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The ACT English Test: What You Need to Know

What Will It Look Like?

The English portion of the ACT assesses your understanding of standard English language conventions (sentence structure, punctuation, and usage), elements of writing (developing a topic, organization, unity, and cohesion), and language (word choice, tone, and style). You have 45 minutes to complete all 75 multiple-choice questions. The test contains a series of five passages, each with its own set of questions that may ask you to refer to a particular underlined portion of the text, a larger chunk of the text, or the text as a whole.

What Will I Have to Do?

Using your finely honed English skills, you will need to determine the best answer for each question. Many of the questions offer “NO CHANGE” as an answer option, so if you cannot discern a change that needs to be made, it is possible the text was written correctly to start with. Use your best educated guess and process of elimination to answer all questions, even if you’re not sure of the answer. Be sure to carefully read each answer option—you don’t want to select an answer option that corrects one error but causes another one. Try substituting your answer option for the text that is there and “put it to the test.” If it works, it’s probably the right answer. If not, eliminate it and try again.

Be mindful of the topic and style of each passage before you attempt to answer questions about it. If a question asks you about a specific, underlined portion of the passage, look not only at what is underlined but also at the context around it. It is important to at least skim through each passage as a whole (so that you know the “big picture”) and not just focus on the underlined portion(s) of text. Remember that not all questions ask you about small portions, but may ask you to address a rhetorical situation in a larger portion of the text or in the text as a whole.

Three categories of content are covered in the English questions:

  • Production of Writing (29%–32% of the test): These questions assess your understanding of topic development and the purpose of different parts of the text, as well as your ability to evaluate the relevance of material to the text as a whole. They also test your understanding of effective organization, unity, and cohesion.

  • Knowledge of Language (13%–19% of the test): Questions about word choice and consistency in style and tone address your ability to effectively use language in a precise and concise way and apply that knowledge to edit a text.

  • Conventions of Standard English (51%–56% of the test): Measuring your ability to apply standard conventions of English, these questions focus on sentence structure and formation, punctuation, and usage to ensure clarity and improve the overall writing. Note: these make up the bulk of the test!

The test does not include questions about spelling, vocabulary, or recall of specific grammar rules (though you may need to apply grammar rules to portions of the text identified for you).

How Is It Scored?

ACT scores are delivered with a lot of information. You will, of course, receive a “Composite Score,” which is the average of the four multiple-choice test sections (Math, Science, English, and Reading). The Writing score (reported as between 2 and 12) is not included in the Composite Score because that test is optional. For each of these section scores, the total number of your correct answers has been translated into a score between 1 and 36. The test results also include a comparison of your scores for each test section and your Composite Score with those of test-takers across the nation and within your state so you can see how your scores compare to those of other students.

Your English score will contribute to your overall ELA (English Language Arts) score if you took the optional Writing test. But if you did not take the Writing test, you will not have an ELA score (it’s made up of your scores from the English test, Reading test, and Writing test).

In addition, you will find details of your performance in each section, including English. The English test score is further broken down into the content categories assessed: Production of Writing, Knowledge of Language, and Conventions of Standard English and you will have a score for each. The number of correct answers out of total possible is followed by the percentage and then the ACT Readiness Range, which can be a predictor of first-year college success. If your scores show that you are below the benchmark, then that suggests an area of deficiency that you should address before retaking the ACT and before taking any placement tests for college courses.

Why Does It Matter?

The ACT English test matters because it assesses your English skills and your ability to improve writing to make it more clear and concise. Regardless of your plans for life after high school, effective communication is a critical skill. Your ACT scores indicate your skill level and may affect the classes in which you are eligible to enroll if you are headed to college. Some colleges require a “cut-off score” to register for certain courses. If you fall below that score, you may have to take lower-level or remedial courses to build your skills. So before that happens, consider doing some further review and preparation and retaking the ACT so that you can boost your scores and be eligible to register for appropriate-level first-year courses. The detailed results included in your score report can help you determine the areas of weakness you should target. You may be able to enroll in a support class at your high school or do some preparation on your own for an ACT retake.

The English portion of the ACT can be challenging, especially if you don’t find that remembering the “rules” of English to be easy. Trust your common sense and what sounds right in the context of each question. Read carefully, pace yourself, and answer all questions. To boost your confidence, do some practice questions ahead of time. Union Test Prep offers practice questions, flashcards, and study guides to help you prepare for the types of questions you will encounter on the ACT and can help you build your confidence before you take the test.

ACT English Test

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