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November 2017

Traps to Avoid on the ACT Reading Test

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Traps to Avoid on the ACT Reading Test

Written by Stefan Melnyk

Avoiding traps on the ACT Reading Test is essential to raising your score. You are given so little time to complete the test (35 minutes to answer 40 questions!) that it’s easy to fly past questions without reading them thoroughly. Unfortunately, the writers of the ACT know this and will try to trick you with trap questions. These are questions that have an answer designed to look like the correct one to students who haven’t read the text (or the question) carefully enough. Even if you have top-notch reading skills, however, it can still be useful to know what traps to expect. Here are a handful to look out for:


You read a question that asks you to find the answer that best matches the point of the passage. You glance down at the choices and see one that uses some of the exact words you remember from the passage.


Read the answer with the exact words more carefully – chances are, you will find that it uses those words to make a point that actually contradicts the one in the passage. Instead, look for the answer that paraphrases the point – that is, makes the same point using different words. That will usually be the correct one!


Some answer choices will sound correct but will use words like “always,” “never,” “only,” etc.


These are absolute words, and you have to be very careful with them – they don’t allow for any exceptions! If an answer includes a statement that is usually correct, but the answer says that it is always correct, then that answer is wrong! When you see an absolute word on the ACT Reading Test, you should take it as a warning and watch carefully for a trap!


Some questions on the ACT Reading Test will ask you to say what a word means as it is used in the passage. One of the choices you are given will almost certainly be the most common definition of that word.


You’re not being asked for the first dictionary definition of the word, you’re being asked how the passage is using the word. Always look for context.


There will be questions on the test that use words like “NOT,” “EXCEPT,” or “REJECT.”


Even though these words are usually written in all-caps in the question to help you spot them, a lot of students still miss how those words change the meaning of the question. The presence of one of those words means that you are looking for a false answer among the true ones, and that false answer will be the correct one!


This last trap is a pretty common one, but it also trips up a lot of students as they take the test. As you look at the answers, you may see more than one that is true, or makes a good point. Chances are,


The most common trick that the ACT Reading Test will try to pull is giving you a possible answer that is technically true but has nothing to do with the passage. Always remember that this is a reading test, and there can only be one correct answer, only one answer that reflects the content of the reading passage. The other answers may be true, but that doesn’t mean they’re correct!

The reading test can be quite a sprint, but knowing the hurdles it might throw in your way is essential to getting through it. You can do it!

4 Tips for Scoring Higher on the ACT Reading Test

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4 Tips for Scoring Higher on the ACT Reading Test

By Dr. Paula Tinnin

I prep students for the ACT reading test. Students who are not prepared often feel intimidated. I hear it feels awful. I see it hinders performance that leads to lower scores.  This does not have to be your experience. If you want to face the ACT with greater confidence and gain a competitive edge, try the strategies we teach at Focus on Learning.  Empower yourself and build your confidence in preparing for the ACT reading test.


The first step is to grasp the notion of pacing. Did you know that reading a college level article or excerpt from a book in about 8 minutes is a pace that is nearly impossible for most students to keep?  How can you buy yourself more time?


Look at the type of reading passages on the ACT test. Consider the fact that you are presented with a wide variety of  college-level reading (Prose Fiction, Social Sciences, Humanities and Natural Science.)  Many students get a jump on the Reading section by this simple tip: number the passages in the order of brevity. The passages all have similar word counts, but the questions vary dramatically from one passage to the next.  Which passage has the shortest questions?  Which passage is a familiar or interesting topic?  If you love science and nonfiction in general, always leave the prose fiction text till last.  NEVER automatically read the passages in sequential order.


There are ten questions you have to answer after every passage. Each one needs a surgical approach.Always read the questions before you read the passage, and be sure to underline key words, including special terms and names.  If a question gives you a specific line reference, mark the number of the question in the margin by the referenced lines.


Remember that you are only reading each passage to answer ten questions.  You do not have to read the entire passage.  For expository passages (II, III, IV), read the first paragraph and the first and last sentence of the remaining paragraphs.  That will lead you to the correct answer. The prose passage may require more reading, which is why it is a good choice for leaving it last.  And remember–the key to success on the reading test is reading every question very carefully, so you know what it is asking.  Eliminate those answer choices that have nothing to do with the question, and cross them off.  Circle all correct answers in the test booklet, so you do not go astray.  

Why the ACT English Test is Such a Big Deal

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Why the ACT English Test is Such a Big Deal

Written Dr. Ene-Kaja Chippendale

Why the English Test on the ACT is Such Big Deal!Students who look at the ACT English Test for the first time are often taken aback because they’ve never seen a test in this format before. They are confronted with a page divided into two columns:  one half of the page includes a narrative with parts underlined and the other half has numbered questions, each followed by four answer choices. Students find they have 45 minutes to answer 75 questions that relate to five passages.

The directions the ACT gives students are ponderous and complicated. On a test where timing is everything, students who stop to read the directions can waste several precious minutes being told that the test requires them to choose the answer “that best expresses the idea,” “makes the statement appropriate for standard written English,” or “is worded most consistently with the style and tone of the passage as a whole.” Huh? becomes a frequent response.

Even worse is the direction that tells test takers to “read the passage through once before you begin to answer the questions that accompany it.” This is a totally nonsensical suggestion that only wastes time.

As students begin working through the test, they tend to rely on one strategy: plug in each answer choice and hope one “speaks” to them. They have no idea what the test covers. Predictably, many students answer by the seat of their pants and pick the answer that “sounds right.” Not a good plan for a high score.

In reality, the English test is the easiest test on which to raise a score because it is totally predictable. Once students learn to read the passage as editors who are looking for mistakes in punctuation, grammar, and word choice (rhetoric), they are on their way. The ACT test writers know that many students can be easily confused: isn’t the longest answer the best? My teacher is always telling me to write longer, more complex sentences. Actually, no. On the ACT, the shortest, most succinct answer is the correct choice.

How about that punctuation? I think any sentence is improved by a comma—I don’t know why, but I’m sure that’s true. Nope. Once again, the ACT plays to students’ weaknesses. Many students still struggle to identify a sentence. Others have no idea how to use a comma, a colon, or a semicolon, never mind a dash or parentheses. When do you use “he” or “him”? Remind me, is it “who” or “whom”? And the list of predictable questions goes on…and on.

Students who review rules of punctuation and grammar and learn how to comprehend questions increase their English score significantly, more so than on any other ACT subject test.  We see that as we prep students for the ACT, and the English increase is anywhere from 2-12 points. A six-point gain is very common. That’s how predictable the English test actually is! That’s why students need to pay special attention to preparing for it. Their score increase in English lifts their composite ACT score. It’s that simple.

Common Pronoun Mistakes

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Common Pronoun Mistakes

Its/It’s – This is a really common one, but also one that’s easy to remember. The word “it” doesn’t need an apostrophe to form the possessive.


The dog wanted to get its ball back.

The time at which you’ll want to use an apostrophe is when you’re forming a contraction of “it is.” The apostrophe stands in for the missing letter “i” in “is.”

The dog whimpers to make sure you know it’s upset.

Here’s a sentence using both!

When a dog wags its tail, you know it’s happy.


Whose/Who’s – This is a really similar one. You only use the apostrophe when you’re shortening “who is” into one word.

“Don’t you know whose house this is?” she asked.

Who’s there?” she asked, hearing a knock on the door.


Your/You’re – Ditto for this one. “You’re” is short for “you are.” Otherwise, just use “your.”

Your dog is really mean,” he said.

You’re really mean,” he said.


Their/They’re/There – The difference between “their” and “they’re” is similar to above, but people also sometimes confuse “there” for both of them, in spite of it being a completely different word. Here is each of them in a sentence:

This yard belongs to the Johnsons, it’s their property.

You should knock on the Johnsons’ door to see if they’re home.

I went to the neighbor’s house and Mr. Johnson was there.


Remember: if you’re about to use a contraction, separate it out into the words it’s made up of and see whether those words make sense in the context of the sentence!

The Right ACT Prep Makes a Difference

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 The Right ACT Prep Makes a Difference

Written by Dr. Ene-Kaja Chippendale

Despite the hope of many students that colleges will abandon standardized testing scores from the ACT or SAT, their place in the college admissions process remains secure for the time being. In Missouri, where the ACT rules, both school administrators and students are nervous about students’ scores. Secondary schools’ evaluations and accreditation depend in part on their composite ACT score. At this time, the state and national averages hover around 21, and it is a badge of honor for schools to exceed that.

Students know that their acceptance into college as well their ability to earn scholarships depend heavily on their ACT scores. Even a one or two point rise in scores can mean thousands of dollars in scholarships. Some students start taking practice ACT tests their freshman year to assure that they earn the maximum score by the time they apply to college. For the last few years, the State of Missouri has paid for every junior to take the April ACT, and my contact with teachers and counselors indicates that this has proven very popular practice for everyone involved. The state has now pulled the funding, but many districts remain committed to continuing the free testing in April 2018.

The ACT is the single most important test a student takes in school, and ACT prep has become a multi-million dollar industry. Yet, objective evidence supporting the effectiveness of coaching is virtually nonexistent. When the cost of an ACT class can exceed $1000 and private tutoring also can run into thousands of dollars, students, teachers, administrators and especially parents should be demanding an objective evaluation of how effective a company or private tutor is in raising scores on the ACT. While we do not evaluate every course, we do gather rigorous, methodologically sound data on some. Our evaluations consistently show that our students make significant gains using our ACT program—one that is based on the most current ACT tests and uses only experienced teachers as coaches. No other ACT prep company has comparable data, nor do they use subject experts to work with the ACT. We offer the right ACT prep—and that makes all the difference.