If you’ve taken the ACT English section before and are planning to take it again, you’re likely looking for ACT English strategies that will show you how to improve your ACT English score. The ACT English tips in this article are designed to give you the maximum strategic advantage.
The ACT English test is usually the section on which students score the highest. In large part, this is because the vast majority of high school students who take the ACT are fluent in English. Since many of the concepts tested on the ACT English section are already familiar, it’s sometimes possible to choose the right answers simply because they “feel” correct.
In some ways, then, the ACT English test seems like the easiest section on the ACT. And if you’re aiming for a middling score, it probably is. But if you’re trying to get a top score on the ACT English section, it may actually be the hardest. Why? Well, because the average scores for this section are higher than for other sections, you need to score even higher to stand out from the pack. In fact, to score a perfect 36 on the ACT English test, you need to answer all 75 questions correctly; there is no room for error.
By now, you’re probably wondering: “If it’s so hard, how can I improve my ACT English score?” That’s where our ACT English strategies come in! Luckily, the steps to ACT English mastery are straightforward.
This article is designed to help you study strategically for the ACT English test. If you’re looking for more general ACT study advice, you might like our article How to Improve Your ACT Score. Looking for winning strategies for the other ACT sections? Check out all of the articles in our series of ACT strategy guides:
1. Learn What Content is Covered on the ACT English Test
The first of our ACT English strategies is to learn what is on the English section of the ACT. The ACT English test is a 75-question, 45-minute test that consists of five passages, each followed by 15 related multiple-choice questions. You won’t be asked questions that directly test your comprehension of the material in each passage; instead, your task is closer to that of an editor.
Some questions will ask you to correct grammar and usage errors: they will refer to underlined portions of the passage and offer several alternatives, from which you must choose the most appropriate option. Other questions will ask you more broadly about the function or placement of an underlined portion, a section of the passage, or the passage as a whole.
Although the official ACT English breakdown has three areas, the skills you will need to master really split into just two categories, Grammar (officially, “Conventions of Standard English”) and Rhetoric (officially, “Production of Writing” and “Knowledge of Language”). Although there are more grammar skills to master, the material on the ACT English section is split fairly evenly, with grammar making up only slightly over 50% of the content.
Below, we outline the different Grammar and Rhetoric skills with which you will need to become familiar. For the sake of keeping this strategy review succinct, however, we do not cover specifics of each skill. If you need to review your ACT Grammar rules and Rhetoric skills, check out our guide to ACT Grammar Practice.
There are 9 grammar skill areas tested on the ACT English section, but remember: not all skills are tested equally! For convenience, the list of grammar skills below is organized by the average frequency (from high to low) in which they appear on ACT English tests.
- Punctuation Usage (commas, apostrophes, dashes, colons, and semicolons)
- Run-On Sentences & Sentence Fragments
- Idioms & Word Choice
- Verb Tenses and Conjugations
- Pronoun Usage
- Subject/Verb Agreement & Pronoun Number Agreement
- Modifier Agreement & Placement
- Comparison & Description
As you’re studying these grammar skills, keep in mind that the formal rules of written English are often different from colloquial spoken English. When you’re talking to your friends, you can usually get away with a pronoun error or faulty modifier, but on the ACT, you need to know and follow proper grammar rules.
Although students tend to think of grammar when preparing for the ACT English test, it’s important not to neglect studying rhetorical skills, as they comprise just under half of the tested material. There are 5 rhetoric skill areas tested on the ACT English section, listed by the average frequency (from high to low) in which they appear on ACT English tests.
- Transitional Logic (how different ideas connect)
- Relevance & Wordiness
- Macro Logic (how sentences and paragraphs connect)
- Author’s Intention
- Formality & Tone
Rhetoric questions can initially be confusing because they usually are not asking you to fix a specific error. Instead, they may ask you to consider how word choice and writing style affect a piece of writing, or how adding (or deleting) words, phrases, or entire sentences could improve a specific passage. But with practice, you can learn the best ways to approach them!
2. Brush Up on Specific ACT English Test Strategies
Once you’ve got a good grasp of the content, it’s time to focus on a handful of ACT English strategies designed to help you with the actual process of taking the ACT English test. Remember, taking a standardized test like the ACT is a skill, and as with all skills, practice makes perfect. These ACT English strategies will help maximize your chances of success.
Look for Guideposts
The ACT English section is a fast-paced test; you don’t want to lose too much time reading! Be strategic: pay attention to the underlined portions of each passage, since the questions will mostly focus on those. If further context is necessary to answer the question, carefully read the sentences immediately before and after each underlined portion. Some questions will ask you about the passage as a whole; make sure you save these questions until you have read through the entire passage.
Let the Answers Help You
Another ACT English strategy is to use the answers to guide your thinking. Often, the answer choices will “telegraph” what kind of error(s) you should be on the lookout for. For instance, in the following question (taken from the free 2018-2019 practice ACT test), the answer choices are variants of the same clause with different comma placement. To answer this question, then, all we need is knowledge of proper comma usage rules.
Choose Short and Sweet
If you can’t figure out the right answer and are trying to make an educated guess, remember: often, the most concise answer is the correct one. If you’re struggling to choose between a wordy answer and a succinct one, go for the latter. (This ACT English strategy is generally most useful on Rhetoric questions.)
For example, if you were faced with the following question (taken from the free 2015-2016 ACT Practice Test), you would notice that all the answer choices communicate very similar ideas. It’s a good idea, then, to choose the shortest answer choice that doesn’t have any problems.
In this case, the shortest answer is J; since it is grammatically correct, and is not missing any important information, it is the correct answer. (If it were incomplete or had a grammatical error, you would move to the next-shortest choice.)
Remember that “No Change” is Tricky, but Not Always a Trick
The first answer to many of the questions on the ACT English test is “No Change.” It’s not always a trick—sometimes, there really is no error in the underlined portion. All things being equal, “No Change” is the correct answer about 25% of the time, so you should expect to choose it for at least some of the answers.
Be careful, though: if the “No Change” answer sounds like something you might say in colloquial (casual spoken) English, make sure that it still follows all of the formal rules of written English before you choose it. If it doesn’t, you’ll know you need to pick a different answer choice. Remember, you can get away with breaking a lot of rules when speaking, but on the ACT, you have to follow all of the rules all of the time!
Bonus Tip: Learn Typical Tricks used in the ACT English Test Questions
In order to be a competitive test, the ACT purposefully asks some questions in confusing ways. For example, look at the question below (also taken from an official 2018-2019 ACT practice test):
At first glance, you might be tempted to choose “NO CHANGE,” since “these sculptures” is a plural subject, and “are” is a plural verb form. But a closer reading shows that “these sculptures” is actually there to trick us—the real subject of this sentence is “The creator,” which would need a singular verb form, not a plural. (Answer C is thus the correct choice.)
Luckily, the ACT tends to use the same strategies to try to confuse students, so once you’re familiar with them, they’re easier to spot. If you tend to be stumped by questions like this and you’re wondering how to improve your ACT English score, the best way to get comfortable with these kinds of questions is to take a practice ACT English section, like the ones found on this free 2020 ACT practice test.
Looking for test-taking strategies beyond the ACT English section? Check out our full guide to ACT Test Strategies.
3. Practice Strategically
We can’t stress this one enough: Practice, Practice, Practice! The more time you spend working through practice tests and questions, the more likely you are to get an outstanding score on the ACT English test.
We recommend the following 4-step plan to gain the maximum strategic advantage.
1. Take a full practice ACT English test
After you’ve spent some significant time learning the Grammar and Rhetoric content and studying ACT English strategies, take a practice ACT English section, like one of the two below:
We recommend trying to imitate real-life testing conditions. Clear your workspace of everything except your testing materials. Set a timer for 45 minutes, and work through as much of the test as you can; stop when the time’s up, even if you’re not done. As you’re taking the test, put a star next to any questions you guess on. When the timer goes off, stop and circle every question you didn’t have time to answer.
2. Grade your practice test and read the answer explanations
Mark each question “right” or “wrong.” For each “wrong” answer, make a note as to why you missed it (didn’t understand the content, didn’t understand the question, or ran out of time). Also make a note of how often your starred guesses were right or wrong.
For each question (even the ones you got right), read over the answer explanations. Go over each possible answer choice and learn why it is right or wrong. You will, of course, want to pay special attention to the questions you missed to better understand how you went wrong. Use the links below to access the answer explanations to previously published practice ACT English tests
3. Analyze the data
Now, use your grading notes to draw conclusions about what you need to work on. One of the great features of Piqosity’s ACT Answer Explanations is that every question is categorized based on its content. Look over the questions you missed to see if there are any patterns. For instance, if you missed most of the questions that had to do with Idioms, you know that you need to spend time studying that content area.
If you scored very well on every question you answered, but didn’t have time to finish, you’ll know that what you need to work on most is increasing your test-taking speed.
4. Target your weaknesses
Now that you know your weak spots, spend a majority of your study time focusing on those areas. This is where Piqosity’s 70+ content lessons and personalized practice options really come in handy—you can create practice tests which specifically target the areas where you most need improvement.
Of course, you want to make sure not to lose ground in your strongest subject areas. One helpful strategy is to divide your time more equally the closer you get to the test day. If, for instance, you had a month of prep time, you might spend the first week working exclusively on practice questions targeting your weakest content areas. In the second week you would continue working mostly in those areas, but by the end of the month you would spend equal time preparing for all of the content areas. (You might even take another full practice ACT English test.)
Curious about the effectiveness of ACT prep? Read Piqosity’s deep-dive article: Does ACT Prep Work?
Test Practice with Piqosity: The Ultimate in ACT English Strategies
Now that you know how to improve your ACT English score, it’s time to get studying! Piqosity offers a wide range of ACT prep materials, perfect for both tutored and self-guided ACT practice:
- 10 full-length ACT Practice tests
- Over 70 concept lessons, including tutorial videos
- Real-time Score prediction (both Composite and for each Subject)
- Interactive interface allowing teachers, tutors, or parents to assign and track student work
- …And much more!
New to Piqosity? Piqosity provides personalized practice test questions that help you address and improve upon your weaker test subject areas. Our software is engineered to help students study smarter, not harder. Whether you’re a student figuring out how to improve your ACT score, a teacher with multiple students wishing to give their scores a boost, or a tutoring company in need of a test prep LMS that really works, Piqosity has you covered with quality, affordable test prep materials.
The best part? Piqosity for the ACT is entirely free during the pandemic and is also typically available to try for free with our 7-day trial. Sign up today!
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