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Test Prep 101: Guide to the ACT English Section

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

ACT English Section GuideHere’s What Students Need to Know About the ACT English Section

By IvyWise Master Tutor

Are you preparing for the ACT this summer? Understanding the exam’s content, format, and strategies to maximize your performance on test day is important in order to make the most of your test prep and, in the end, reach your goal score.

In my previous series I broke down each section of the SAT, including what to expect and what students can do to improve their performance on each of those sections. I will now do the same with the ACT, starting with the ACT English section.


The ACT English section layout has been innovative and influential in how the section tests for grammar, usage, and rhetorical skills, designed to imitate the sort of reading, writing, and revision work that students would be familiar with from school. The most distinctive aspect of the ACT English section is its two column flowing design, with the reading passage on the left and questions on the right. The following is an excerpt from a previously administered ACT test:

ACT English 1.png

The passage moves from top to bottom on the left and the questions on the right, with both sentences and corresponding questions aligned horizontally. The English section’s two-column format allows for a wide range of test questions such as punctuation, subject-verb agreement, word usage, idioms, redundancy, concision, or conventional style.

Timing and Questions

The English section’s two-column format can be a big help for many students, as it does mimic the sort of revision and composition skills honed in school. However, it can also be a source of anxiety for many test-takers because the section is composed of 75 questions in 45 minutes. Time is in very short supply, so it is all the more important that a student knows exactly what different sort of questions to expect, to be well used to reading them, and to have had enough practice with the questions in order to rely on one’s own ‘ear’ to notice aberrations or possible problems with a phrase or sentence as it exists in a given paragraph. The following is a typical breakdown of an English section’s 75 questions:  

English Content

Number of questions





     Misc. Grammar/Usage topics


     Sentence Structure


Rhetorical Skills


     Sentence/Paragraph Strategy


     Passage Organization




One key aspect of the English section that emerges very quickly is the heavy emphasis given topics that are not strictly grammatical; this is intentional on the part of the ACT, as the test is designed to test a student’s composition skills, not whether a student has memorized basic grammar rules. Questions that fall under ‘rhetorical skills’ are a vital part of doing well in the section; these questions can ask how well a certain sentence develops a topic in relation to the essay’s audience and purpose, or asks whether the essay’s author should add, revise, or delete a given sentence to fit in with the rest of the passage of paragraph.

It’s important to understand every question on the English section through the lens of context: does this sentence fit in context with the paragraph? Does this verb fit in context with the subject of the sentence? Does a sentence fit in with the logical order of the argument in a given paragraph? This is motivated in part by what has been a generational shift in how writing and composition is taught in grade school, and in order for the ACT to make the case that a student’s performance in the English section will correlate to his or her reading and composition work in university.


The ACT English layout has also been influential in shaping the direction that the SAT has taken its redesigned Writing section. I’ve provided a flow chart below that highlights the way in which the SAT Writing section has evolved over time:

ACT English 2.png

What an uncanny resemblance to the ACT’s English section!

Students deciding between or preparing for both the SAT and ACT test should be aware of the fresh and intentioned similarities between the SAT’s Writing and the ACT’s English section. Both tests ask that the student stand in as the editor of a given passage, and evaluate the relations between sentences and paragraphs. Context-based judgment is the most essential skill for both the ACT English and SAT Writing section.

Students preparing for the ACT should take time to fully understand each of the test’s sections, content, and what they will need to do in order to improve upon their current scores. At IvyWise, our team of expert tutors works to fully evaluate students’ skills and points of weakness in order to develop a test prep plan that will help them reach their academic and score goals. For more information on our tutoring and test prep services, contact us today.


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