Secret Service and the ACT

Published on Monday, December 3rd, 2018 by

ACT Chalk Talk #3

The great majority of the ACT English test amounts to nothing more–and nothing less–than the time-honored task of proofreading. Students are given five passages they must edit to be grammatically and stylistically correct. One of the oldest proofing tricks in the book is to read the work aloud. But how can a student read out loud in a testing environment?

Yes, they can subvocalize: They can read “aloud” in their minds, word by word. But there is no substitute for truly hearing what is written.

On the ACT English test, many incorrect answer options “sound right.” The test writers create choices that are conversationally acceptable but fail to conform to Standard Written English. These incorrect choices count on students not knowing the grammar rules and bubbling in what “sounds right,” so it’s bad advice to recommend students use this as a strategy on the ACT.

The reverse of the concept, however, works quite well. If it sounds wrong, it is wrong. Standard Written English might occasionally sound stuffy. It might sound formal or slightly awkward. But it never sounds wrong to the ear. If an answer choice sounds wrong, students should eliminate it. Thus, “sounding out” answers is very important.

It’s possible for students to sound out English passages without getting kicked out of the testing room.

The answer is the “Secret Service” move:


Put your finger to your ear.

Plug it completely with your finger.

Whisper a sentence out loud, and you’ll hear yourself loud and clear!


With one ear blocked, students can whisper impossibly quietly and still hear themselves. To any observer, even someone sitting close by, they are soundlessly moving your lips. But they’ve moved from subvocalizing to vocalizing, and they have made it much easier to catch errors.

Students should use the Secret Service move with any ACT English question that gives them difficulty.