “accustomed to.” And we know that when the passage says Fran was “used to how she looked” that the antecedent for the pronoun “she” refers to Fran’s mother, because the subject of the previous sentence is “Mother.”

We also know that “how she looked” refers to the mother’s frailness and unusual fingernails because after Fran tells us she’s used to how her mom looks, Fran immediately elaborates on exactly what she means. In the very next sentence, she tells us her mom had “lost some weight,” that she had “dragon-lady nails” (which Fran previously told us were colored neon violet), and that her mom’s appearance was so sickly she looked like a dead person: “looked as if she should be lying in satin with some flowers on her chest.” In other words, Answer Choice D precisely, accurately, and literally summarizes Fran’s assertion about herself and Fran’s description of her mother, as these are actually stated in the passage.


In this post, you saw a simple but concrete example of how Hyper-Literal Reading can help you identify incorrect answers and correct answers on ACT Reading. You should take these lessons to heart and, most importantly, apply them on every single ACT Reading question. Your ability to do so will directly impact your score improvement. So, remember: Hyper-Literal Reading means avoiding being “open-minded” about what a text could mean or might mean. Hyper-literal reading means developing the habit of paying heed only to what texts MUST mean — in other words, only the ideas that the texts EXPLICITLY express, based on precise and accurate understanding of their vocabulary and idioms.

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