While the multiple-choice grammar sections of the SAT & ACT stand out as fairly straightforward in terms of testing content, test takers generally find themselves surprised by two major observations:
First, most native English speakers struggle with the fundamental mechanics of their mother tongue.
Second, grammar entails more than just mechanics, punctuation, and sentence structure.
Obviously, students seeking the highest scores on these sections need to sharpen their grammar skills before test day. The SAT & ACT test the rhetorical aspects of communication represented by the SAT subscore category Expression of Ideas: thesis, organization, transitions, word choice, style, and tone.
Organization questions stand out as consistently challenging, but what makes them so tough? These questions ask test takers to identify the proper place in a passage for a selected sentence or paragraph. Answering these questions correctly requires insight into the point an author is trying to make and how that information unfolds sequentially. To ace the Organization questions most other students get wrong, consider the following three elements of a passage:
1. TIME CLUES
Obviously, indicators of chronological order heavily influence the determination of proper organization. Look for mention of days, months, seasons, and years.
Signal words like before and after or first, second, and third provide clear chronological guidance for anyone able to find them. Also seek out transitions that signal cause and effect; if it isn’t obvious, the cause precedes the effect. In the same vein, contrasting items and examples follow whatever they are presented in reference to. Transition words and phrases carry a lot of the organizational weight in most writing.
Don’t just focus on the superficial signals of organization. To identify where a paragraph fits in a passage, you must understand the point of each paragraph and then order those points sequentially. The same concept applies to sentences in a paragraph. For example, if a sentence or paragraph furthers the discussion of a topic, it must follow the introduction of that topic.
Clearly, any test question that demands application of both grammar mechanics and reading comprehension will require more time and effort than those that challenge only a single skill set. However, test takers willing to put in the work will consistently pick up the points that others miss. Remember that only one answer choice can be objectively correct, then pay attention to the time clues, transitions, and passage content that support the one right answer.