10 ACT English Strategies from the Experts

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

ACT English can be a tough section for students. It’s the first section of the ACT, and it contains 75 questions to be completed in 45 minutes.

Timing can thus be a challenge on English! Plus, this section requires outside content knowledge — students must be familiar with 13 grammar rules and various principles of effective writing.

How can you improve your ACT English score? You’ll need a firm grasp of those grammar rules and some strategies in your back pocket.

It’s extremely important to establish a strategic approach for all sections of the ACT, precisely because it is a standardized (and thus predictable) test. 

In this post, you’ll find our very best ACT English strategies to help you get closer to your target score.

We also give readers access to our grammar workbook, which gives students guided practice of the grammar rules tested on English. It’s free, and you can grab it below!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!

  1. The ACT English Section in a Nutshell
  2. 10 ACT English Strategies from the Experts
  3. Bonus: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

1) ACT English in a Nutshell

ACT English Strategies from the Experts

ACT English tests your knowledge of foundational English grammar rules and principles of effective writing.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • ACT English is the first section of the ACT
  • It’s scored on a scale of 1-36, like every other ACT section
  • There are 75 questions on ACT English, to be completed in 45 minutes, and 5 passages
  • Approximately 50% of the questions concern straight-up English grammar rules
  • The other 50% have to do with language and principles of effective writing
  • Questions appear throughout a passage, as opposed to at the end
  • Subjects of passages vary, but generally passages are less dense than Reading passages

Let’s look at the strategies you can use on ACT English to succeed!

For an even deeper dive into ACT English, check out our post Everything You Need to Know About ACT English.

2) 10 ACT English Strategies from the Experts

Strategy #1: Read the full text.

Unlike the ACT Reading test, students do not need to have an in-depth understanding of the passages in order to be successful on the English test. 

That being said, Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions will often require students to consider context and main ideas of sentences, paragraphs, or the passage as a whole. 

Check out this Production of Writing question, for example. To answer many of these questions successfully, test-takers have to have a general sense of the passage’s main idea and purpose!

sample ACT English, purpose
example ACT English question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

For this reason, skimming can be detrimental to test-takers. Read all of the words of the passage, even if they do not contain any underlined portions.

It is also a good idea to keep the big picture in mind as you work through paragraphs and passages. Save questions that ask about the passage as a whole for the end.

Strategy #2: Identify the concept the question is actually testing. 

According to ACT, the organization that writes the test, there are three types of questions on ACT English:

  • Production of Writing
  • Knowledge of Language
  • Conventions of Standard English

These categories may seem pretty broad, which is why we’ve broken these question types into the following concrete concepts they test:

Familiarizing yourself with these question types and the concept they test is a vital part of learning the “language” of this section. Identifying question types and the concepts they’re testing can also be important in terms of eliminating answers strategically.

We’ve mentioned that one key difference between Production of Writing and Conventions of English questions often has to do with whether or not there’s a question in front of the answer choices.

But what else can you do to identify question types?

Take a look at the answers. Compare them to one another – how do they differ? What’s changing between them?

Do some answer choices include a plural subject, while others make the subject possessive? If so, this could be a question about apostrophes. Do some answer choices seem much longer than others? This could be a question about concise writing.

Once students have identified the guiding principle of a given question, it becomes much easier to identify the error and correct it. 

sample ACT English, conventions
example ACT English question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

In these two example questions, the answer choices indicate that both questions are about English conventions. The first questions asks about rules for plurals and possessives with apostrophes, while the second question asks about “fewer” vs “less” and “then” vs “than.”

Strategy #3: Prove answer choices wrong.

Remember that for every English Conventions question, there will only be one answer that is grammatically correct. In addition to finding the right answer, it’s important to check every other answer and identify why that answer choice is grammatically incorrect.

If you ever feel that there are two or more grammatically correct answers, look closer!

The ACT loves to include “nearly correct” choices that appear solid at first glance, which is why it’s important to check every answer carefully. You should be able to definitively rule out all but one choice. 

The Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions can be a little trickier because more than one answer may be grammatically correct, but only one will communicate the author’s intention most clearly.

Strategy #4: Shorter is often better.

In general, if more than one answer is grammatically correct, the shortest answer will be the right one. The ACT loves to test wordiness and how to avoid it — in general, shorter is always better.

sample ACT English, concision
example ACT English question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

In this example, D is by far the shortest answer choice. That doesn’t guarantee it’s correct, but a quick scan of the other answer choices shows that it is definitely the most concise!

By extension, if there’s ever an answer choice that says “DELETE the underlined portion,” students should check this one first. It is not always correct, but it has a high likelihood of being the right answer.

Remember that the process of elimination is your best friend.

If you’re ever stuck on the Production of Writing questions, compare the answer choices to one another to see how they differ. If every piece of information included in an answer choice isn’t absolutely necessary, then you’re probably better off cutting it out. 

Strategy #5: Know your grammar rules.

Yes, you will have to know how to use a semicolon on ACT English — and other standard grammar rules. Hit the ground running for your ACT English prep by getting comfortable with the 13 grammar rules tested on this section.

With these rules, keep in mind that the ACT will test them in predictable ways. As you prep, you’ll start to notice, for example, that it will test apostrophe usage in mostly the same way from test to test. The same goes for all of the other grammar rules!

You can find all of these rules and free guided practice in our Grammar Workbook — make sure to grab your copy below!

Strategy #6: Don’t let “No Change” trip you up.

Almost every ACT English question includes an answer choice that reads “No Change.”

sample ACT English NO CHANGE, created by PrepMaven

Students are often wary of choosing this option, but in reality, it should be treated like every other answer choice.

The layout of the Writing and Language section necessitates a “No Change” option so that the passages can be read in their entirety without gaping holes. Yet the underlined information is no more or less likely to be correct than any other answer choice. 

When you’re selecting your answer, read the full underlined portion included in the text and treat it just like any other answer choice!

How does it differ from the other answers? What rule is the question testing on, and how does the original phrase match up to that rule? 

Remembering to check the original text is especially important for the Production of Writing and Knowledge of Language questions: what was originally in the passage may very well have been the shortest answer, and so don’t disregard it when you’re trying to play the “shorter is always better” card! 

Strategy #7: Prioritize easier questions.

There is no wrong answer penalty on the ACT, so as a rule, don’t leave any questions blank on the test! Make a strategic guess on difficult questions and move on.

Questions will vary in difficulty, though, and an easy question on ACT English is worth the same number of points as a difficult question! This means that you should prioritize easy questions first within individual passages.

What does an “easy” question look like on English?

It depends. Every test-taker is likely to have different strengths. In general, however, Conventions of English questions tend to be “easier” for students because they often boil down to a specific grammar rule. They also tend to take less time to answer.

If you have a knack for memorizing and applying grammar rules, these ones are for you!

One of the best ways to find out where your personal strengths lie on ACT English is to take a practice test.

Strategy #8: Plug answer choices back in to the sentence.

Once you’ve made your selection, read it back into the original sentence to ensure it fits the context.

This might seem like a superfluous step, but we like to mention it because ACT English loves leaving out crucial words or sneaking in an unsuspecting comma in answers that otherwise appear correct.

This strategy also ensures that you are double-checking your work and reading for valuable context.

Strategy #9: Specific is often better.

Many Production of Writing questions ask about an author’s intent, especially in terms of conveying certain details or ideas.

These questions can be challenging to answer, but a good rule of thumb is to zero in on the answers that are more specific. Why? Strong writing — at least from ACT’s perspective — is clear, specific, and concise.

sample ACT English, production of writing question
example ACT English question created by PrepMaven, all rights reserved

Context is very key for answering this question correctly. The question asks for a clear introduction to the research question, which is a hint that we want to search for something specific, not general. Answer B doesn’t refer to a research question, so it’s not the right answer.

However, our answer should be specific in the right way — in this case, introducing the research question that the essay explores! Answers C and D are certainly specific, but not in a way that matches the question. Answer A, on the other hand, describes an important question for which scientists don’t know the answer — in other words, the “research question” that we’re looking for!

Strategy #10: Don’t overthink Production of Writing questions.

That being said, it’s very easy to overthink Production of Writing questions, especially those that ask about the passage as a whole.

Remember that ACT English — like ACT Reading — is a very literal test, so do your best to take questions at face-value and answer them literally!

In fact, if you find yourself analyzing a Production of Writing question on ACT English from multiple angles, and going back and forth on a couple of answers, it’s a good sign that you’re overthinking. Come back to that question or guess and move on.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the correct answer on a Production of Writing question is often backed up by evidence in the text. Prove your answer right on these questions, and be careful of making assumptions.

3) Download PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

There you have it — 10 of the very best ACT English Strategies to help you succeed on this section.

You can also find all 13 grammar rules tested on the ACT, as well as guided practice, in our free Grammar Workbook — a great place to begin your prep!

Bonus Material: PrepMaven’s Grammar Workbook

  • All 13 grammar rules tested on ACT English
  • Additional guided examples for each question type
  • Practice 10+ questions per grammar concept
  • Check your performance with detailed answers and explanations

Click here to download a copy of our workbook!

Greg & Kevin

Greg and Kevin, Princeton graduates (and brothers) with over 20 years of education experience, are co-founders of PrepMaven and Princeton Tutoring. They apply research-backed problem-solving skills to the test prep and college preparation process. They also place a heavy emphasis on personal development, character, and service for successful college preparation.