Language: Levels E, M, D, and A Study Guide for the TABE Test

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General Information

The TABE test levels are L, E, M, D, and A, in that order of difficulty. The letter designations (of L, E, M, D, and/or A) in this study guide indicate at which TABE test level the skills are specifically assessed. Note that skills from previous levels may also show up at higher levels. This means that you should be sure you are fluent in all skills labeled at your testing level or below. For example, if you are studying for test level A, be sure you understand and can use all skills from levels L, E, M, and D, as well.

Initially, you will take a **locator ** test to determine your appropriate TABE test level in Language. This short test will only take about 20 minutes.

After the locator test, no matter which TABE level you take, you will have 55 minutes to complete the TABE Language test.

(The Level L Language Test is read out loud to students.)

Some skills on the Language test may seem to overlap with reading skills, and they do. You use many of the same skills to read as you do to write and speak, which is what this test is all about: production of language. How well can you put words and sentences together correctly?

Conventions of Standard English (L, E, M, D, A)

Percentage of Test Level Specifically Assessing These Skills (— = Assumed)

66% 48% 44% 44% 52%

The requirements for this aspect of language are about the same for all test levels. Of course, the higher the test level, the more you will need to know about more complicated situations in language.


The term grammar refers to the structure or organization of language to create meaning. There are certain rules of grammar that you may be familiar with, such as starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending it with appropriate punctuation, putting adjectives in front of the nouns they are describing, or knowing when to use an apostrophe. English has a lot of grammar rules and a lot of exceptions to those rules. Here are some elements of grammar with which you should be familiar before the test.

Complete Sentences

A complete sentence must begin with a capital letter and close with an end mark. The sentence must contain a subject and a verb while expressing a complete thought.

The earthquake shook the entire neighborhood. (correct)
the earthquake shook the entire neighborhood (incorrect: no capital letter or end mark)

William trained his children to respond properly to earthquakes. (correct)
Training the children to respond to earthquakes. (incorrect: no subject to match with the verb “training” and it does not express a complete thought)

Subject-Verb Agreement

You know that a complete sentence must contain both a subject and a verb. This subject and verb must also agree. The simplest way to look at agreement between a subject and a verb is this: a singular subject must have a singular verb. Likewise, a plural subject must have a plural verb.

The toddler always hits his brother.
The toddlers always hit one another.

It gets a bit more confusing in cases where multiple people or items act as one subject.

The class walks to lunch at noon each day. (correct)
The class walk to lunch at noon each day. (incorrect)

Because a class is made up of multiple people, it can be tempting to treat the word as a plural subject and use a plural verb. However, the verb class is referring to a unit of people, and thus is a singular subject requiring a singular verb.

Use a singular verb when two singular subjects are separated by either/or or neither/nor.
Use a plural verb when two singular subjects are separated by and.

Neither John nor Mary is attending the banquet.
John and Mary are attending the banquet.

Be sure to research special or confusing cases of subject-verb agreement and study the reasons for choosing a singular or plural verb.

Verb Forms/Tense

Verb forms and tenses can seem confusing or daunting, but remembering the basics can go a long way in your writing.

In English, there are six verb tenses, three of them being simple tenses and three of them being perfect tenses. Here is a guide using the verb to dance:

  • Present: dance
  • Past: danced
  • Future: will dance
  • Present Perfect: have danced
  • Past Perfect: had danced
  • Future Perfect: will have danced

These verbs are all written in the basic form. You must also learn the progressive form, which shows that the verb, or action, is continuing. Here is how those forms look:

  • Present: am dancing
  • Past: was dancing
  • Future: will be dancing
  • Present Perfect: have been dancing
  • Past Perfect: had been dancing
  • Future Perfect: will have been dancing

There are many irregular verbs of which you need to be wary because they do not exactly follow these forms. Complete lists can be found online, but one of the most common irregular verbs is the verb to be.

There are five verb forms to be aware of in English grammar: base, third-person singular, present participle, past, and past participle.

  • Base: this is basically the root word. The base of the verb to dance is simply dance.

  • Third-person singular: this is usually just the base form + an s or an es. The third-person singular of to dance is dances. Irregular verbs will not follow this pattern, and care must be taken to review irregular verbs in this form, particularly the verb to be.

  • Present participle: this form is the base form + ing. The present participle of to dance is dancing.

  • Past: the base form + ed. The past form of to dance is danced.

  • Past participle: this form goes with has or have. In regular verbs, this means adding an ed to the base, just as in past form. In irregular verbs, however, the change can vary. For example, look at the irregular verb to swim. In past form, it would read swam, but in past participle it would be (have) swum. When in doubt, look it up!

You can see that you need to be sure to review a list of irregular verbs as these cause the most confusion in verb tenses and verb forms.

Parallel Structure

Parallel structure basically means making all grammatical “units” equal. When writing a list of things (usually items or actions), you want each part to follow the same pattern. When listed items follow the same grammatical path, then you have parallel structure. Here is an example:

In the morning, after camping all night, we folded the tent, soaked the fire, and were packing the cooler before driving back to town.” (non-parallel structure)

In the morning, after camping all night, we folded the tent, soaked the fire, and packed the cooler before driving back to town. (parallel structure)

In the first sentence, folded and soaked are actions written in the basic past tense, but were packing is an action in the progressive past tense. This makes the sentence non-parallel because all three actions don’t follow the same pattern. In the second sentence, the third action is changed to packed, which is simple past tense and follows the pattern of the first two. This gives the sentence parallel structure.


Grammar is the general term for language structure and how to put language parts together, but usage refers to the way words and phrases themselves are used in speaking and writing. Selecting the proper word or phrase to use in a sentence ensures the sentence makes sense and conveys the message the speaker or writer intended. Using the wrong word can cause confusion or misunderstanding.

Use of Similar Words

The English language has many words that cause confusion for writers. These words have similar spellings or sounds, yet mean completely different things. Using the wrong word in your writing can drastically alter the meaning of your sentences. It can lead to confusion on the part of the reader, as well as mistakes in grammar. Here are some examples:

The party guests ate they’re cake in silence after the host threw a fit. (incorrect)
The party guests ate there cake in silence after the host threw a fit. (incorrect)
The party guests ate their cake in silence after the host threw a fit. (correct)

Although they’re, there, and their sound the same, they all mean something quite different.

they’re: a contraction of they are
there: usually represents a place (It’s over there!) or shows that something exists (There are kids all over this mall!)
their: indicates possession (in the above example, the guests possessed the cake)

Dozens of other words like these can trip you up when you are writing. Review online lists of commonly confused words to differentiate between them.

Clarity in Sentences

It is very important to make your sentences clear, concise, and logically ordered.

When too many unnecessary words are added to a passage, it merely dilutes the main point of communication. It can also make the writing sound awkward. As a general rule, it is always best to say what you want to say in as few words as possible. Check out these examples:

Jenny offered to babysit her cousins because, after moving all week and working full time, her aunt and uncle were just plain tired and needed a rest.

This sentence is wordy and awkward. It should be rewritten in a more concise manner, like this:

Her aunt and uncle were tired after moving and working, so Jenny offered to babysit her cousins.

See how the second sentence communicates the same information without being redundant or awkward?

Less is more when it comes to clarity in sentences. Here’s another example:

Max, after grabbing his keys and turning off the lights, locked his door and walked to the subway so he could ride to work.

Rewritten in a more concise manner, the sentence could be changed to:

Max walked to the subway and rode it to work.

Correctly ordering the words in a sentence can also help to bring clarity. In general, it is best to use this order when writing a simple sentence: subject, verb, direct object. Like this:

Tom ate the cake.

Tom is the subject, ate is the verb, and the cake is the direct object. This is the correct order of the words. This is the incorrect way to do it:

Ate the cake Tom did.

More complicated sentences, those with indirect objects, adverbs, etc., also have a correct order to follow. Make sure to research these types of sentences and familiarize yourself with the proper ordering of words.


Grammar is the organization of language parts into a cohesive whole. One of those language parts is clauses. Clauses are a unit of language that can be independent or dependent.

Independent clauses are units that can stand on their own, independently, because they have a subject, a verb, and express a complete thought. They are considered complete sentences.

Janet cooked an amazing meal for her friends.
The dog ran fast.

Dependent clauses rely, or are dependent, on their connection to other units of language to create meaning. They have a subject and a verb, but they do not express a complete thought and therefore are not independent.

After the show Because we were late for school

Dependent clauses cannot be sentences on their own. They are incomplete or fragment sentences. They must be connected to an independent clause to make a complete sentence.

After the show, we walked to the bus stop. (dependent clause + independent clause)
We were in a hurry because we were late for school. (independent clause + dependent clause)


Remember that every sentence begins with a capital letter. If you are just beginning a written piece, use a capital letter. If you are in the middle of writing and you use a period (.), the letter right after it should be a capital.

I walked to the park. It was sunny. (correct)
i walked to the park. it was sunny. (incorrect)

Proper nouns should also begin with a capital letter. There are many different types of proper nouns, such as names of people, company names, holidays, historical eras, city names, etc. Complete lists of the many types of proper nouns can be found online.

Capitalize title abbreviations such as Mrs., Dr., etc. Full titles should be capitalized only if used as a proper noun:

Professor Jones was late to class.
The professor was late to class.
Hi, Professor!

Each sentence is correct. Titles like professor, doctor, and president, should be capitalized only when they are used as part of someone’s name.


Punctuation includes all those little marks we add to the words in sentences that make the sentence easier to read and understand. If these marks are misplaced, or not used at all, it can be difficult to achieve communication.

Sentence end marks

Every sentence must end with a punctuation mark. The simplest way to look at it is this:

  • If you are making a statement, end the sentence with a period (.).
  • If you are conveying excitement, loud volume, or a strong feeling, use an exclamation mark (!).
  • If you are asking a question, end with a question mark (?).

I’m a graphic designer.
“I love graphic design!
“Do you know any graphic designers?


Commas (,) are generally used to separate grammatical units and to create brief pauses in sentences. These pauses help the writer to avoid a run-on sentence and help the reader understand the text. When in doubt about whether to use a comma, try reading the sentences out loud to see if there is a natural pause. If so, a comma is more than likely necessary.

After I ran the entire marathon I took a long shower. (incorrect)
After I ran the entire marathon, I took a long shower. (correct)

When writing a sentence, use a comma and a conjunction to separate two independent clauses.

Jim put on his shoes, and he walked to the grocery store.

Commas should also be used to separate three or more items in a list. The comma before the words and or or is known as the Oxford comma.

I love dogs, cats, and rabbits.

There is some disagreement over whether or not the Oxford comma is necessary, but it is generally safe to err on the side of using it.


The apostrophe (’) is generally used in two cases: to show possession and to create a contraction.

This is John’s book.
John can’t find his book.

In the first sentence, the apostrophe shows that the book belongs to John. In the second sentence, the apostrophe shortens the word cannot into can’t.

For a singular noun, simply adding an apostrophe + s will make the word possessive.

That kid’s shoe is red.

For a plural noun ending in s, the apostrophe will go after the s.

Those kids’ shoes are red.

For plural nouns not ending in s, you should follow the same rule as with singular nouns and simply add an apostrophe + s.

The men’s camping trip is next weekend.

For singular nouns ending in s, add the apostrophe + s in most cases, especially where the extra syllable of es is pronounced.

It was Thomas’s bike.
The Jones’s house is up the street.

Semicolons and Colons

A semicolon (;) should be used to separate two independent clauses that are closely related in subject. Never use a semicolon with a conjunction (e.g., and, but, or).

The eagle soared overhead; his wingspan was magnificent to behold.

A colon (:) can be used a couple of different ways. Using a colon before a list of items basically means that examples will follow.

On the first day of school, you are required to bring several items: a pencil, a ruler, a calculator, and an eraser.

A colon can also be used to separate two independent clauses. Unlike the semicolon, you can only use a colon to separate these clauses if the second one explains or expounds upon the first.

Justice had been served: the cheating boy was expelled.


Hyphens (-) are used to link words together in a sentence and to show the reader that the words are closely related to each other. They are also added for clarity when the words would cause confusion without a hyphen. Never add spaces around a hyphen.

The low-income neighborhood was next door to the business park.
(This is correct because the words “low” and “income” are linked in this sentence.)

The nurse lost the form so he had to get a new one and re-sign.
(This is correct because without the hyphen, the word “resign” would cause confusion. Is the nurse signing the form again, or is he leaving his job?)

I love the high - end stores downtown.
(This is incorrect because you should never add spaces around a hyphen.)

There are many special rules for hyphens and there are countless lists available online. Study a few of them to become familiar with the lesser-known rules. When in doubt, look it up!


Parentheses ( ) and brackets [ ] are used to enclose words that are considered “extra” information. They may clarify what was already said, or they may just enclose another thought. Either way, if the words are inside parentheses or brackets, it means they are considered less important than the other phrases they accompany.

I need to walk my dog (he’s very energetic), but I am too tired from work.

In this sentence, the phrase in the parentheses gives extra information on the topic, but it’s not as important as the other phrases.

The words inside the parentheses are not included in the subject. Make sure that your verb-tense agreement is based on the subject outside of the parentheses.

Sarah (along with the other students) was excited for prom. (correct)
Sarah (along with the other students) were excited for prom. (incorrect)

Remember that when using parentheses, the end sentence mark should go on the inside if a complete statement was made. If the words inside the parentheses are not a complete thought, then the end mark should go on the outside of the parentheses.

The dogs were very hungry. (They were thirsty too.)
The dogs were very hungry (and thirsty).

Parentheses are far more commonly used than brackets because brackets are really intended for use within quoted materials. Brackets can be used to indicate that something about the quote has been changed or modified, to indicate acknowledgement of a misspelling or misused word in a quotation, or when the quote is interrupted by an outside source. Here are some examples of what that looks like:

Mary posted in her story, ‘I love it when [S]heila bakes!’”
(The brackets indicate that the “s” in Sheila’s name was previously not capitalized, and that it was changed from the original.)

The text read, ‘there [sic] running late but will be there in 10!’”
(The brackets acknowledge that the wrong “there” is used.)

In his famous 1962 speech, John F. Kennedy notes, “We choose to go to the Moon… and do the other things [that’s rather vague wording for a president to use!], not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
(The brackets allow the writer to interject a thought about the quoted material.)

Quotation Marks

Use quotation marks (“ ”) to state exactly what someone said. If you are summarizing what the person said, do not use quotations.

I’m very impressed with the new teacher,” said the principal. (correct)
The principal “likes the new teacher.” (incorrect)

Quotation marks can also be used around unusual words or words being used in an unusual way.

My daughter often waits too long to eat and becomes “hangry”, a term meaning you are so hungry you get angry.
After my son “cleaned” his room, I still had to make the bed and vacuum.

Note that when quotation marks are used within other quotation marks, you use the single quotation marks (‘ ’).

“The parents object to the ‘reward’ of additional work provided to their children,” reported the principal.

When using quotation marks, periods (.) and commas (,) should usually go on the inside of them.

“I hate broccoli,” the child said to his mother.

Exclamation and question marks go on the inside of the quotation marks if they are part of the sentence being quoted.

“Can I go to the circus?” asked Johnny.
What’s a “circus”?
I finally finished “Moby Dick”!


As noted earlier, usage is important for clarity of meaning. Part of usage is spelling words correctly. A misspelled word can cause confusion for the reader and can potentially change the entire meaning of a sentence. Consider these sentences:

To be sure he had room for it, Derek ate desert first.
The camel train traveled along the sandy dunes of the dessert for three days.

One s changes the word and affects the whole meaning of the sentence. In the first sentence, Derek didn’t eat a sparsely vegetated, arid land. He likely ate a piece of yummy pie or slice of cake or bowl of ice cream because dessert is a sweet treat enjoyed after a meal. Likewise, the camel train wasn’t wading through puddles of hot fudge or cookie crumbles, they were in that dry, barren landscape with sand dunes.

Spelling matters and there are a lot of commonly misspelled words out there. Use the internet to explore websites of frequently misspelled words to learn some tricks and tips to help you correctly spell some of the more commonly confusing ones.


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