Preparing Students for the ACT® English and Writing Sections

High school students working on the ACT English and Writing sections

NoRedInk includes extensive pre-teaching resources, skills exercises, and writing activities that support ACT® test prep.

While the COVID-19 pandemic upended many standardized testing and college admissions routines, the ACT remains a fixture for many high school juniors and seniors. In fact, despite a 22% drop in participation from 2020 to 2021, nearly 1.3 million students took the ACT last year.

Whether you teach in one of the 13 states in which the ACT is a graduation requirement, want to help your college-bound students get into their dream schools, or simply want to build key skills across your classes, working on skills that are commonly tested by the ACT is a great way to prepare juniors and seniors for their next steps.

There are three parts of the ACT that test skills typically taught in English class: the ACT Reading section, the ACT English section, and the optional ACT Writing section. Below, we’ll explore several ways you can help students prepare for the latter two sections.

What’s on the ACT® English and Writing tests?

The ACT English section has students edit and revise writing by answering multiple-choice questions about passages of text (or, oftentimes, specific sections of a passage). These passages span various essay genres and topics, giving students opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of an array of rhetorical situations. The multiple-choice questions in this section focus on word choice, style and tone, sentence structure, punctuation, usage, textual organization and cohesion, and topic development.

The ACT Writing section assesses how students apply the skills covered by the ACT English section in their own writing. Students receive 40 minutes to respond to a prompt that includes three distinct perspectives on a complex issue. Each essay must develop its own perspective on the issue as well as compare this perspective to at least one other perspective. Essays are scored across four writing domains: idea generation and analysis, idea development and support, essay organization, and language use and conventions.

How to help students practice for the ACT® English test

For many students, taking the ACT is an unfamiliar—and therefore intimidating—experience. Helping students understand the importance of reading directions and questions carefully, answering easy questions first, using the process of elimination, and pacing themselves can demystify the test-taking process. But when it comes to effective test prep, there’s no substitute for practicing the skills that are covered by each section.

Assigning an ACT-aligned Planning Diagnostic enables you to gather data on student strengths and opportunities for improvement. The results of this diagnostic will give you a good idea of where additional practice will have the greatest impact on student growth. Once you’re ready to start assigning practice, you can browse ACT-aligned activities in the ACT section of NoRedInk’s Assignment Library. These activities are sorted not only by the skills they target, but by how heavily each skill is tested on the ACT. (For a detailed breakdown of how NoRedInk activities align with the ACT, check out this resource.)

Passage-based exercises are among the most effective ways to provide students with authentic ACT grammar practice. Much like the ACT English section, these exercises prompt students to evaluate the grammar and conventions of a multi-paragraph passage. As students read the passage, they’re asked to correct highlighted pieces of text by picking from four options. After students submit their answers, they’re directed to remediation exercises that provide them with instant feedback, relevant lessons, and opportunities to fix any mistakes they made.

How to help students practice for the ACT® Writing test

Preparing students for long-form writing assignments like the ACT Writing section’s essay is a gradual, multi-step process. To ensure students have the background they need to craft high-scoring essays, dedicate plenty of time to covering the ACT’s scoring rubric and essay format. Then, provide students with the following pre-writing materials to guide their test-taking strategies:

  • Prompt analysis and thesis creation: Help students analyze multiple perspectives on a prompt’s core issue and zero in on a nuanced thesis.
  • Outlining: Support efficient essay-planning with a quick outlining approach students can replicate on test day.
  • Time management: Show students how to productively divide their 40 minutes into chunks.

ACT Guided Drafts offer a smooth transition into writing practice. These activities provide scaffolding to students throughout the writing process, including tips, exemplars, timed-writing strategies, and access to the ACT’s rubric. This guidance is critical as students familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of the ACT essay. Consider keeping these activities untimed at first so students are able to focus on their writing skills instead of on their writing speed.

As your students become comfortable with ACT-style writing, shift over to ACT Quick Writes. These activities use the same released ACT prompts as ACT Guided Drafts do, but don’t provide any scaffolding. Try slowly reducing the time you give students to complete an ACT Quick Write until you hit 40 minutes.

Build better writers with NoRedInk

NoRedInk’s extensive pre-teaching resources, skills exercises, and writing activities are just as impactful if you’re helping students develop the skills outlined in your state’s standards as if you’re helping students prepare for the ACT English and Writing sections. Whatever your priorities are, targeted skills work and authentic writing practice go a long way toward building better writers in your classroom.

Sign up for free today to get access to thousands of writing and grammar activities spanning hundreds of topics!

Thomas collaborates with colleagues from across NoRedInk to craft stories that illustrate how NoRedInk ​​builds stronger writers. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Occidental College.