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For Middle Schoolers: Activities to Build College-Level Reading Skills

ACT has developed the following list of activities to help middle-school students improve their reading ability. Parents and educators can use this information to help ensure that these students are on target for college and career readiness.

ACT research shows that to be on target for college and career readiness in reading by the end of eight grade, students should be able to demonstrate the following skills:

  • Recognize the clear intent of an author or narrator in uncomplicated literacy narratives
  • Locate basic facts,e.g., names, dates, events) clearly stated in a passage
  • Determine in uncomplicated passages when, i.e., first, last, before, after, or even if an event occurred
  • Recognize clear cause-effect relationships described within a single sentence in a passage
  • Understand the implication of a familiar word or phrase and of simple descriptive language
  • Draw simple generalizations and conclusions about the main characters in uncomplicated literary narratives

Individual students learn to read, and to improve their reading skills, in different ways. Getting students interested and maintaining their interest are essential, and the ideas in the chart below can help. We’ve listed the ideas under five headings, each relating to a different area of reading: Main Ideas and Author’s Approach; Supporting Details; Relationships; Meanings of Words; and Generalizations and Conclusions. The items in each list are things an individual student can do independently, but they also lend themselves well to discussion with interested parents, educators, or fellow students.

Each list is divided across two columns. The first column details reading activities at the Benchmark level or below, meaning that the skills they are meant to strengthen are skills that a student must have in order to be ready for college and career. The second column contains activities meant to strengthen more advanced skills (in increasing order of difficulty). The activities in this column meant to strengthen the most advanced skills will help even the best readers.

Skill Area To improve reading skills up to benchmark level, you can: To improve reading skills beyond benchmark level, you can:
Main Ideas and Author’s Approach
  • Find details in a story that reveal the author’s or narrator’s opinions or goals (for example, “I appreciated my aunt because she gave me more freedom than my mom.”)
  • Note details in fiction that convey the author’s or narrator’s opinions or goals
  • Decide whether a paragraph in a short story or novel has its own main idea or serves mainly to support another point
  • Take notes on a challenging text; decide how the information fits together as a whole
  • Practice writing brief summaries of books you have read
  • Decide who is telling a story (a child, an adult, etc.) and if that viewpoint relates the story well
  • Use two different mediums, like sculpture and music, to summarize the main idea(s) of a text
  • Read a play or book, deciding what each scene or chapter is primarily for or about
  • Change a text’s wording to alter its tone or attitude (for example, from serious to humorous)
Supporting Details
  • Read an article or story and answer basic questions, like Who planned the attack? What did the person do all day? and Where did the person feel the happiest?
  • Practice looking quickly through a piece of writing to find specific dates, places, concepts, etc.
  • Decide the purpose of each paragraph in a short story or article (for example, to provide a specific example, prove a point, give a different opinion)
  • Explain in your own words why certain facts or details are important to the meaning of an essay, a film, an ad, a picture, etc.
  • Understand textual details and how they contribute to the author’s or narrator’s message (for example, strengthening or clarifying it)
  • Write an essay about something you’ve read, supporting your ideas with evidence
  • Examine how an author develops an argument in a complex text (for example, issue and terms defined, position taken, reasoning used, evidence presented, counterarguments addressed)
  • Find an interesting topic in the news and learn how past events have affected the present situation (for example, how the careless dumping of trash has led to stricter rules)
  • Look for words like since, because, and consequently in a piece of writing to help you find causes and effects
  • Note how characters are described in a story (what they say and do), then tell what relationships are revealed (for example, they’re best friends because they confide in each other)
  • Try different strategies, like asking “what if” questions and role-playing, to better understand possible causes and effects
  • Highlight words or phrases in a cartoon strip, short story, or novel that suggest what happened first, second, etc.
  • Pick an event in a piece of writing and find statements that clearly show the reason(s) it happened and the final result(s)
  • Use a chart or web to connect a series of events in a text or film, or from an everyday occurrence, and justify your chosen sequence
  • Decide whether comparisons made by the author or narrator help you understand relationships in a text
  • Predict what would happen if events occurred in a different order in a text or not at all
  • Note how a character is seen and treated by others in a challenging text
  • Find details that suggest reasons for and effects of a character’s actions or words
Meaning of Words
  • Note words that suggest a specific emotion or refer to a particular idea (for example, “Mine, really mine?” suggests surprise; “home” could refer to a nursing home or a person’s house)
  • Note language whose meaning is not clear, then come up with possible meanings based on the context and your own knowledge
  • Figure out the meaning of words or descriptive phrases by looking for clues in the writing (for example, how the word is used [noun, verb, etc.]; whether other sentences define or provide hints about its meaning; whether the word looks like other words you know)
  • Look up word meanings and determine how the words an author or narrator uses affect people’s impressions of a topic or issue
  • Examine figurative and technical expressions used in the media (for example, ads, news articles), and relate their meaning to your personal experience
Generalizations and Conclusions
  • Connect two or more pieces of information to make a general statement about a character (for example, “a little girl” and “skinny arms” suggests “She had a slight figure”)
  • Guess what a person might say or do throughout a story, checking the accuracy of each prediction as you read
  • Read brief reviews of a novel, then find evidence within the book that supports or contradicts the statements made (for example, “compelling… poignant… spellbinding”)
  • Practice writing general statements about people or ideas you read about, using qualifiers like a few, typically, or sometimes when little information is provided
  • Review a variety of materials, looking for statements that oversimplify ideas or stereotype people
  • Identify details in a challenging text that support or challenge conclusions drawn by the author or narrator and by you or your friends
  • Defend or challenge the author’s or narrator’s claims in a text by locating key pieces of information in other sources
  • Make accurate generalizations—avoiding oversimplifications—based on details in the text (for example, “You live there—in that polka-dotted house?” suggests disbelief)
  • Combine information in challenging texts, reasoning clearly about people, situations, etc.
ACT(opens in a new window) is an independent, not-for-profit testing organization founded in 1959.