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Writing

Deciphering Meaning from Reading Passages on the SAT and ACT

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Overview

Questions about longer reading passages on the SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests tap students’ abilities to find and use meaning from what they read.  These skills are important to college success, as students are expected to read and understand textbooks in unfamiliar subjects.  Students are expected to extract the main ideas from what they read, distinguish between fact and opinion, recognize the author’s point of view, and summarize the passage, along with other skills.

Reading for Main Ideas

Most often, the main ideas in a reading passage will be in the first few sentences of a reading passage.  Multiple-choice questions will give alternative statements of what the main idea might be.  Read all the alternatives carefully before deciding on the best answer.  One alternative might be too brief to contain enough information, while another might ask for a conclusion or opinion, a third might give more information than is necessary,  and the correct alternative will give enough information to decide on the main idea.

Distinguishing between Fact and Opinion

Even fairly short passages will contain a number of supporting facts and some opinions, as any event is open to interpretation.  Opinions will ask the reader to draw conclusions from the supporting facts rather than merely stating those facts.  Opinions ask the reader to draw inferences as may not be supported within the text,

Recognizing the Point of View

Many of these questions ask readers to recognize the tone of the passage.  Does the author believe the research is valuable or does the author believe the research is a waste of time?  Is the author pessimistic or optimistic about the outcome of the research presented?  If it is a historical article, is the author on the side of the winners or the losers?

Summarizing the Passage

Normal reading passages on standardized tests are relatively brief, so the summaries are no more than a sentence or two long.  They  restate key points , and cover the entire passage rather than just one section of the passage.  The best alternatives focus on the big picture rather than one section.

TestPrep Academy is the premier SAT/ ACT services company for high school studies. We offer instructional programs and curriculum for students preparing for the PSAT, ACT and SAT.

 

Recognizing Nonstandard English: Diction Errors

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Overview

Diction errors are types of errors when the incorrect word is used in a nonstandard way.  Some word usage is colloquial: out of place in a formal essay.  Other errors in word usage occur when similar words are used in the incorrect context.

What about Lots or A Lot?

The use of lots or a lot is colloquial, as well as non-specific.  Standard usage would refer to many, or very much.  A sentence such as “I like to write a lot” could either mean that I like to write very much, or I like to write a great quantity.    Similarly, “A bunch of people were at the concert” should be restated as, “A group of people were at the concert” or “Many people were at the concert.”  When referring to people, bunch is nonstandard.  Bunches can refer to flowers, grapes, or bananas and be correct.

What about Guy?

The word guy is also colloquial.  Preferred usage would be “the man”, just as preferred usage for gal would be woman.  Plenty as in the sentence, “It is plenty hot this summer” is colloquial.  “It is very hot this summer,” is standard.  In the same way, “It is awful hot this summer” is colloquial, and could be recast as “It is very hot this summer.”

What about Aggravate?

The word aggravate means to make worse, and aggravated is not a synonym for annoyed (or any of the other synonyms for annoyed that are not standard usage). ” Her headache was aggravated by lack of sleep,” would be standard usage.  “She was aggravated by the construction in the office building,” would not be.

What about Anxious and Eager?

“The students were anxious for change” is nonstandard, and should be replaced with “The students were eager for change.”  The students did not fear change.  Similarly, can refers to ability, while may refers to permission or likelihood.

TestPrep Academy is the premier SAT/ ACT services company for high school studies. We offer instructional programs and curriculum for students preparing for the PSAT, ACT and SAT.

Appropriate Sentence Construction for the SAT and ACT

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Overview:

Some grammar questions on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT ask students to apply the rules they have learned about sentence construction.  Sentence prompts may include dangling clauses, free-standing phrases, and run-on sentences.  The task is to choose the rewritten sentence that makes the most sense without changing the author’s intended meaning.

What Is A Phrase?

A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a subject and verb.  The words in the phrase act together in a unit,  such as prepositional phases, adjective phrases, or adverb phrases.  For example, the prepositional phrase “to the lighthouse” has a preposition, an object, and the article modifying the object.  Within the nonsense sentence, “Deep green ideas sleep furiously”, there is an adverbial phrase, “deep green ideas.” The sentence could be made more convoluted by adding an adverbial phrase such as “in the dark” to read “Deep green ideas sleep furiously in the dark.”

What Is a Clause?

A clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb.  Some clauses can stand alone as short sentences or independent clauses.  Dependent clauses cannot stand alone and act as adjectives, adverbs, and nouns within sentences.  An independent clause can be changed easily into a dependent clause by adding relative pronouns such as that, which, who, whom, or whose, or relative adverbs such as after, before, since, where, when, or why.

What Are Some Ways to Combine Phrases without Changing the Meaning?

Phrases can be used to expand sentences and make them more vivid without changing the meaning of a sentence. They do not contain subjects and verbs, so they cannot stand alone as sentences.  For example, the adverb phrase “in the evening” can be combined with the short sentence “The moon rises” to form the sentence “The moon rises in the evening.”

What Are Some Ways to Combine Clauses without Changing the Meaning?

It is important to carefully read test alternatives that contain ways that clauses can be combined to make sure the meaning does not change.  For example, suppose the passage stated  “Virginia Woolf was an important member of the Bloomsbury Group.  The Bloomsbury Group challenged many ideas that were current in England.”  Those sentences could be combined by making the second sentence a subordinate clause, changing the passage to read, “Virginia Woolf was an important member of the Bloomsbury Group, which challenged many ideas that were current in England.”

TestPrep Academy is the premier SAT/ ACT services company for high school studies. We offer instructional programs and curriculum for students preparing for the PSAT, ACT and SAT.

Review of Nonstandard English: Idiom Errors

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Overview:  What Do the SAT and ACT Test in English Grammar?

The SAT and ACT test for formal, academic, standard English, which is not necessarily the same way that students speak or write.  Many errors are especially insidious because the correct form and the incorrect form are very close.  However, some idiom errors involve words that actually mean the opposite from each other.

What Is the Proper Form of the Verb?

The verb form doesn’t is used with third-person singular subjects, such as in the sentence “He doesn’t want to take the test this month.”  The verb form don’t is used with all other subjects, but never when the subject is in the third person singular.  Similarly, the verbs done and seen are used with helping verbs, such as had, has, or have, never alone.  When gone is used as a verb, it is also used with a helping verb.  However, the verb went is the past tense of to go, and is not used with a helping verb.

What about Lie and Lay?

Correct usage of the verbs lie and lay depend on what is doing the action.  The verb lie, with parts lying, lay, and lain, means “to recline.”  It is not followed by a direct object, but often by an adverb or adverb phrase, telling just where someone or something is reclining.  The verb lay, with parts laying, laid, and laid, means “to put (something) down.”  It is followed by a direct object, such as “Lay the plates on the table.”  The verbs set and sit follow similar patterns, as sit is never followed by a direct object, but set is.

What about Homonyms?

Homonyms can be especially troublesome, as they are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently.  For example, their is a possessive pronoun, such as “their books,” there is an adverb referring to place, and they’re is a contraction of they are.  The word too means the same as also, two is a number, and to is a preposition.

What Word Pairs Mean the Opposite of Each Other?

The words take and bring are not synonyms.  Bring means to carry from a distant place to a nearer one, while take means from a near place to a distant place.  Similarly, learn and teach are not synonyms.  To learn is to get knowledge, while to teach is to give knowledge.

Do you need to know more about how test questions on the SAT or ACT are scored? Learn more about how we are assisting thousands of students each academic year.

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Proofreading for Parallel Structure on the SAT and ACT

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Overview:  What Is Parallel Structure?

Parallel structure in writing is a refinement technique in which verbs, subjects, and clauses are made similar.  It is tested on the ACT and SAT in grammar questions, as it is a feature that adds impact to writing.  Often, phrases that mean the same may not be parallel.

Checklist:  Are Verbs in the Same Tense?

Parallel verbs in each clause should be in the same tense.  For example, parallel verbs are “He came, he saw, and he conquered” not “he came, he saw, and he will conquer. ” Similarly, if helping verbs are used in one clause, the same helping verbs should be used in the other clauses.  “She may gather enough support, she may raise enough funds, and she may win the election,” rather than “she may gather enough support, she raised enough funds, and she will win the election.”

Checklist:   Is the Subject the Same in All Clauses?

In order for clauses to be parallel, the subjects should remain the same.  “The corporation will sponsor the fun run, the CEO will speak at the breakfast, and they will wear T-shirts advertising the event” is unclear and not parallel.  In order to make the structure parallel, one way to recast the clauses is, “The corporation will sponsor the fun run, its CEO will speak at the opening breakfast, and its employees will wear T-shirts advertising the event.”

Checklist:  Are the Same Types of Clauses Used?

More subtly, parallel clauses need to have the same structure.  A sentence like “The building manager will choose the maintenance projects that they think will make their properties more attractive” has two clauses that are less parallel than the recast sentence “The building manager will choose the maintenance projects that will make their properties more attractive.”  Sometimes it is a matter of eliminating unnecessary words in order to clarify the structure.

Checklist:  Is the Punctuation Parallel Between Parallel Clauses?

If clauses are parallel, they should be separated with the same type of punctuation.  For the most part, they will be independent from one another.  For example, in the sentence “He came, he saw, and he conquered” all the clauses are separated by commas.

Grammar Review : Choosing the Correct Pronoun on the ACT and SAT

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Overview:  What Are Pronouns?
Pronouns are word forms that substitute for nouns.  They differ from nouns in that the correct pronoun form depends on the function it takes within the sentence.  Nouns in English only change form when they are possessive.  Otherwise, the same word forms are used whether they are the subject or the object. Compare the sentences, “Jane hit the ball,” “The ball hit Jane,” and “The ball is Jane’s.”

What Are Singular and Plural Pronouns?
Singular pronouns such as I, you, he, she, or it substitute for singular nouns and must agree with singular verbs, while plural pronouns such as we, you, and they substitute for plural nouns and must agree with plural verbs.  For example, compare the sentence, “He goes to school”, with “They go to school.”  The pronoun you is the same form for singular and plural in English, and the meaning depends on context.

What Are Subject Pronouns?
Subject pronouns such as I, you, he, she, it, we and they serve as the subject forms, also called the nominative case.  For example, in a simple sentence like “John and I went to the store,” the pronoun I is part of the subject.  In formal written English, verb forms of to be use subject pronouns, such as ” It is I” or “The winners were Tim and she.”

What Are Object Pronouns?
Object pronouns include me, you, him, her, it, us, and them, also called the objective case.  They are used when the pronoun is used as the object of any verb or preposition.  For example, in the sentence, “John raced them yesterday”, the pronoun them is an object.  In addition, after a preposition such as between, the objective pronoun is used, such as “between you and me” rather than “between you and I.”

What Are Possessive Pronouns?
Possessive pronouns include my,  mine,  your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our,  ours, and their,  theirs.  They are used to show ownership.  The possessive pronoun its is not the same as the contraction it’s (meaning it is), and their is not the same as the adverb there or the contraction they’re.  For example, “Their car is parked in the next block” but “The red car is parked over there.”  Sometimes possessive pronouns can be used by themselves, such as “That blue car is hers, not his.”

Do you need to know more about how test questions on the SAT or ACT are scored? Learn more about how we are assisting thousands of students each academic year.

Test Prep Academy is the premier test prep and private tutoring company for college-bound students. Our highly qualified test prep tutors deliver one-on-one personalized instruction that fit our student’s busy schedule.

Using Prepositions and Conjunctions on the SAT and ACT

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Overview:  Why Prepositions and Conjunctions?

Both prepositions and conjunctions show relationships between words within sentences.  It is important to use both types correctly, as changing either the preposition in a prepositional phrase or the conjunction can change the direction and meaning of the sentence.  Although they may be overlooked during proofreading, the correct preposition or conjunction can affect the meaning the writer is trying to convey in the sentence.  (For example, if the above sentence read, “Although they may be overlooked during proofreading, the correct preposition or conjunction can affect the meaning the writer is trying to convey on the sentence,” the spellchecker didn’t catch any error, but the preposition is clearly incorrect.)

What Are Prepositions?

Prepositions show relationships between separate parts of the sentence, such as location, direction, cause, or possession.  Compare under with over, to with from, above with below, and toward with away.  Prepositions do not act alone, but must be part of a phrase, with a noun or pronoun used as its object.  In addition, some prepositions may be compound, such as in the phrases “apart from”, “instead of” , or “because of”.

What Are Conjunctions?

While prepositions show relationships, conjunctions connect words directly.  Coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, or, and so connect similar words and word groups.  Correlative conjunctions connect words in pairs, such as both -and, either-or, and neither-nor.  Subordinating conjunctions connect clauses by making one idea dependent upon another.  For example, in the sentence “As soon as she finishes typing the essay, they will leave on vacation,” there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the typist finishing and the speaker leaving.

Conjunction or Preposition?

Depending upon the relationship in the sentence, the same words can function either as a conjunction or as a preposition.  For example, in the sentence “They left on vacation before the afternoon,” the word before is used as a preposition.  In the closely related sentence “Before they left on vacation, she finished typing the essay,” the word before is a subordinating conjunction showing a relationship between the two clauses.

Conjunctions and Prepositions on Standardized Tests

On tests like the SAT and ACT, students will not have to identify the part of speech, as may be required on tests in English class.  However, they will have to proofread to make sure the words are used correctly to show the relationship the writer of the reading passage intended.  In addition, students will need to pay close attention to whether or not they are using the correct conjunction or preposition.

Do you need to know more about how test questions on the SAT or ACT are scored? Learn more about how we are assisting thousands of students each academic year.

Test Prep Academy is the premier test prep and private tutoring company for college-bound students. Our highly qualified test prep tutors deliver one-on-one personalized instruction that fit our student’s busy schedule.

Recognizing Appropriate Sentence Construction in Reading Passages

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Overview:  Why Sentence Construction?
Some test questions in the English/grammar portion of the SAT, ACT, and other tests ask students to read a passage and find the best way to rewrite it, whether by combining sentences or correcting sentence fragments.  The reason questions like this are asked is to test students’ ability to apply their editing skills and the rules of sentence construction.  They are expected to read quickly and choose combinations that do not change the overall meaning of the passage, between alternatives that may or may not preserve meaning and formal, standard usage.

Is the Sentence Complete?
Every phrase presented as a sentence must be capable of standing on its own with a subject and verb, expressing a complete thought.  Sometimes the verb might precede or follow the subject, and sometimes a form of to be is the main verb.  Also, check to see if two or more sentences have been joined incorrectly as comma splices, presented without punctuation, or otherwise joined when they should not be.

What Are Phrases?
Phrases are groups of words that act as a unit without a subject or verb contained in them.  One type of phrase is the prepositional phrase, which will give more information, but will not contain the subject or verb.  A prepositional phrase such as “to the moon” contains a preposition, an article, and a noun.  If it were elaborated further, as “to the airless, many-cratered moon” , it would still be just a phrase.

What Are Clauses?
Unlike phrases, clauses act as a unit, but they do contain a noun and a verb.  Independent clauses are tricky because they can stand by themselves as separate sentences.  Subordinate clauses add meaning, but they could not necessarily stand as separate sentences, even though they contain subjects and verbs.  For example, “When the moon rose over the horizon” is a subordinate phrase that contains a subject and verb, but it could not be a separate sentence.  Sentences with vague antecedents like “this” and “that” are usually also incorrect alternative choices unless other words in the sentence clearly state the relationship.

What Is Sentence Repetition?
One strategy to use when choosing answers from alternatives is to watch for repetition of words and phrases in consecutive sentences, as repetition can be a signal to combine sentences.  The best way to combine sentences may eliminate the repetition by using a phrase or clause, or by making the subject or verb compound, while still preserving meaning.  A sample illustrative passage might be , “Many people enjoy attending summer music festivals.  There are festivals for almost every type of music, from rock to jazz to classical. ”  An acceptable alternative might be, “Many people enjoy attending summer music festivals, which exist for almost every type of music, from rock to jazz to classical.”

Do  you need to know more about how test questions on the SAT or ACT are scored? Learn more about how we are assisting thousands of students each academic year. Test Prep Academy is the premier test prep and private tutoring company for college-bound students. Our highly qualified test prep tutors deliver one-on-one personalized instruction that fit our student’s busy schedule.

Is there Really No Error in the Sentence?

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Overview:  No Error
One of the ways English and grammar skills are tested on the SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests is to ask students to decide if a sentence has errors.  Students are then asked to choose from alternatives, including the trap for the unwary, “No error”.  It is a similar trap to its mathematical cousin, called “no solution.”

Errors in Spelling and Punctuation
The most obvious errors may be in spelling or punctuation.  Watch for misplaced commas, obvious run on sentences that are joined by a comma splice, or lack of punctuation at the ends of sentences.  Study a list of commonly misspelled words, and try not to rely on spell-checker to correct all errors in word processing.  Also, study your own list of commonly misspelled words, as everyone has words that look wrong no matter how they are spelled.

Watch for Misplaced Adjectives and Adverbs
Another set of common errors are in the placement of adjectives and adverbs.  Some questions ask students to choose the correct form of the adjective or adverb to complete a sentence.  Suppose the sentence was “The pirate’s lair was hidden in the Caribbean, in a port safe from prying officials.  Therefore, pirates could spend their booty in shore leave in the islands.  The boisterous sounds and heartily voices of pirates in the saloons greeted sailors from far away, even before they entered port.”  The error is in the word heartily, an adverb.  An alternative to change it might be to hearty, for hearty voices.

Verbal Errors
Verbal errors include errors of tense and subject verb agreement.  In some reading passages, the general time of the passage is first established.  Somewhere in the passage, the verb tense will be changed so that it does not match the rest.  For example, “Benedict Cumberbatch played the villain in the movie Star Trek:  Into Darkness.  He will play Khan Noonian Singh in an alternate universe.  The actor also portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the most recent BBC adaptation of those works.”   If the rest of the passage is in the past tense, a sentence in the middle is incorrect with future tense, even in science fiction (without proper preparation, that is).

Watch for Wordiness
Some test questions have alternatives that are more or less wordy.  Usually the best selection is one that is the most direct without sacrificing meaning.  For example, phrases such as “the fact that” and using passive voice  add words that can be cut.  Compare “The ball was hit by the boy” and “The boy hit the ball”.

Do you need to know more about how test questions on the SAT or ACT are scored? Learn more about how we are assisting thousands of students each academic year.

Test Prep Academy is the premier test prep and private tutoring company for college-bound students. Our highly qualified test prep tutors deliver one-on-one personalized instruction that fit our student’s busy schedule.

Proofreading for Errors in Capitalization, Spelling, and Punctuation

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Overview:  What Are Mechanical Errors?
Although many proofreading questions on the English portion of the SAT and ACT are to catch errors in standard English usage, some questions involve errors in capitalization, spelling, and punctuation.  These types of mechanical errors are also common in everyday writing, such as classroom and test essays.  While many spelling errors might be caught with the spell-check, capitalization and punctuation errors will not.  However, they will be caught by teachers and editors, so it’s best to check for them before the paper is submitted.

Disadvantages of Mechanical Errors
For the most part, errors in capitalization, spelling, and punctuation do not change the readability of the sentence.  Errors in capitalization and spelling violate standardization, and errors in punctuation may change the meaning subtly.  For example, compare the statement “The store is opening tomorrow” with the question The store is opening tomorrow?”  Therefore, errors are harder to catch.

Capitalization Errors
It’s merely a case of reviewing capitalization conventions to proofread for capitalization errors.  Proper nouns and pronouns are capitalized, as well as the first words in a sentence.  However, if the proper noun is the name of a business and consists of two or more words, more than the first word is capitalized.   Compare “Apple Computers” and “Dell”.  In addition, words may be in a passage that shouldn’t be capitalized, such as “The famous Operatic Tenor Enrico Caruso was really a baritone.”

Spelling Errors
Test developers use the tendency for skilled readers to substitute the correct words,  whether or not they are spelled correctly, as long as the first few and last letters are correct.  That makes spelling errors hard to catch when proofreading.  The song, “The Consequences of Fall-ing” refers to the problems that result from acting on an infatuation.  Even though readers understand the sentence, whether or not they know the song, they might not notice the spelling error. (There is a spelling error there, even in a paragraph about spelling errors.)

Punctuation Errors
Punctuation marks are the directions that writers use to determine how words should be read.  Although punctuation errors are hard to catch, they depend on typical conventions. Sentences must be ended by periods, question marks, or exclamation points.  Commas in compound sentences separate independent clauses.    Commas are also used to separate three or more nouns, phrases, or clauses in a series.

Do you need to know more about how test questions on the SAT or ACT are scored? Learn more about how we are assisting thousands of students each academic year.

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