Page 2 English Study Guide for the ACT

Rhetorical Skills

A good writer utilizes much more than rules of grammar and sentence structure to get the message across. The overall impact of an entire paper can be influenced by the writer’s strategies, organization, and style.


Whether you are writing or evaluating the writing of others, strategy is important to keep in mind. Consider the overall purpose of the piece and ask these questions:

  • Is the entire piece appropriate for its intended audience and purpose?
  • What can be added, deleted, or revised to make the writing more effective?
  • Did the author stick to only statements that are relevant to the topic and position?


The organization questions in the ACT English section measure your knowledge of paragraph and essay structure. Every paragraph written should contain an opening sentence, a main idea, and a closing sentence. You should be able to identify these elements within a single paragraph or larger work. Proper organization techniques also help you edit and identify sentences or paragraphs that need to be altered or deleted entirely. The ACT test may require you to select one sentence out of four that should be deleted from a passage, or it may offer you four variations of a single sentence and ask you to select the sentence that best fits the tone of a piece.

To study for this portion of the test, start out by identifying the basic definitions of paragraph and paper structure. The following definitions can help assist you in accurately and effectively constructing and deconstructing paragraphs.

  • Thesis ― This is the main purpose or argument of a written work, typically identified toward the end of the opening paragraph.
  • Introduction ― The introduction is the paragraph (or paragraphs) used to introduce the reader to the topic of an essay.
  • Body Paragraph(s) ― This is the paragraph (or paragraphs) found between the introduction and conclusion of a piece of writing and is/are used to flesh out the thesis, providing supporting details. The order in which ideas are presented and how they flow, from one to another, affects the impact of the writing.
  • Conclusion ― Found at the end of an essay, the conclusion is used to summarize the body paragraphs and restate the thesis, providing a nice, clean finish and reminding the reader of all the points touched on within the body of the paper.
  • Topic Sentences – Topic sentences essentially function as the thesis of each individual paragraph and help maintain consistency and organization within a longer piece of writing. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence to identify the direction and purpose of that paragraph.
  • Supporting details – Supporting details come after the topic sentence and serve to support whatever assertion is made in the topic sentence (or thesis).

All of these elements are fairly simple and straightforward and it is essential to include each of these components in your work. It is also necessary to be able to identify and use them when reviewing the work of others, as you will do on the ACT English test. To practice, use each concept when you write and work to identify each concept as you read essays, textbooks, or even magazine articles.

Cohesion and Unity

These two terms are present in ACT test score reports issued in September 2016 or later, so it is important to understand them. Don’t think of them as additional skills to learn, but things that will happen if you strive for the other competencies listed in this guide.

The cohesion of a piece of writing depends on how well the parts of the piece “go together.” Does the writer connect paragraphs and sentences, so that there is a meaningful flow of thought? Or does the writing seem “all over the place” and is it, thus, hard to follow? Cohesion also refers to grammatical practices within sentences and paragraphs.

Unity in a piece of writing refers to the degree in which the writer uses each paragraph to establish one premise and puts these paragraphs together to further the entire message. Each sentence in a paragraph should speak to the purpose and topic of that paragraph. Every paragraph needs to contribute to the overall point of the piece.


The style questions in the ACT English section evaluate your ability to identify and produce a consistent tone or style within a single paper or piece. Errors in style may be obvious, such as switching from second to third person point of view in the middle of a passage. However, some questions of style may be subtle, requiring you to alter a passage to maintain a consistently informative or persuasive tone.

More specific style questions involve appropriate word choice for the style and tone of the passage. You may also be asked to identify redundant information or wordiness. Minor details like these can weaken any piece of writing and it will be your job on this test to find them and choose the best form of correction.

To have a solid basis for style evaluation, you should be able to identify different styles and tones within written work. There are several different terms used to describe tone and style, a handful of them identified below. Although the list is by no means exhaustive, familiarizing yourself with these concepts not only helps to improve your writing, but also to adequately prepare you for the ACT English test.

  • First-person point of view ― First person point of view is the point of view written using “I” and “we.” In a narrative, this means that the narrator is limited to expressing the thoughts of a single person.
  • Second-person point of view ― Like first person, second-person point of view is quite limited. This point of view speaks directly to the audience, using “you” rather than “I.”
  • Third-person point of view ― Third person is the point of view used to express the thoughts and actions of a wide range of people, rather than being limited to a single narrator. This point of view is arguably the most popular of the three types and is found in novels such as Harry Potter.
  • Persuasive essay ― A persuasive essay is used to prove a point to your reader and essentially convince them to conform to your way of thinking.
  • Argumentative essay ― An argumentative essay differs from a persuasive essay in that it does not merely present one single side of an argument, but instead identifies potential opposing viewpoints, and then proceeds to identify the flaws in these arguments. It is intended to be persuasive, but is far more aggressive in its approach.
  • Narrative essay ― A narrative essay is an essay used solely for the purpose of telling a story. These stories are typically true and provide insight into the life or thoughts of the author.
  • Expository essay ― An expository essay, as the name suggests, aims to provide a balanced and unbiased essay, delineating a thing or a process using facts and figures.
  • Descriptive essay – A descriptive essay is an essay where an author essentially paints a picture in essay format. The author may be describing an event, or a person, place, or thing. Whatever the case, descriptive essays are filled with descriptive language, rather than dry or purely informative language.

When studying style concepts for the ACT test, simply read a few well-written works and some poorly written work (amateur fiction posted online could assist in this pursuit). Compare the two and determine what elements are present in the well-written work.