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ACT, SAT Study Tips for English as Second Language Students | College Admissions Playbook

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In high-stakes test preparation, one size does not fit all. For students whose first language is not English, tips like “use your inner grammar ear” and explanations like “you don’t say X, you say Y” do not strike the same chord that they might for native English speakers.

If you are an English language learner, or ELL, who will take the ACT or SAT, here is some test prep advice especially for you.

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Find Vocabulary Lists Designed for ELLs

Vocabulary study usually looks quite different for native English speakers than for students who are learning English as a foreign language. Native English speakers may concentrate their efforts on rarer and more sophisticated words, such as “ascetic” or “abdicate.” ELLs, by contrast, would be wise to first focus on mastering high-frequency words like “diligent” and “beneficial.”

As you delve into your test prep, focus on vocabulary lists made specifically for ELLs. These will expose you to the words you are most likely to encounter on the ACT or SAT, rather than arcane words you have a much smaller chance of coming across.

To get started, you can peruse ACT vocabulary lists and flashcards from Exam Word. Note that vocabulary on the ACT and SAT is comparable, so students can stand to gain from using vocabulary lists geared for either exam.

Students whose first language is Greek or a Romance language such as Spanish, Portuguese, French or Italian should rely heavily on cognates – words that look identical or similar between two languages and have the same derivation – on ACT or SAT passages. More than 60% of English words have Greek or Latin roots, so it can be extremely helpful to defer to one’s first-language lexicon on vocabulary and reading comprehension questions.

An addditional tip: When reading, focus on the words you know, not on the ones you don’t know. You do not need to understand every word in a paragraph to get the gist of what is written.

Train to Read for Main Ideas

ACT and SAT reading passages often bombard test takers with much more text than they need to answer the questions. Cutting through the clutter to find the important information is a key testing skill. Therefore, read with an eye toward main ideas, not paying attention to smaller details unless they show up in a question.

To hone this skill, practice reading one paragraph at a time and paraphrasing it mentally or aloud in one sentence.

Another technique that tends to work well for both native English speakers and ELLs is going directly to the questions and then reading only the sections of the passage that are necessary to answer the questions. This technique can save ample time and reduce test anxiety.

Make no Assumptions About Punctuation

Because punctuation is tested heavily on both the ACT English and the SAT Writing and Language tests, it is an area that requires painstaking study. However, take care not to assume that punctuation works the same in English as it does in your first language.

In Spanish, for instance, the Oxford comma – the last comma in a series – is never used. In German, no comma is used before the coordinating conjunctions “and” and “or” when they introduce a full sentence, while in English a comma would be required in both instances.

Approach your study of English punctuation rules from scratch, with your mind as a blank slate. You will likely be surprised at how specific and variable the rules are from those of your mother tongue.

If you are unsure how to get started with punctuation, check out the article about SAT and ACT grammar and punctuation rules at The Critical Reader.

Outline Your Response, Use ‘Language Chunks’ on ACT Writing

Although the College Board has eliminated the optional SAT essay, a 40-minute essay remains an optional part of the ACT. For students whose first language is not English, planning is an especially critical step in the writing process.

Some native English speakers may still perform satisfactorily on essays by “winging it,” but ELLs can benefit immensely from the confidence that comes from having a structured plan. That plan should include not only an outline of the general portions of your essay, but also some phrases that you plan to use.

Before test day, devote some time to memorizing “language chunks” that you can use in your writing, no matter what the essay topic may be. For example, the essay always has you consider and comment on different perspectives, so you can come prepared with phrases that help you speak about and compare those perspectives. Examples of useful chunks you should learn include “an advantage of” and “on the other hand.” Knowing such recyclable phrases can ease test anxiety and give your essays a more natural sound.

As an English language learner, you can use these test prep tips to perform as well on the ACT or SAT as your native English-speaking peers.



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