Answer ACT Reading Questions By Matching the Author’s Tone to the Answer Choices

ReflectingOne of the best ways to attack the Reading Section on the ACT is to look for reasons to eliminate answer choices. In other words, rather than try to find evidence for each answer choice to determine whether or not it is correct, you can identify reasons as to why you can eliminate answer choices because they are incorrect.

In this post, I’ll be covering one easy trick you can use to eliminate at least one answer choice on a surprisingly high number of questions in the ACT Reading Section – matching the author’s tone to the choices. Quickly read the following excerpt:

Russian author Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, perhaps better known as Leo Tolstoy, is largely considered the most prolific Russian novelist in history. Most famous for his two long novels War and Peace, which he penned in 1869, and Anna Karenina, which he wrote in 1877, Tolstoy was a master of realistic fiction. While not the beginning of his literary career, his rise to prominence began when he accounted his experiences in the Crimean War with Sevastopol Sketches, his first acclaimed work. Soon after, between 1855 and 1858, he published a self-autobiographical trilogy, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, recounting through fictional characters his own childhood with a sentimentality he later rebuffed as poor writing. Toward the end of his life, Tolstoy became more of a moral thinker and social reformer, transitioning from poplar novelist to evangelical essayist.

Even after a quick read-through, you should be able to describe the author’s tone. (And if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, now is the time to start!) That is, you should be able to ask yourself, “Is the author’s tone laudatory? Is it critical? Is it neutral? Is it persuasive?” and so on. In short, you should have a general sense of whether or not the author has a positive, negative, or neutral stance towards their subject, and you should also have a sense of the degree – i.e. is the author strongly critical, or do they just have some reservations?

Now, go ahead and write down what you think the author’s tone is in the above excerpt.

In this case, the author’s tone is laudatory, as the author calls Tolstoy “prolific” and  a “master of realistic fiction.” So, keep in mind that descriptive terms – adjectives, descriptive phrases, and the like – will clue you in on what the author’s tone is.

Now that we’ve identified the author’s tone, take a look at the following question*:

According to the passage, it could be concluded that the novel War and Peace was:

(A) The first of Leo Tolstoy’s works to be published.
(B) Leo Tolstoy’s last novel of any cultural or literary significance.
(C) Written by Leo Tolstoy after he wrote his self-autobiographical trilogy.
(D) Written by Leo Tolstoy using inspirations from his experience in the Crimean War.

Without rereading the passage, I can immediately eliminate one of the answer choices. Why?  Because it is distinctly different than the author’s tone. The author is praising Tolstoy, so answer choice B, which comes off as critical (Saying that the book is Tolstoy’s last novel of any cultural or literary significance is pretty dang snarky!), couldn’t be the correct answer.

Let’s use this strategy again on a few more questions. First, read the following excerpt and identify the author’s tone:

“A handicapped child represents a qualitative different, unique type of development… If a blind child or a deaf child achieves the same level of development as a normal child, then the child with a defect achieves this in another way, by another course, by another means; and, for the pedagogue, it is particularly important to know the uniqueness of the course along which he must lead the child. This uniqueness transforms the minus of a handicap into the plus of compensation.”

That such radical adaptions could occur demanded, Luria thought, a new view of the brain, a sense of it not as programmed and static, but rather as dynamic and active, a supremely efficient adaptive system geared for evolution and change, ceaselessly adapting to the needs of the organism – its need, above all, to construct a coherent self and world, whatever defects or disorders of brain functions befell it. That the brain is minutely differentiated is clear: there are hundreds of tiny areas crucial for every aspect of perception and behavior. The miracle is how they all cooperate, are integrated together, in the creation of a self.

In this passage, the author’s tone is positive. The author uses the words  “dynamic,” “active” and “miracle,” and cites another author (in the first paragraph) who uses the word “unique.” Thus, these descriptive phrases allow me to conclude that the author takes a positive tone towards his or her subjects of handicaps and the brain.

Now, let’s take a look at some questions. The goal of this exercise is simply to notice what answer choices we can eliminate (not what the correct answers are) without rereading by simply noticing which tones of the answer choices does not match the tone of the author.

The author’s main purpose in the second paragraph is to show:

(A) how he has come to think differently about the brain.
(B) why sickness often causes a contraction of life.
(C) when he had made new discoveries about the brain.
(D) which of his subjects helped him redefine the term “norm.”

With just a quick look at this question, I can immediately eliminate answer choice B. This option takes a negative tone towards sickness, which is clearly out of line with the author’s tone.

Simple enough! Let’s try another question:

The quotation in the first paragraph is used in this passage to support the idea that:

(A) children with handicaps should be studied in the same way as children defined by physicians as “normal.”
(B) deficits need to demonstrate intactness in order to be judged acceptable.
(C) neural or sensory mishap occurs in children as well as adults.
(D) development of children with handicaps may proceed in positive yet quite distinctive ways.

Once again, you will notice that the tone of one of the answer choices stands out as distinctly different from the author’s tone: answer choice B is unusually harsh in tone (judging a deficit “acceptable” comes off as rather cold, if not outright inhumane), so I can make the decision, even without rereading the quote, to eliminate B.

The more adept you get at noting the author’s tone, the more naturally this strategy will come to you. So, next time you do a practice reading section, try incorporating this strategy into your studies.

*Note that I can use the matching tone strategy on these questions because they all reference the purpose of the author (namely, they begin with the phrases “according to the passage,” “the author’s main purpose,” “the quotation is used in this passage to support,” etc.). However, if the questions had asked about a different point of view than the author’s, I wouldn’t be able to use this strategy.

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By Rita Pearson

GMAT Tip of the Week

Practice The Way You Play

(This is one of a series of GMAT tips that we offer on our blog.)

Sports Illustrated ran an interesting article this week about Barack Obama and the influence that the game of basketball has had on his political career. The implication — and some theorize one of the reasons that he won in the hoops-heavy states of Indiana and North Carolina — is that he governs the way he plays: getting others involved, playing defense with discipline, making the smart play, etc.

What does this mean for your GMAT preparation? You, too, can learn to be more effective by taking a lesson from the game of basketball. One of the most important disciplines in basketball (sorry, Shaq) is shooting free throws, as most close games are decided at the end at the foul line. For this reason, basketball coaches everywhere adhere to the practice that the best time for players to practice free throws is at the end of practice, after running sprints. At this point, they can simulate the feeling of shooting those important late-game shots – when they’re tired, their hands are sweaty, their legs are heavy, and their heart rate is pounding. It simply doesn’t make a great deal of sense to practice free throws at the beginning of practice while they’re fresh and energized, as the most important such shots they will take just won’t take place in that environment.

On the GMAT, you will face Reading Comprehension passages only near the end of the exam — after you’ve written AWA essays for an hour and spent 75 minutes grinding through the Quantitative section. At least one difficult Reading Comprehension passage will face you after you have been testing for over three hours, at which point you will need to be able to focus on a dense, four-paragraph essay on quasars, or a comparative study of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, or an analysis of the history of vaccination. At this point, simply staying focused may be your biggest challenge, as your mind will have been stretched in multiple directions throughout the course of the exam.

This is why it is important to take a lesson from the all-time great basketball coaches and practice the way that you’ll perform on test day. Study Reading Comprehension at the end of your normal study sessions – after you’ve worked through an hour or two of Data Sufficiency or Sentence Correction. Sure, it may seem almost enjoyable to pick up a Reading Comprehension book on a lazy Sunday morning in an easy chair with a fresh cup of coffee (perhaps with Lionel Richie’s “Easy Like Sunday Morning” in the background), but you won’t receive the same benefit of needing to stay focused while exhausted and distracted. If you discipline yourself to practice GMAT Reading Comprehension questions while tired, you will develop skills to read effectively under duress, and by doing so feel much more comfortable when you face tedious passages late in the exam on test day.

For more help on the GMAT, visit Veritas Prep to find a prep course near you.