If you’re feeling overwhelmed by ACT English, you can take comfort in the fact that it is a very repetitive and learnable section. It’s broken down into two main types of questions: grammar questions and rhetoric questions. Grammar questions tests the rules of English, while rhetoric questions ask about passage organization and topic.
Because the ACT tests the same grammar rules over and over, by learning these rules before test day you can drastically improve your score. You can find these rules (like this one) here on The SAT/ACT Blog and elsewhere.
Flash cards are a great way to help solidify the grammar you learn. If you use flash cards, make a card for each new rule. Come up with your own example for the rule to include on the card. This will help you to better understand and remember that rule. Then review these cards over time to ensure you don’t forget anything.
As you study ACT grammar, you should also take official, timed practice tests to chart your improvement. Mark your mistakes and make sure to review them frequently. One benefit to taking multiple practice tests is that you’ll begin to recognize the common patterns and trap answers on the English section, which I also discuss here on The SAT/ACT Blog. Being familiar with these will make it much easier to identify correct (and incorrect) answers.
To do well on grammar questions it’s also critical that you read for meaning. Many questions test which grammatical form would best reflect small nuances in meaning, so it’s essential that you pay attention to what each sentence, paragraph and passage is saying.
Reading for both grammar and meaning at the same time can be difficult. If you find that you’re having trouble doing both, one helpful strategy is to read a passage in its entirety before tackling the questions. Consider writing down the main point of the passage in a brief sentence or two. Then read through the passage a second time, answering the questions as you go. This can help you get a firmer understanding of the passage while affording you more mental bandwidth to tackle the grammatical issues on your second reading.
Whatever you do, make sure that whenever you do tackle the questions you’re always reading the passage alongside them. Don’t just read the underlined portion of the passage that the question is asking about, because he correct answer often depends on context. This is especially true for the second major type of questions on ACT English: rhetoric questions.
Rhetoric questions test passage organization and topic instead of grammar. You can often identify these questions by the big square box that encloses the question number. Anytime you see one of these boxes coming up, circle it. Pay extra attention to the meaning of what you’re reading as the box nears, since the question will in some way address the meaning or organization of what you’re reading.
The three major types of rhetoric questions deal with inserting or deleting sentences, sentence or paragraph order, and a passage’s main purpose or topic.
For questions that ask if you should insert or delete a sentence, pay extra close attention to the question itself. Underline any key words in the question. Often the question will ask what sentence would best accomplish something in particular. Let the details of the question guide you to the correct answer: make sure that the answer you choose accomplishes exactly what the question is asking it to do.
If the question simply asks whether or not a sentence should be added or deleted from the passage, ask yourself if that sentence contributes to the topic at hand in that particular paragraph. If a sentence is off-topic, it should not be included in the paragraph. Many of these questions present two “yes it should be included because…” and two “no it should not be included because…” answer choices. Before considering the choices, first decide if the sentence should be included. If it should be included, cross out the two “no” answers, and if not vice-versa. Then consider the reason. Try to put the reason in your own words before looking at the reasons given in the answer choices. This will help you avoid falling for a trap answer.
Some questions will ask which sentence is best to use at a particular point in the passage. The correct answer should form a logical and smooth transition between the sentence that comes before it and the sentence that follows it, so make sure to read around where the sentence will be inserted.
Other questions ask what would be primarily lost if a sentence were removed. Reread the sentence in the context of the paragraph as a whole. What does this sentence add to the paragraph that none of the other sentences add? This will be the correct answer.
The second major type of rhetoric question concerns sentence or paragraph order. A sentence or paragraph will often be presented out-of-order, and it will be up to you to determine where in the passage it should go. Again, ask yourself what that sentence or paragraph adds to the passage that no other sentence or paragraph adds. Then look back at the surrounding sentences or paragraphs to see where it would make the most logical sense to introduce this information. You want to introduce general information before other sentences or paragraphs that discuss it in detail, but you want detailed information to follow other sentences or paragraphs that introduce it in a general way.
The final major type of rhetoric question asks about the main point or topic of the passage. These questions always come at the very end of the passage. Try to put the writer’s main idea or topic in your own words. Then look at the question, which is usually worded “suppose the writer’s goal had been x…did she accomplish it?” If the goal matches the writer’s main point, only consider the yes answers, and if not only consider the no answers. Once again, try to put the entire answer in your own words before looking at the choices. How did the author succeed in addressing this topic, or why did the author fail to do so?
To determine the main point or topic of the passage, ask yourself what every paragraph in the passage is in the service of saying. All paragraphs should be unified by one central idea or message. This central idea is usually stated explicitly in the first and last paragraph of the essay. Pay special attention to the final sentences of the last paragraph. Another helpful place to look for the main idea or topic is the essay’s title. If the essay is called “Why Hockey Is The Greatest Sport Ever,” that’s a pretty strong tip-off that the essay is going to be primarily about why hockey is the greatest sport ever. Learning to read for the main idea can also help you on the reading section of the exam.
Now that you’re armed with these strategies, tackle some practice English sections to get comfortable using them. As long as you make sure to learn from your mistakes and review them, your grasp of the English section should improve with practice.