ACT Reading: Types of Passages

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  • 0:02 ACT Passages
  • 0:31 Test Format
  • 1:53 Passage Types
  • 4:11 Passage Strategy
  • 6:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Wondering what kinds of passages you'll have to tackle on the ACT Reading test? Getting familiar with the passages can help boost your score and save you a lot of pain: here's an overview.

Act Passages

Even though it's pretty straightforward to take, the ACT Reading section still rewards students who are familiar with the test and know how to work the format to their own advantage. So, in this lesson, we'll cover what types of passages you'll see on the test, how they'll be presented, and what it all means for the bottom line: your score.

Test Format

The ACT Reading Test is a standardized multiple-choice test of reading comprehension. It doesn't test outside knowledge at all; the answer to every question is written somewhere on the test.

On the test, you'll get four distinct sections. Each section will have either one long passage or two shorter passages, followed by 10 questions. Just for short, we'll refer either to one long passage or to a set of two short ones as 'a passage.'

Each passage will be somewhere around 800-900 words long - that's just shy of three pages if you wrote it double-spaced as an essay for class. You can work on these passages in any order you like, but you'll only have 35 minutes to do all 40 questions, so you'll have to work quickly.

All four passages follow the same format, but each covers a different subject area - and you, the well-prepared test taker, get to know the subject areas in advance.

Passage Types

The four passage types on the ACT are:

Literary Narrative or Prose Fiction

You'll only get one of these two types on the test, but you don't know which one it'll be. The difference is very small:

  • Prose fiction will be a short story or an excerpt from a longer piece of fiction writing.
  • Literary narrative includes everything in prose fiction plus autobiography and memoir.

A passage from War and Peace could fall into either prose fiction or literary narrative. A passage from Mark Twain's memoirs would be literary narrative, but not prose fiction. Authors with less impressive facial hair are also allowed. But what you won't find is any poetry, song lyrics, or anything like that. It'll all be prose.

Natural Sciences

The next passage type is natural sciences. In a natural sciences passage, you'll read about something that sounds like science class. For example, it could be geology, physics, astronomy, or zoology. A press release describing a newly discovered species would be an example of a natural sciences passage.

Social Studies

Then there's social studies. This passage will be recognizable as history, economics, political science, or some related field. A transcript of a speech about the minimum wage would be an example of a social sciences passage.


The last passage type is humanities. This will be in an area like art, music, or film criticism. A review of a play would be an example of a humanities passage. Each passage will be labeled upfront to let you know what type it is; you'll never have to guess.

Passage Strategy

Now you know the types of passages; it's time to look at how they affect your score. All the passages are supposed to be equally challenging, but in practice, many students have a favorite type, or a least favorite, or both.

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