ACT English Section: What You Need to Know

ACT English Overview

I often tell students I’m working with that the ACT and the SAT are bad tests. Why? I’ve been working with them for over 15 years and still can’t tell you what they really measure. It’s certainly not “intelligence” or IQ, there’s little correlation between test scores and grades, and test scores by themselves do a poor job of predicting college success. Bad tests. But if they have one saving grace, it’s that they’re consistently bad. That is, they’re bad in the same way every time. And, thus, they can be prepared for and are no more or less than tests of acquired skills (like almost anything else in life).

The ACT English section is undoubtedly the best example of this. The Math section draws questions from content ranging from algebra to geometry to precalculus, and almost everything you’ve learned in high school math classes is fair game. The Reading and Science sections feature passages that vary wildly in their content and difficulty. But the English section? It tests the same handful of grammar rules. Over and over again. For most students, the English section is actually the easiest to prepare for and to improve upon. So read on to learn what you need to do!

General Structure and Overall Strategies

The ACT English section consists of five passages displayed on the left side of the page, each having 15 questions displayed on the right side of the page. Generally speaking, the passages do not get more difficult as you go, nor do the questions get more difficult as you go through each passage. Expect to see passages on a broad variety of topics: short biographical sketches, technology, social and natural sciences, and various careers. Unlike the Reading section, however, the type of passage won’t likely make much difference to you, since the content isn’t difficult to understand, and the questions generally don’t require you to understand it anyway.

Read Everything

You’ve got 45 minutes for the 75 questions on the English section. At first glance, that seems a little intense, but most students actually find that this is the section of the test with the least demanding time pressure. After all, you’re rarely rereading a passage to figure out an answer or doing a math problem; most often, you’re just looking at a few words and deciding which answer choice is correct. So you don’t have to rush here. You have time.

One way to use it is to live on the left side of the page. That is, read every word of every passage. Begin with the title and read until you get to the first underlined portion. Then read to at least the end of that sentence before you answer the question. Then pick back up with your reading right where you left off. Don’t just skip from one underlined portion to the next, trying to answer the questions with little or no context. Not every word is underlined, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Having all the context will really help you answer the questions more accurately — especially those questions that have directions (more on those soon).

Stay Rule-Based

So when was the last time you received formal instruction on when to use a comma versus a semicolon? For many students, the answer is something like 7th or 8th grade. All of a sudden, all of those grammar rules you were taught back when are now prominently featured on a test that has (too) much to say about where you can go to college. The good news is that there aren’t that many of these rules and they’re easy to relearn, so put in the time and do the work. Most students tend to play the test “by ear” the first time they take it. That is, they choose the answers that sound right and eliminate the ones that sound wrong.

That’s a fine way to get started, but you’ll want something more dependable on test day. I don’t want you rereading a sentence with longer or shorter pauses, trying to decide whether to use a comma; I want you looking at the structure of the sentence, saying to yourself, “Here’s an independent clause and there’s some extra information, so I should use a comma.” 

Let Your Mouth Help Your Ear

That being said, your ear certainly can come to the rescue if you’re forgetting a rule — but let that be your Plan B, not your Plan A. Often times, when I’m working with a student who has chosen a wrong answer, I’ll ask them to read the sentence out loud. After doing so, they’ll glance at me with a look that says, “Wait, that doesn’t sound right at all.” Actually hearing the sentences spoken aloud can help. Sadly, if you start reading the English section out loud on test day, you won’t get very far before you’re asked to leave. But you can move your lips as you read, putting just the barest breath behind your words. You’ll find that doing so allows you to “hear” those mistakes much more accurately, just like you were reading out loud. And here’s one final note about using your ear when you have to: if something sounds terrible, it’s likely wrong. If something sounds fine to you, it could be right, or it could be wrong because it breaks some sort of esoteric grammar rule. So try to stick to using your ear to eliminate wrong answers and thinking about rules to find correct ones.

Keep it Simple

The final guideline for the ACT English section is simple: Keep it simple. All things considered, take the answer that is more straightforward and concise. Wrong answer choices might feature sophisticated constructions and fancy language that some students are tempted to select to show how “sophisticated” and “fancy” they are, but that’s not the move. When in doubt, take the shortest answer that doesn’t contain any errors.  

ACT English Question Types

There are three types of questions on the ACT English section. Conventions of Standard English questions make up over half of the test and are simply grammar questions. They usually don’t have any directions and one of the answer choices is always NO CHANGE. Production of Writing questions test you on the rhetorical skills used in good writing and amount to around a third of the test. These questions do have directions, which you’ll need to follow closely. Finally, Knowledge of Language questions are basically vocabulary questions in which you’ll be required to choose the right word or phrase with the correct meaning based on the context of the sentence and paragraph. There are only a few of these on the test.

Conventions of Standard English

These are the grammar questions, so you’ll need to know the rules. What rules? Glad you asked. You certainly don’t need to be a master of sentence diagramming, be able to identify the future progressive tense, or know the difference between the first and second conditional. But you do need to know the parts of a sentence and what makes an independent clause versus a dependent clause. Why? Because knowing those differences is key to knowing how to punctuate. And punctuation is very, very heavily emphasized on the ACT. Here’s a list of the grammar topics that are featured most prominently on the test and which you should have down cold:

Production of Writing

These are the questions that do have directions. You might be asked which answer choice is the best introduction, transition, or conclusion; whether or not to add or delete a sentence; how to rearrange the sentences in a paragraph; where to divide a paragraph; or whether a writer achieved a certain goal. For these questions, you won’t be focusing on grammar rules, since all the answer choices are grammatically correct. Only one of those answer choices, however, will answer the question as asked. So be literal and use the context of the passage to help you. (That’s why you’ve been reading the whole passage, right?)

There are many kinds of questions here, but many of them come down to reinforcing three key concepts: wordiness, relevance, and flow. So think about those as you answer these types of questions.

Knowledge of Language

There’s not a whole lot you can actually do to prepare for these questions since the more difficult questions will test your ability to differentiate between commonly confused words or your familiarity with secondary meanings of more common words. You should get most of these quickly and easily, but don’t sweat the ones you don’t know. If you get really, really good at the other two question types — which you can through practice — the few of these that might trip you up won’t prevent you from reaching your score goals.

Strategy for Your ACT English Goals

Your score on this section more than any other is limited only by the amount of practice that you choose to do. On the Reading section, your score might be limited by your reading speed; on the Math section, your score might be limited by what math track you’re on in school. Not so here. By the time you’ve taken just a few practice sections, you’ll likely have seen 90+% of the question types you’ll see on test day. I’ve seen students regularly improve 10 or more points from their initial practice test to their final score on test day. That’s not a guarantee for everyone, but there’s a lot of room to move here. So instead of providing strategies to hit a particular score, here’s what you should do to make continuous improvement until you’re nearly perfect.

Directions or No Directions

After each practice section, take a look at the questions you missed and count how many of them had directions and how many didn’t. That’s a quick proxy for the question types and should let you know whether you can make the quickest gains by focusing on learning and reviewing more grammar rules or by more closely reading and following the directions for the other questions.

Your ACT English Study Guide

After the forest come the trees. Take advantage of the highly repetitive nature of this test and get really granular to foster increasing gains. Make yourself an ACT Study Guide that consists of some columns on a few pages of paper. Every question you miss on a practice section becomes a new entry. List the test and question number, and then articulate the rule you should have known in order to get the question right. Examples might be things like “Read around prepositional phrases to help find the right subject for verb agreement,” “Use a semicolon only to connect independent clauses without a FANBOYS conjunction,” or “Never use a comma before a clause that starts with the word ‘that’.” Review your growing study guide before every new practice section you take and, provided you don’t make those mistakes again, your score can’t help but go up and up and up!!