Section one of every ACT is a 45-minute English section with 75 questions testing students’ knowledge of grammar and usage. This part of the test is divided into five passages of 15 questions each. The idea is that each passage represents a piece of student writing and the questions help test takers make peer review edits to the grammar, punctuation, style, and organization of the piece.
More than half of the questions test what the ACT writers call “usage and mechanics”, in other words rules of grammar. These questions often present an underlined portion of the passage and students much pick the best choice. The first answer choice is always “no error” which is correct about 20 to 25% of the time.
The remaining questions focus on what the ACT labels “rhetorical skills”, organization, style, and overall purpose. My best tip for these questions if to think of writing the way your seventh grade English teacher taught you. Each essay has a thesis statement or purpose. Each paragraph has a topic sentence that supports the overall thesis. Every example in the paragraph supports the topic sentence. For most juniors and seniors this is a very simplistic and formulaic way of writing, but if you look at the ACT English questions with this in mind, you will score better.
ACT English, unlike SAT writing, tests punctuation. You will need to be familiar with proper uses for commas, apostrophes, and semicolons. The rest of the grammar errors are similar to those found on the SAT and include: subject / verb agreement, pronouns, modifiers, adjective and adverb errors, and ambiguity errors.
Here are a few tips to earn your best score on ACT English:
- Read the entire sentence, not just the underlined portion. Sometimes the error is in the connection between the two parts.
- Compare answer choices. What changes? If the only difference in the answer choices is the placement of the commas, you know you are dealing with a punctuation question.
- Keep in mind the passages are intended to represent student writing and will not be perfect. Be ready to identify information which is out of place or irrelevant.
- Re-read your answer choice into the entire sentence before you select it. Does it fix the initial error without adding any new ones?
- When answering organization or style questions, take time to identify the author’s purpose. Why did he or she write the passage? Why is a particular example given?
ACT English passages contain easy, medium, and difficult questions. The hard questions are mixed in with everything else, so pay attention. As I mentioned in a previous article, your score depends on the number of questions you answer correctly. You may choose to answer three or four of the five passages and “letter of the day” the remaining questions. Accuracy is always key.
Next week I’ll give my top 5 tips for ACT math.