The Content of the English Test
The Content of the English Test
There are actually two types of content on the English Test: the content of the passages and the content of the questions. Question content is the more important of the two.
When we say “the content of the passages,” we mean the subjects covered by the five English Test passages. The passages usually cover a variety of subjects, ranging from historical discussions to personal narratives. Don’t worry about passage content for now; it is important when answering certain Rhetorical Skills questions, which we’ll discuss toward the end of this chapter, but the grammar of the passage is generally more important.
“The content of the questions” refers to the two kinds of material covered by the English Test: Usage/Mechanics and Rhetorical Skills. The majority of this section is devoted to explaining the question content on the English Test. For now, we’ll give you a brief summary of the material.
Usage/Mechanics Questions
The 40 Usage/Mechanics questions on the test deal with the proper use of standard written English. You can think of them as the “technical” aspect of the test because they ask you to apply the rules of standard English to sections of the passages. Questions covering usage and mechanics are almost always presented as underlined sections of the passages. Usage/Mechanics questions test your understanding of the following categories:
  1. Punctuation (10 questions): Punctuation questions ask you to identify and correct any misplaced, misused, or missing punctuation marks. The punctuation marks most commonly tested on the ACT are, in order of decreasing frequency, commas, apostrophes, colons, and semicolons.
  2. Basic Grammar and Usage (12 questions): Basic Grammar and Usage questions usually target a single incorrect word that violates the conventional rules of English grammar. These questions frequently test your knowledge of agreement issues and pronoun and verb forms and cases.
  3. Sentence Structure (18 questions): Sentence Structure questions tend to deal with the sentence as a whole. They test you on clause relationships, parallelism, and placement of modifiers.
If some of these Usage/Mechanics issues sound unfamiliar or confusing to you, don’t worry—later, in the “Usage/Mechanics Questions on the English Test” chapter, we’ll review all of the material you need to know for these questions.
Rhetorical Skills Questions
The 35 Rhetorical Skills questions test your ability to refine written English. If the Usage/Mechanics questions are the technical aspect of the test, then the Rhetorical Skills questions are the intuitive aspect—but they require an intuition you can develop through practice. The boxes you encounter on the test will deal with Rhetorical Skills questions; some underlined sections may deal with Rhetorical Skills as well.
Rhetorical Skills questions break down into the following categories:
  1. Writing Strategy (12 questions): Writing Strategy questions are concerned with a passage’s effectiveness. These questions require that you understand the point, purpose, and tone of a passage. When answering these questions, you must decide the best way to support a point with evidence, to introduce and conclude paragraphs, to make a transition between paragraphs, or to phrase a statement.
  2. Organization (11 questions): Organization questions can deal with individual sentences, individual paragraphs, or the passage as a whole. They will ask you either to restructure the passage or paragraph or to decide on the best placement of a word or phrase within a sentence.
  3. Style (12 questions): Style questions focus on effective word choice. They will ask you to eliminate redundancy and to select the most appropriate word or phrase. In order to answer style questions correctly, you need to understand the tone of a passage, and you need to have a good eye for clear written English.
Because Rhetorical Skills questions require a sense of good English writing, they tend to be more difficult than Usage/Mechanics questions, which primarily require that you understand grammatical rules. This sense for good writing can be developed through review and practice. You’ll have a chance for both in the “Rhetorical Skills Questions on the English Test” chapter.
Memorization and the Content of the English Test
The ACT writers emphasize that the English Test is not a test of memorization. It would be more accurate to say that the test does not explicitly test your memorization of rules of the English language.
You will not be tested on vocabulary on the English Test (unlike on the SAT Verbal, which is largely a vocabulary memorization test), but having a decent vocabulary is important in answering style and strategy questions. The questions often ask you to choose the most effective word or phrase. If you don’t know what some of the words mean, you may not be able to make the right choice.
Technically, the test does not ask you to memorize grammar rules, but it should be obvious that doing well on the test requires that you know the conventional rules of grammar. You won’t be asked to state the definition of a gerund, but you’ll be in trouble if you can’t make your subjects and verbs agree or if you think a comma splice is something tasty in your spice rack.
Obviously, you need to understand grammatical rules for the English Test. While knowing these rules does not explicitly require memorization, most people begin to learn grammar by memorizing its rules.
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