Commonly Missed English and Reading ACT Questions…

Published on Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018 by

…that your students should be getting right.

The ACT is full of challenging questions testing skills students may not have mastered during their high school career. However, there are a number of question types that simply appear to be more challenging than they really are. It’s important to remind students that the ACT often complicates fairly easy skills by placing them in a confusing context.

At MasteryPrep, we know one of the biggest ways to improve student scores is to instill confidence. Students should know that even when they come across a difficult question, they most likely have the knowledge needed to answer it correctly. The key is sifting through the distracting or intimidating content to get to the core of the question. In this series, we’ll take a closer look at some of these question types and show you how to equip students to answer them correctly.

English: Parenthetical Elements

Parenthetical elements questions make up 4–8% of the English portion of the ACT. In general, comma usage is known to pose a challenge for many students. Most tend to overuse commas, sprinkling them throughout their writing at every place possible. This fact combined with a generally poor understanding of appositives and nonrestrictive clauses results in many students struggling with this question type. Try the following approach with students.

First make sure students know the following rules for commas on the ACT:

  1. Commas cause pauses, but not every pause needs a comma: Don’t add commas just because you’d pause when reading aloud. Only add commas where they are grammatically necessary.
  2. A single comma can never come between a subject and a verb: Identify the subject and the verb. Then eliminate any answer choices that place only one comma between them.
  3. Offset any parenthetical elements: A parenthetical element should be set off with a pair of commas, dashes, or parentheses. However, if removing a word or phrase causes a problem with grammar, it is not a parenthetical element.

Once these general rules about commas are understood, students should practice answering parenthetical elements questions by following these steps:

  1. Notice what’s changing in the answer choices. If all the words stay the same but the punctuation changes (specifically the location of commas), this is a hint that the question is testing comma usage.
  2. Eliminate any answer choices that have a single comma between the subject and the verb.
  3. Determine if the word or phrase in commas is a parenthetical element. Read the sentence without it. If it sounds wrong, it should not be set off with a pair of commas.


English example question

First notice the solo-comma trap in choices A and B. Train students to never pick this kind of answer. Instead, they should eliminate it immediately. Next is to determine whether or not Cary Fowler is a parenthetical element that needs to be set off with commas. The easiest way to test this is to remove the section in between the commas and see if it sounds wrong. In this case, American agriculturalist spearheaded the creation of the seed vault in 2006 sounds awfully wrong. This is the sign that Cary Fowler is actually necessary to the sentence and therefore shouldn’t be offset, making choice C the correct answer.

Use this strategy to help your students avoid making this common mistake on the ACT English test.

Reading: Analyze Word Choice

Analyze word choice questions make up 4–8% of the Reading section of the ACT. The Reading test is largely comprised of two straightforward question types: those that require students to locate information in the passage and those that require them to draw a conclusion based on something stated in the passage. Analyze word choice questions, though, go beyond the traditional locate-and-restate or read-and-infer skill, so students are often caught off-guard and struggle with these questions. However, if they have a clear plan and know what to expect, these questions can be almost as straightforward as any other locating information question on the Reading test.

Students should practice analyze word choice questions by following these steps:

  1. Figure out what the question is asking: If it asks about what kind of words are used throughout the passage or why an author used a certain phrase, students can know immediately they won’t be looking for information or drawing a conclusion.
  2. Work backwards: On the Reading test, it’s often easier to eliminate wrong answers than choose the correct answer. Examine each answer choice and eliminate any answers you can’t prove using the passage.


reading example question

This question asks about the kind of language used in the passage. The best approach is to simplify. Start with just the first part of each answer choice – in this case questions, metaphorical language, quotes, and excerpts. On the real test, you would have the entire passage here to assess, but this paragraph is a good sample. Focus on eliminating answers and start easy. In general, questions, quotes, and excerpts are easier to find in a piece of writing than a metaphor. They tend to jump out, so students should easily be able to notice if they are present in this passage. There are not questions or quotes, eliminating choices F and H. If your students don’t know what an excerpt is, they will have to look at the second part of the choice–astrophysics textbooks. There is no reference to any textbooks, so choice J can also be eliminated. This leaves choice G as the correct answer.

Even if your students don’t recognize the metaphorical language (referring to dark matter as an elusive creature whose paw prints are now seen) they can still arrive at the correct answer with a good plan and the process of elimination. Stress to your students that even these more challenging questions can be simplified and ultimately answered directly based on the content of the passage.

For more practice, try our ACT bell ringers program, Elements, which includes entire sections devoted specifically to the question types described above. Receive a free demo when your school purchases an ACT Boot Camp.