11 June 2015

Don’t forget to flip back a page on ACT English

I think we can probably all agree here that whatever the strengths of the ACT English section may be, formatting is most definitely not one of them. When there are five or six spaces — or even half a page — between lines, it’s almost impossible not to sometimes lose track of where paragraphs begin and end. Since I started tutoring the ACT in 2008, I’ve spent who knows how much time explaining just where the sentence is supposed to be inserted, or which paragraph a little numbered box is actually referring to. Sooner or later, almost every ACT student of mine has missed a question simply because they couldn’t figure what they were supposed to fix where.

Beyond the most obvious instances of formatting-related mistakes, though, I’ve noticed some more subtle errors. And one problem that seems to come up again and again involves…page turns. When I work through the same tests with enough people, I inevitably start to notice that almost everyone gets certain questions wrong, usually for the same reasons. (It’s pretty hard not to notice these things when I find myself having the same conversation five times in the space of a week.)

A couple of tests that I regularly use have questions that bridge two pages — that is, the sentence that a question asks about begins at the bottom of one page and ends at the top of the next page. Sometimes, it’s a very long sentence, which means it’s easy to lose track of.

And very often, my students answer those questions incorrectly because they’ve only read the information on the page containing the underlined portion or numbered box.They either didn’t want to make the effort to back up a page and read from the beginning of the sentence (relatively rate) or, more frequently, were so focused on the underlined portion of the sentence that they didn’t realize it actually began on the previous page.

Ironically, focusing on the question so hard caused them to overlook the larger context and miss the very information that they needed to answer the question. Had the entire sentence been located on a single page, they would likely have read from the start of it; but because it was split up, they simply didn’t notice that they weren’t reading from the beginning.

The moral of the story? Always, always back up and read from the beginning of the sentence, actively identifying where that place is. The capitalized letter at the beginning of a word is a giveaway, and no, I’m not being sarcastic. Sometimes you have to be that literal.

Recently, I’ve started seeing the same problem with paragraphs and rhetoric questions — specifically adding/delete sentences questions. In order to determine whether information should be added or deleted — that is, whether it’s relevant to a paragraph — it is first necessary to know what that paragraph is about. What part of the paragraph tells you most directly what it’s going to be about? Often, the first (topic) sentence or couple of sentences.

When the first sentence is on the previous page, however, it’s suddenly a lot less intuitive to read that spot. And when lines are separated by multiple spaces, making only a few lines of text appear much longer, it is possible to not even realize that a paragraph begins on the previous page. Again, the best way to guard against this problem is to back up and consciously search for the indented line that always signal the beginning of a paragraph, keeping in mind that it may be on the previous page.

Working this way might seem like an inordinate amount of effort — one more little detail to think about, on top of everything else — but it can actually save you time and energy in the long run. Instead of trying to puzzle out an answer that you don’t have sufficient information to determine, flipping back a page and getting the full picture can actually make finding the answer much more straightforward.

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