5 Standardized Test Tricks for READING Sections

Almost all of my tutoring students in the last 10 years have made the same mistakes while taking the Reading portion of the ACT and SAT. They struggle with...

  • Finishing the test on time
  • Zoning out while reading (and therefore wasting time REreading)
  • Taking too long to find the answer in the text
  • Trying too hard to memorize the text as they read it
  • Overreacting when they don't understand everything in the text
  • Spending too long debating between two answer choices that "both sound right" 
Many of these problems are either reduced or completely eliminated when the student uses the following five tricks. Some of them will be familiar to teachers, but most of them come with a twist.

#1: The TEST version of annotating
I talk about this strategy more in a companion blog post, 6 Test Prep Strategies for English Classes, but essentially, the idea is to teach students to CIRCLE the main idea keyword/phrase that represents what the paragraph is about.

The primary benefits of LIGHT annotation include better focus while reading (a.k.a. less time spent zoning out or rereading), as well as creating a "trail" of markings to help students skim faster later on, when they're looking for the answers to text-dependent questions.

See a sample annotation below. (The handout you see is a FREE download, available in the blog post hyperlinked above!)

#2: Using your pencil more during process of elimination
Students believe they can do a lot "in their head" and don't use their pencils enough. True process of elimination should be more than just crossing out the answer choice letter.

Specifically, I ask students to cross out the specific word that makes an answer choice wrong. Sometimes it's an "extreme" word like always, never, or only; sometimes the offending word choice is something factually inaccurate or isn't supported by the text.

The benefit of "using your pencil more" is more precision, which helps the student confidently (and quickly) decide which answers are right and wrong. Less time is spent debating between them. 

See an example in the photo below.

#3: Pace how long you spend reading
Students are surprised when I get out a timer and check how long they spend reading. They're usually not as slow as they think, and with a few strategies, they can build their awareness of their own habits and avoid the traps that will slow them down. 

On the ACT, for example, I encourage them to...
  • Spend about 2 minutes reading each of the 2 columns of text*
  • Start on whichever page/passage looks easiest for them
  • Find the sweet spot of not reading too fast or too slowly
  • NOT to slow down too much while reading fiction, since students sometimes get too comfortable reading their favorite genre
  • NOT "read the questions first" and to begin with actually reading the passage*. (More on that another day.)

*On the ACT, students essentially have 8.5 minutes to read a passage and answer 10 questions. For MOST students, it's worthwhile to read the text WELL for four minutes (or fewer) before moving on to questions. 

#4: Predicting the answer (in the text) before looking at choices
Students are so conditioned to immediately jump into the 4 (or 5) multiple choice options that they skip an important step: looking in the text for the GIVEN answer. 

Though tests DO obviously contain inference questions too, a good number of them are "detail" questions that are text-dependent. If students don't use the text enough, they are relying on their memories instead, which backfires.

I often coach students to use my "hand cover" technique instead (shown below). Students cover the answer choices (so they can still see the question), and at LEAST think about the answer, if not go find it in the text. THEN they are allowed to look at the answer choices. 

By adding mere seconds "up front", students benefit when they spend fewer seconds debating between answer choices. Speed AND accuracy both improve.

#5: Controlling your emotions better
Given how damaging stress is on the brain (including memory, creativity, and focus), it's important for students to learn not to overreact during a test. Preventing stress is essential.

If they don't understand the point of a sentence, move on. If a question looks hard, skip it and come back later. If an entire passage looks difficult, skip it and do a different page first. If one page didn't go well, the next one might be better.

Not unlike a growth mindset, an ideal test mindset is one where the student handles any scenario in stride. 

Agree or disagree?
Tell me what you think in the comments!   


  1. Sara, I think these are wonderful techniques and I appreciate you sharing these on your blog post. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for these tips. English is the most stressful area for my son... I hope some of these strategies will stick with him. :)