Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

Regarding the 2021-22 changes to ACT Reading

As you may have heard, the ACT is tweaking its Reading test to include some graph- or chart-based questions similar to those on the Science test and the SAT Reading test. I’ve received several inquiries regarding these changes, so I wanted to let everyone know where things stand in terms of my materials.

First, yes,  I will be updating The Complete Guide to ACT Reading, although not immediately.

Unfortunately, the 2021-22 ACT Official Guide does not include any sample passages accompanied by the new question type; as of July 2021, the only example I’ve been able to locate is the one posted on the ACT website, and, well… It doesn’t seem particularly well done (to put things diplomatically). In the absence of any material from administered tests, there’s also no way for me to tell how well it reflects what the actual exam will look like.

So rather than work from one questionable sample and risk producing something that isn’t accurate, I’ve decided to wait until I can get my hands on a few released tests and then revise the book accordingly.

I apologize for making people wait, but I have the sense that the changes shouldn’t really affect anyone’s preparation too much. At least the way the ACT is currently presenting things, it’s not even clear whether a graph-based Reading question will appear on every test. And since the ACT already has an entire Science test devoted exclusively to graph and chart reading, I don’t think answering a couple of additional graph-based questions elsewhere in the exam will pose an overwhelming hurdle.

That said, I appreciate everyone’s patience, and I’ll post more information as it becomes available.

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Working with struggling readers: what ACT tutors need to know

Image by GOLFX, Shutterstock

 

When Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I helped found last summer, held its most recent workshop last week, I stuck an announcement in my newsletter almost as an afterthought. A test-prep tutor had participated in our previous workshop and seemed to have gotten a lot of out of it, and it occurred to me that others might be interested. Nevertheless, I was a bit taken aback at the number of inquiries I received from ACT tutors—more emails, incidentally, than I got from elementary-school teachers.

In retrospect, this should not have been at all surprising, but I guess that given all the current backlash over standardized testing, I neglected to realize how many students are still getting tutored for college-admissions exams, and how many tutors are encountering the exact same kinds of reading problems I repeatedly saw. The issues I discuss here do also apply to the SAT (and any other standardized test), but I’m focusing on the ACT here because it brings a set of specific issues into particularly sharp focus.  (more…)

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

Informal words and phrases to avoid in IELTS Task 2 essays

After reading a certain number of Band 6 #IELTS Task 2 essays, one (or rather I) can’t help but notice certain patterns. In particular, the persistent use of certain informal words, phrases, and abbreviations is quite striking.

I’m not the first person to point this out, or to post about it on the internet, but given sheer frequency with which they’re used, it’s clear that the message isn’t getting through.

So I decided to compile the greatest hits into one very short list. 

 

 

Bottom line: if you stop using the informal terms, you’re taking a real step towards Band 7; if you keep on including them, expect your score to stay where it is. These are very high-frequency words and constructions, and they are relevant to pretty much any question you might be asked.

In fact, I would actually wager that it’s possible to accurately gauge, in only a few seconds, whether an essay has any chance of earning a 7 simply by scanning it for the terms in the left-hand column, plus standard punctuation, capitalization, and spacing. 

Let’s look at a comparison:

Band 6-6.5 

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact,local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products, services etc. Thus without these small business, lots of factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for stuff e.g. rent and food. 

Band 7

Small businesses play an important function in keeping economy of local communities safe. In fact, local communities are vital because companies rely on them to sell their products and services. Thus without these small business, many factories will close which will cause workers to lose their jobs and be unable to pay for necessary items such as rent and food.

I strongly recommend keeping this list next to you when you write practice essays for as long as you need to. Underline the “formal” words as you write them to reiterate their importance and remind yourself to keep on using them.

There aren’t many quick fixes when it comes to IELTS Writing, but this comes pretty close. 

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Image by Charlotte May from Pexels

 

In theory, parallel structure is a relatively easy concept to master: it simply refers to the fact that items in a list, as well as constructions on either side of a conjunction such as and or but, should be kept in the same format (all nouns or all verbs).

In very simple sentences, e.g., I went to bed late but woke up early, this rule is generally quite simple to apply.

When sentences are long and contain a lot of information, however, things get a bit trickier. Keeping forms parallel requires the writer to keep track of and understand how words and phrases in different parts of a sentence relate to one another.

One very common issue involves the use of main verbs after modal verbs such as canshould, or might. As anyone who speaks English at a reasonably high level knows, main verbs are never conjugated in this construction, e.g., one would say it might work, not it might works. But when the two verbs are separated, there’s a common tendency forget about the first one and to stick an -s on the second.

This is an issue that appears in the writing of both native and non-native English speakers, but it’s particularly rampant in IELTS essays. It may also be tested in GMAT Sentence Corrections. (more…)

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

When I was putting together my IELTS grammar guide, I read dozens of practice essays, primarily by students who had scored in Band 6 on previous exams. It quickly became apparent that many test-takers were struggling with similar grammatical concepts, and one of the most common ones involved the use of articles with a specific group of “quantity” words.

On one hand, this is entirely understandable: a(n) and the are notoriously tricky for people whose native languages do not use articles the way English does, and it is often not fully clear to them why these words even need to be used at all. As a result, they may not realize how omitting them can change the meaning of certain statements and/or make their English seem unnatural.

In everyday life, this is unlikely to seriously impede communication; however, in terms of the IELTS—and particularly IELTS Writing—it can create real problems. Phrases involving words like majority and number are relevant to most IELTS Task essay questions (Task 2 as well as Task 1 Academic Training) and may need to be used multiple times within a given response. Furthermore, these terms are frequently used in introductions, and errors there can subtly influence a reader’s impression of an entire essay—a poor first impression can be hard to counteract.

So that said, here is what you need to know.

 

Few vs. A Few

 

Both few and a few are always used with a plural noun, e.g., few people or a few people.

However, each term has a specific and a separate meaning; few is not simply a shortened version of a few. If you do not use the correct form, you may unintentionally write things that do not make sense, or that imply something other than what you intended to imply.

Few = hardly any; has a negative connotation: indicates unpopularity

A few = a small number, several; has a neutral or positive connotation: indicates slight to moderate popularity

 

The vast majority of errors involve omitting the indefinite article and writing few when a few is needed.

 

Correct: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but a few researchers (= a small number of researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.

 

The sentence serves to introduce conflicting perspectives according to a standard formula: most people believe x, but others people believe y. The point is that although the minority viewpoint is held by only a small number of people, it does have some popularity.

 

Incorrect: Most scientists believe that the dinosaurs went extinct because of an asteroid, but few researchers (= almost no researchers) have suggested that a comet was responsible.

 

This version does not really make sense: the sentence is intended to imply that the “comet” theory has some support, but the use of few eliminates this implication.

 

If you want to suggest that a group is really quite small, you can also say just a few or only a few.

You cannot, however, say just few or only few. These constructions do not exist.

 

Correct: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only a few people remained.

Incorrect: By midnight, most of the guests had left the party; just/only few people remained.

 

On the other hand, few without the article is used to emphasize that hardly anyone or anything belongs to a particular group.

 

Correct: Although it is reasonable for politicians to listen to the opinions of business leaders when writing environmental regulations, few people (= almost no one) would suggest that manufacturers alone should be responsible for determining policies that affect natural resources.

 

The use of few is logical here since presumably manufacturers would be more interested in using up natural resources than in preserving plant and animal habitats.

If the writer had written a few instead of few, the contrast between the two parts of the sentence would be lost, and the statement would not make much sense.

 

 

The Majority, A Majority

 

Majority = most (>50%)

This word is always used with an article: the is standard, although a is generally acceptable as well. It has a slightly less strong implication, but for practical purposes, the two versions are the same.

 

Correct: The majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.

Acceptable: A majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.

Incorrect: Majority of people now do at least some of their shopping online.

 

When majority is modified, however, a is used. Again, the article is required; it is not replaced by the adjective.

 

Correct: A large majority voted in favor of the new policy.

Incorrect: Large majority voted in favor of the new policy.

 

 

A Number, The Number

 

Number must be used with an article, either a or the. Both are typically followed by of + noun.

 

A number = many; can be used alone or with a modifier such as large, small, etc. 

The number = the quantity   

 

Correct: A number (= many) people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.

Correct: A substantial number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.

Correct: The number of people who said they would come to the party but then changed their minds was quite substantial.

Incorrect: Number of people said they would come to the party but then changed their minds at the last minute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Can” vs. “could”:  simple present vs. conditional

“Can” vs. “could”: simple present vs. conditional

Over the past several months, I’ve read an enormous number of essays written by non-native English speakers, and in addition to the expected difficulties, I’ve noticed a handful of recurring issues that rarely get addressed — I suspect because most native English speakers don’t realize that the particular concepts in question can get confused in those particular ways.

One of the most common of these issues is the confusion between the simple present and the conditional, and more specifically between can and could.

Errors involving these forms are often fairly subtle; they’re not absolutely wrong in the same black-and-white way as errors involving, say, confusion between the present perfect and the simple past (e.g., I have graduated from university last year rather than I graduated from university last year), and I think that’s also why they tend to get missed. Using could correctly is often more about implication and context than adhering to a clear-cut rule, which is why even very advanced speakers may still struggle with it.

To be sure, there is a more formulaic usage: “if” clause is in the past, then the conditional must be used in the main clause (e.g., If I left home 15 minutes earlier, I could get to class on time). But when there isn’t an “if” clause to serve as a clear indicator that the conditional is required, things sometimes get a bit muddled.

I recently came across a perfect example of a not-quite-correctly-used could on an Internet forum, and I’m going to use it to illustrate my point. In a discussion about a restaurant, a person who generally has excellent English wrote a sentence similar to the following

Three-star restaurants don’t normally serve just pasta with sauce. La Pergola is a three-stars (sic) Michelin restaurant in Rome, and there you could eat dishes like battered squash blossoms over shellfish and saffron with caviar. 

The use of the conditional here isn’t a gross error, but it is “off”. The rest of the sentence is written with simple-present verbs (don’tserveis), and the shift to the conditional disrupts that consistency (parallel structure) unnecessarily.

Presumably, the writer assumed that the conditional was needed because she was describing something the reader was not actually doing, and the sentence contained an element of suggestion. The issue, however, is that a real situation is being described: the dish in question is actually on the restaurant’s menu, and it is possible for a diner to order it. As a result, the simple present is more appropriate, particularly in context of the surrounding verbs.

The conditional, on the other hand, is used only when there is a “but”, either stated or implied: it is used to an signal that an action/situation might not happen, or (very often) that it probably won’t happen. Either way, the emphasis is on the theoretical aspect.

I could buy a new iPhone phone now, but I’d really rather wait until the next version is released in a few months. (= I probably won’t buy the phone now) 

There are several major steps that local governments could take to reduce car usage among commuters. For example, they could encourage the establishment of new bus routes in poorly served areas; they could also fund the construction of additional subway lines.  (= This is theoretical discussion; the writer is clearly making suggestions) 

So, to sum up:

Can = real situation; something that currently exists or is doable 

Could = suggestion, theoretical situation (one that might not/probably won’t occur)