The format of the ACT English is pretty weird and unusual, compared to most of your high school English tests (though the new SAT Writing is fairly similar). If you want to succeed on this section, you have to know how to approach its unique passage-based structure.
"And how," you ask, "do I do that?" Always, always, have a plan.
In this guide, I'll show you the best way to read and answer ACT english questions when you attack the passage. These strategies come from my experience working personally with nearly a hundred students. You should apply them in your own ACT English practice to help you prepare thoroughly for test day.
Why You MUST Have a Plan
The structure of the ACT English is weird. That's just a fact. It's unlike anything you'll have seen elsewhere, it has a lot of questions, and it gives you a lot more information than you actually need.
Because of its strange format, a lot of students find this section confusing. They make two main mistakes: rushing through the questions so quickly that they end up with a lot of extra time at the end and skipping between the underlined sections without looking at the context.
By far the best way to combat these issues is to have a plan of attack that you employ in the exact same way every time. Your exact approach will depend on what works for you, but any good strategy will ensure that you always read the entire sentence surrounding an underlined portion before trying to answer the question.
Consistency is key: once you pick a strategy, you should use it on every ACT English practice passage and test.
The Best Strategy for Reading the ACT English Passages
Though, as I mentioned, every student is different, there is one strategy that I recommend everyone at least tries: we'll call it the graf-by-graf strategy. For this approach, you read each paragraph, and then go back through and answer the questions in that paragraph. Simple enough, right?
This strategy is ideal because it gives you a clear sense of the passage and forces you to read full sentences before answering questions about them. It can be a little time-consuming, so if you struggle with running out of time, you may want to consider one of the alternatives listed below. But make sure to try this one first—you might be surprised!
Let's go through how the graf-by-graf approach works on an actual ACT English section:
In this example, you start by reading the first paragraph, until you reach the purple line, and then answer the questions that are marked with purple boxes. You can see how having read the entire paragraph makes answering question 26, which asks for the sentence that "most effectively introduces the information that follows," much easier.
Questions 27 and 28 are still a bit tricky since they appear in the same sentence—in these cases, make sure to look at both underlined portions and consider whether the answer to one will affect the answer to the other.
Once you've completed the two-step process for the first paragraph, you move on to the next one. Read down to the green line and then answer the question marked in green.
On a real ACT English section, you would repeat this process for each paragraph in each of the five passages.
3 Alternative Passage Strategies
Graf-by-graf is generally the best approach, but maybe you've tried and it really doesn't work for you—you're consistently running out of time or find yourself getting distracted by parts of the passage that aren't really that important.
In that case, there are three other possibilities you can try, depending on what exactly you're struggling with.
Strategy 1: Answer as You Go
In this approach, you read through the passage and when you come to an underlined passage you continue past it to the end of the sentence, and then go back to answer the question before moving forward.
This strategy is straightforward and quick, so it's great if you're running out of time with only a few questions left on the graf-by-graf approach or if you find yourself getting distracted or overwhelmed with multiple passes involved in that strategy.
However, it gives you a less thorough perspective on the context, which can make answering questions about transitions or about a paragraph as a whole more challenging. It also has the potential to fail completely if you don't implement it strictly: you must always read to the end of the sentence or you will miss questions.
Let's walk through how to use this strategy correctly.
For this strategy, you would start by reading the pink highlighted sentence and then answering question 26. However, 26 asks how best to introduce the rest of the paragraph, which makes it bit tricky.
You can either take your best guess based on your knowledge of the passage in general (for example, you can rule out G and H because the passage, and the previous paragraph, is about the narrator's relationship with Rosie, not just facts about tortoises), read a few additional sentences before answering, or skip it and come back after doing 27-29.
The next step is to read the green highlighted portion, and then answer 27 and 28. As we discussed above, when two questions appear in the same sentence, you need to pay attention to whether they affect each other—although, in this case, they don't.
The next step is to read the rest of the first paragraph (highlighted in blue), and answer 29.
Finally, read the purple sentence and answer number 30. Since this is the last question for the passage, you don't need to worry about reading the res of that paragraph.
As you can see, this strategy is more streamlined than the graf-by-graf approach. However, there's also more room for error, so if you struggle with consistency, I wouldn't recommend tackling passages this way.
Strategy 2: Sentence-by-Sentence
For the sentence-by-sentence approach, you only read the sentences that include underlined portions.
This strategy isn't ideal since you won't get as clear an understanding of the overall context, which can make answering the rhetorical skills questions harder. Also, like the answer as you go strategy, this approach can be challenging to stick to. I don't recommend using it if you are shooting for a score higher than a 25.
However, if you are running out of time by a lot using the graf-by-graf approach, whether because you get distracted by irrelevant details or because you struggle to read the full paragraphs quickly enough, this strategy may be a good option for you. Just remember that you always have to read the entire sentence.
Let's look at an example to see how this works in practice.
First, read the blue highlighted sentence. 26 is a big picture question, so like with the Answer as You Go strategy, you'll need to either make your best guess or skip it and come back. (I recommend the latter option.)
Next, look at the pink highlighted sentence and answer 27 and 28. Then, read the yellow sentence and answer 29. (This is a good point to go back to 26, since you'll now have a good sense of the paragraph it's asking about.)
Finally, read the green sentence and answer 30.
For a full ACT English section, you just follow the same pattern for all 15 questions in each passage.
Strategy 3: Passage First
The last approach is to skim the entire passage first, and then go back through using sentence-by-sentence to answer the questions.
This strategy is the most thorough, and if you find yourself missing most of the big picture questions toward the end of passages because you don't really understand the passages, it might be a good fit for you.
For most students, however, this approach is more trouble, and time, than it's worth.
(In case you're curious, the correct answers for the example questions above are as follows: 26. G, 27. D, 28. F, 29. A, 30. G)
Finding the Right Strategy for You and Employing It Effectively
We've just covered a lot of different ideas, but don't panic! I'm going to give you a step-by-step plan to figuring out the best ACT English passage approach for you and putting it into practice.
Step 1: Try Graf-by-Graf
Everyone should start by trying out the best strategy. Maybe you'll hate it or maybe you'll love it, but, either way, you need to try it and see.
Step 2: Analyze Why You're Missing Questions and Decide on the Best Approach
After you finish the practice section, got over it carefully and analyze which questions you missed and why. (For a more detailed take on how to review practice tests, check out our walkthrough of the process.) Then consider the following questions as you decide which strategy to use:
- Did you run out of time? If so, by how much?
- If you're running out of time with five or fewer questions left, try the answer-as-you-go approach.
- If you're running out of time with six or more questions left, try sentence-by-sentence.
- Do you have time left over? How much?
- If you have more than 3-4 minutes left at the end, you are probably rushing and need to slow down. Make sure you're reading the passage and the questions thoroughly.
- Did you miss a lot of the big picture questions that ask about entire paragraphs or the passage as a whole?
- Did you miss a lot of questions about sentence fragments, parallelism, or run-ons?
- Missing a lot of questions on these topics often indicates that you aren't looking at the whole sentence before answering the question. If you're struggling with the concepts themselves, check out our guides on sentence structure and parallelism. Make sure you always read to the end of the sentence before picking an answer—if you have a hard time remembering to do so with the strategy you're using, consider trying another.
Based on your answers to these questions, decide which of the four strategies is best for you, and then try it out. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries to figure out what works best.
Step 3: Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you've decided on a strategy, you have to use it every time you practice. Because the primary goal of these strategies is to ensure that you approach the passages in a methodical way, they're only effective if you use them consistently. If you're having a hard time doing so, consider trying a different approach. It may take a while to find the right strategy for you!
Need some tests to practice on? You can find five free official PDFs right here.
Maybe you've decided on your approach to the passages, but are struggling with some of the specific question types. Take a look at our overview of everything tested on the ACT English.
Not sure whether to take the ACT or SAT? Get the lowdown on the difference between the ACT English and the SAT Writing.
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Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.