ACT English Strategies and What’s on the ACT English Test
Welcome to our series, What’s on the ACT. In this post, we’ll introduce you to the content on the ACT English test and share ACT English strategies you’ll learn and practice during your Summit ACT tutoring program. Please keep in mind that the best way to decide between the ACT and SAT is to take a practice test of each, then compare the scores and your test taking experience.
The ACT English test measures students’ ability to evaluate and revise five essay-style passages. Each passage is about 300-350 words long and reflects the writing level of an average high school junior.
The English section is always the first on the test. It’s 45 minutes long and has a total of 75 questions, (15 questions per passage). This means students have an average of 36 seconds per question, but keep in mind that some questions will be quick and easy (like correcting basic grammatical errors) while others will require more time for thought (such as identifying the main idea of the passage).
The questions fall into three main categories: Conventions of Standard English, Knowledge of Language, and Production of Writing. In a one-on-one program with your tutor you will go over all the grammar so you know it inside and out. You’ll also learn approaches and strategies for the Knowledge of Language and Production of Writing questions. The ACT English test is consistent in how questions are asked, which makes this section a key target for score gains.
The Conventions of Standard English category covers classic grammar questions, addressing the details of punctuation, sentence structure, and parts of speech. Many students report that their high school English classes have not spent much time on grammar, or that the grammar instruction they did have was many years ago. Time spent reviewing grammar will be well rewarded.
Knowledge of Language questions are more about word choice—you might be given four words that are synonyms in some contexts but not in others and asked to pick the one that’s appropriate for the sentence. Knowledge of Language questions also cover style, which can take some time and practice to get used to. Always keep in mind that there is only one correct answer. There must be something wrong with three of the four answer choices—your tutor knows how to help you get into the test-makers’ heads and get a sense of what they’re looking for. It’s important to make sure you feel confident about the reasoning behind the right and wrong answers before you take the official test.
Finally, Production of Writing questions ask students to put themselves in the authors’ shoes and consider the choices they made. A question at the end of a passage might say “Suppose the assignment was to profile a well-known figure in this field. Did the writer accomplish that?” You would have two “yes” options and two “no” options, each with varying reasoning. Many students find the Production of Writing questions challenging at first, feeling that they seem subjective. In your Summit tutoring program, you’ll gain the perspective to see these questions as black-and-white with one clear right answer.
The subject matter on the English test varies widely: some passages are personal anecdotes that might read like stories, and others are factual. The topic doesn’t matter on the English section because the questions are more about writing skills and mechanics than reading comprehension. In fact, many of the English questions could be answered without reading the whole passage, but we do not recommend that approach. Read the whole passage. Some questions require you to catch redundancies that you might miss, and, of course, questions about the main idea will require a sense of the essay as a whole.
3 Strategies for Taking the ACT English Test
Answer the questions as you go – The English section instructions suggest that you should read the passage through once before tackling the questions. We do not recommend following this advice: it would be too time-consuming for most students. Even if you have time to spare, reading the passage in advance is probably unnecessary. Most people are comfortable answering the questions as they appear on a first read and doubling back for anything tricky they had to skip.
Shorter is often better – The ACT is looking for writing that is clear and concise, in that order. Clarity is the top priority, so a wordier option would certainly be best if it is also clearest. However, if you find yourself torn between answer choices that seem to be conveying the same information, go with the shortest.
Rely on rules, not your ear – Standard written English may be more formal than what you are used to hearing. Even if something sounds right the first time you read it through, double check for frequently tested grammatical errors. There are certain things you might say, hear, or write in everyday life that are grammatically incorrect.
How the English Test Impacts Your ACT Score
The English section accounts for 25% of your ACT score: the English, Math, Reading, and Science sections are weighted equally and are averaged to determine your composite score. Because many students find timing less challenging on the English section, and because it’s always the first section of the test, this is often a good area to target in increasing your composite and super scores. Remember that all four sections are equally weighted, so maximizing your score on a section that you find easier could be a nice way to take some pressure off the other three.