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The Top Prep Books for ACT English

Posted by Mary Ann Barge | Aug 22, 2015 4:00:00 PM

ACT English



You’ve decided to use a book to study for ACT English, but do you know which books out there will actually help you reach your goals?

In this article, I will give you an overview of the best ACT English prep books on the market today, and which ones you should choose depending on what score you're aiming for.

These books can be found at bookstores, the library, or online. Focus on using these books with high quality practice and review, and you'll be sure to improve your English score.


Who Should Use These Books?

Books are a great way to study – but only if you are a certain kind of student.

Before you start studying or buying anything, you should take some time to consider how you study best.

Can you track your own progress and understand where you've made mistakes? Can you keep yourself motivated to study a certain amount every week? Or do you tend to need reminders for study sessions and want answers explained in different ways?

In order to make good progress studying from a book, you need to be serious about your prep and be able to motivate yourself. You will need to be able to understand brief explanations and be willing to put in the effort to find answers on your own to fill in any knowledge gaps.

You'll also need to make a serious time investment. Remember that just buying a book isn't enough – you actually have to use it! Most students will need at least ten hours of prep on just ACT English to fully master this portion of the test.

So if you're looking to invest a good deal of time and want to make a significant improvement in your ACT English score, read on to see which books can help you!


Foundational Books

There are two books that all students should have before taking the ACT. I call these books “foundational” because they're the best books on the market for practice questions and ACT strategy.

However, neither of these books is sufficient on its own for ACT English prep, which I will explain in more detail below. You should combine these two books with at least one of the other books listed, depending on what kind of score you're aiming for.


The Real ACT Prep Guide from the makers of the ACT


Price: $11.99 on Amazon

It’s very important that when you study, you're using real questions that have actually appeared on the ACT. Why? Many test prep companies have people who don’t really understand the test writing their practice questions. There's a good chance that if you only study questions written by prep companies, you won't be seeing questions that test grammar the same way that the ACT does. Furthermore, many test prep books will only give you isolated grammar questions. To get the real ACT English experience, you should be working with passage-based questions. This book provides those in abundance.

The Real ACT Prep Guide provides you with 5 full-length practice tests with answer explanations. For the English section, that’s 375 multiple choice questions to practice with.

Additionally, many of the books I'll mention below make references to the questions in this book as examples.


However, this is not a complete prep book on its own.

This book is not the best at explaining concepts or strategy, which is why you should pair it with one of the books listed below. After all, the makers of the ACT don’t want to give away all their secrets, or the test would simply become too easy!


ACT Prep Black Book by Mike Barrett.


Price: $19.79 on Amazon.

This book is critically important because it teaches you how to think about the ACT.

The Black Book takes apart the exam on a fundamental level to teach strategy. It teaches students that they can always figure out the answer without guessing. Importantly, it emphasizes that ACT English is a standardized test, and asks the same kinds of questions about the same grammar concepts over and over again. Instead of teaching tricks, this book teaches students how to think like the makers of the ACT so that they can effectively attack each question.

For the English section, this book gives good explanations for questions from The Real ACT Prep Guide and also includes a useful grammar appendix that explains basic concepts found on the test.


Unfortunately, this book is also not a complete guide on its own.

First of all, the Black Book must be used alongside The Real ACT Prep Guide because it has no practice questions of its own.

Also, many students will need more detailed grammar instruction. While this book is great for strategy, you will need to pair it with both Prep Guide and one of the books below for the full prep experience.

So what books should you use to learn all the detailed grammar you need to master ACT English? That depends on what kind of score you're hoping to get.


The Best ACT English Books for High Scorers (29 - 36)


The Complete Guide to ACT English by Erica Meltzer 


Price: $22.00 at Amazon

Meltzer is great at explaining grammar, and in this book she goes into detail on each concept that appears on ACT English. She starts at the beginning by explaining parts of speech and builds from there, so it’s good even for students who need to review the basics before mastering the complex ideas.

There are a lot of things that I like about this book and that make it a great pick.


Meltzer teaches grammar from the beginning.

This guide is extremely comprehensive. Have you forgotten the grammar you learned in English class last year? How about what you learned in 8th grade? With Meltzer, this isn’t a problem. She holds your hand through the most basic concepts if you need it, and progresses logically through every grammar concept that you will need to know for ACT English.

After introducing each grammar rule, she also gives good example sentences, in which she shows both the correct and incorrect ways to use the grammar rule. This is very helpful for students because it shows how common mistakes can be corrected.


The practice exercises are varied and useful.

At the end of every lesson, Meltzer gives ample practice “drills” to just test one or two concepts. I like these because she does them in the style of short passages, which makes them very similar to the questions that you will actually see on the ACT.

These are followed every few lessons by combined drill passages. Therefore, she covers all the bases: you get to practice each concept individually to test comprehension, but also get a lot of practice testing multiple grammar concepts at once, which will help you learn to recognize different grammar concepts out of context. This skill is vital for doing well on ACT English.

The end of the book has two very well-written tests with longer passages that are very similar to the passages that you'll see on the ACT. These are great extra practice you can use in addition to the tests in The Real ACT Prep Guide. Meltzer also gives detailed explanations for the answers to each of the questions on these tests.


It gives useful extra study tools.

Meltzer doesn’t just stop at teaching grammar. She also gives great tricks and strategies for approaching questions, and teaches students the easiest ways to find answers. For example, she points out that the answer choices will often give away a question about subject-verb agreement.

Finally, the book includes an extremely useful appendix, which breaks down the questions in The Real ACT Prep Guide by grammar concept. This is a great resource for students, who can use this as a guide for understanding what kinds of questions they are missing on the practice tests. Also, if you need extra practice on a certain grammar concept, you can use this appendix to easily find practice questions in the official tests.


Though this is a great and very thorough book, there are some ways that it could be improved.

First of all, at over $20, this book is going to be expensive for many students, especially considering that it only covers one section of the ACT.

Meltzer’s writing is very thorough, but it is also very dense and it could be difficult – or downright boring – for many students to read.

This book is definitely aimed at high scorers. Those who only need or want a mid-range score will probably find this book too detailed and may have problems figuring out what is most important to learn.


Barron’s ACT 36: Aiming for the Perfect Score by Alexander Spare et al. 


Price: $3.99 on Amazon.

This book actually covers all sections of the ACT, but it really shines in the advice it gives for ACT English.

ACT 36 assumes that you are already a high-achieving test taker and that you're shooting for a perfect score. To that end, it focuses on reviewing concepts and strategies that will help students attack the most difficult questions on ACT English.

This book takes a very different approach to Meltzer’s guide, but there is still a lot that I like about it.


It doesn't waste time teaching what you already know.

First, it gets straight to the point about what strategies are most useful to achieve a high score. The test-taking advice is great for students who have already pretty much mastered the grammar, and need to refine their strategy to get a great score.

While this book does teach some grammar concepts, it doesn’t do so in the comprehensive – and at times exhausting – way that Meltzer does. ACT 36 only discusses the difficult grammar points that students struggle with the most, such as diction errors and prepositional idioms. It also highlights important strategic tips on how to recognize different types of questions and how to approach the test, including talking about what kinds of questions you will never see.


It's easy to read.

Unlike Meltzer’s book, ACT 36 is written in a style that most students will find engaging and to-the-point.


The practice questions prepare you for the toughest test questions.

Finally, many students like this book because the practice tests are designed to be more challenging than those you will find on the real ACT (all the questions have detailed answer explanations). The practice tests just focus on the most difficult question types, whereas the normal ACT has questions that range in difficulty. If you get the book with the CD, you’ll get an additional full-length test that’s quite similar in difficulty levels of the ACT to practice with, as well as additional high-difficulty practice questions.

Once again, this can be a great benefit to students who want a perfect score and only need to practice the most difficult question types the ACT has because they have already mastered everything else.


Keep in mind, though, that this book will not be for everyone.

One problem this book has that could create a big issue for some students is it frequently encourages students to “use their ear” to see if something is correct or incorrect. In general, this is very bad advice on ACT English, because most students have poorly-trained ears for grammar. ACT 36 is assuming that you already have a very solid foundation in grammar.

Going along with this, there is very little coverage of the most frequently-tested concepts on ACT English. Because the most common grammar concepts are relatively simple ones, this book assumes you will have already mastered them. If you need help with the basics, this would be a very poor choice.

As mentioned above, the practice questions you will see will on the whole will be more difficult than what appears on the ACT. This is good for some students who only need to practice difficult questions, but it can be very bad for other students who are trying to get a general idea of what ACT English is like. This book presents a very skewed view of the question difficulty and content.

In conclusion, you should only use this book to refine your knowledge of difficult grammar concepts, not as a general guide to ACT English.



Best ACT English Book for Mid-range Scorers (16 - 28)


Barron’s ACT English, Reading, and Writing Workbook by Linda Carnevale 


Price: $11.78 on Amazon

This book is good value because it covers both the English and Reading sections of the test, and also gives good tips for the optional Writing test.

There are several reasons I think this is a solid choice for students who want a mid-range score.


A well-written diagnostic test prepares you for study.

First, it starts with a diagnostic test. You can easily create a diagnostic test on your own, but this one has pretty good questions with explanations for every answer. Using it will save you some time and will help you understand what kind of questions you are struggling with.


It explains the structure of the test.

Barron’s gives a good overview of the ACT English test, including how it is structured and formatted, and gives tips on pacing your timing per question and how to practice. This will be very helpful for students who are less familiar with the test and need a good overview before they begin to master the details of the grammar.


It clearly teaches the grammar and concepts that you need to know.

This book also gives concise explanations of the most commonly-tested grammar and punctuation concepts that will appear on ACT English. This should cover everything that you need to know for a mid-range score. Because it doesn’t focus on the more obscure and complex subjects, students will be able to focus in on the ideas they are most likely to see over and over.

It also includes a great list of concepts that you will not be tested on. While other test prep books include this, many don’t do it as clearly. This is great for students to limit their studying to just the concepts that matter.

Each grammar concept is drilled individually first, and then they are tested together with a complete English practice test. As with the Meltzer book, this means that you can see how your comprehension of individual concepts is, and then can test your ability to spot different grammar errors in the full test.

Finally, in addition to the grammar concepts, it has a good section on how to interpret author tone and mood.


But this book is not ideal for many test takers. Here is why:

You should have at least a basic understanding of grammar before using this book. It doesn’t go into a lot of background detail on things like parts of speech, so if you’re lacking fundamental grammar knowledge, you may want to work on that before using this book.

There are not a lot of practice questions, so you should use this grammar guide in conjunction with The Real ACT Prep Guide in order to get the best results.

This would be a bad choice for students who are aiming for a high score because it does not cover complex grammatical concepts. So only use this if you are aiming for something mid-range, or you may end up being disappointed.


Best ACT English Books for Low Scorers (15 and below)

If you're getting a very low score on ACT English, it may be because you're a non-native speaker of English, or are otherwise missing a fundamental understanding of how English grammar works.

It’s important to understand the basics of grammar before moving on to study the specific grammar concepts that are covered in ACT English. I recommend using a book that is not specifically aimed at the ACT to give you this kind of basic knowledge.


English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy


Price: $23.20 on Amazon 

This book gives considerable attention to different verb tenses and their uses and special constructions. It also includes lessons on trickier subjects such as “may” vs. “might," idiomatic preposition use, relative clauses, and participles. Each illustrated one-page lesson is written in easy-to-understand English, and is followed by a page of exercises. This book is praised by students who are learning English as a second language, but would be great for any student who struggles with basics such as exactly when to use which tense.


Easy Grammar Plus by Wanda C. Philips


Price: $26.99 on Amazon

This book gives a thorough overview of the parts of speech and how sentences should be structured. Where it really stands out is the extensive amount of practice exercises that are given for each concept (several pages for each). The book is written with a 4th grade vocabulary, but covers complex grammatical concepts, so it is ideal for people who find the wording of other grammar books to be difficult to understand.


How to Use These Books

Mid-range and high scorers should start out by reading the Introduction and English sections in the Black Book. (You don’t have to read through the answer explanations, though – save those for later!) This book is great for getting you in the mindset for taking a standardized test, and will also specifically teach you a lot of the tricks and logic behind the design of the ACT.

After you've started to build your test-taking strategy, move on to take a diagnostic test. You can either take one in the prep book you have chosen (if it includes one) or you can create your own.  

To do this, take a practice English test from The Real ACT Prep Guide.  Score your test, and make a note of every question you either got wrong or had to guess for. When you go through the answers, mark down what kind of question it was and what grammar concept it was testing. You can use the answer key or Meltzer’s book for this.

Focus your studying around the concepts that you missed in your practice test. Use your chosen prep book(s) to beef up your grammar knowledge where you need it most.

Also take some time to go over the concepts you feel comfortable with to see if you can improve on them any further or if there are any test-taking tips or strategies you hadn’t thought of before. While it’s never a good idea to rush, you want to feel as comfortable as possible with the easy material so that you can save time for the more difficult questions. Keep in mind that ACT English has 75 questions in 45 minutes, and many students struggle with timing!

Keep taking practice tests in The Real ACT Prep Guide to check how you're improving.

If you're a low-range scorer, start studying a long time in advance (at least 6 months). Ideally, you should cover the material in the foundational books and then move on to one of the other books that focuses specifically on the ACT. Once you've given yourself time to get the basics down, follow the steps above.


What’s Next?

If you're not sure that book studying is for you, check out our test prep program. PrepScholar starts with a diagnostic test and then helps you focus your studying on what you need the most work on.

Also check out our free resources to start prepping for the test. Start with our complete guide to ACT English, which will point you to articles on every grammar concept you will find on ACT English as well as general strategies for each section.

Aiming high? Look at these 9 strategies to score a 36 on ACT English, written by a perfect scorer.


Want to improve your ACT score by 4 points? 

Check out our best-in-class online ACT prep program. We guarantee your money back if you don't improve your ACT score by 4 points or more.

Our program is entirely online, and it customizes what you study to your strengths and weaknesses. If you liked this English lesson, you'll love our program. Along with more detailed lessons, you'll get thousands of practice problems organized by individual skills so you learn most effectively. We'll also give you a step-by-step program to follow so you'll never be confused about what to study next.

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Mary Ann Barge
About the Author

Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.

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