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The Complete Guide to ACT English Review by Laura Delgado

Second Edition
Erica L. Meltzer
The Critical Reader
(646) 380-2506
1350 6th Ave.
New York, NY 10019

The ACT. Perhaps the acronym doesn’t strike quite as much fear into the hearts of parents and students alike as that other acronym (SAT) does, but the fear is still very real. Although some people will tell you that the ACT is easier than the SAT, the reality is that different students prefer each test for different reasons. Erica Meltzer, the author of The Complete Guide to ACT English, began her ACT career as a test-question writer for a test-prep company, not as a test-guide writer. It was only after she had written many test questions (and guides for the SAT) did she begin to realize that she was a natural to write a guide to the English portion of the ACT. Eventually, that’s just what she did. Her book is 282 pages long and retails for $21.95.

The Complete Guide to ACT English begins with an ACT English “cheat sheet” on page 5. On one page, it boils the book down to its most basic essentials. For example, it notes the difference between “its” and it’s.” This page also references the chapter in which the concept is further elucidated. This page is particularly helpful if, after having worked through the book, you’re still having trouble with one or two particular concepts. The book then proceeds in two parts: Punctuation and Grammar and Rhetoric. Within Punctuation and Grammar, the book covers the following: Apostrophes, Sentences and Fragments, Joining and Separating Sentences, Non-Essential and Essential Clauses, Additional Comma Uses and Misuses, Colons, Dashes, Verbs, Pronouns, Adjectives and Adverbs, Word Pairs and Comparisons, Modification, Parallel Structure, and Relative Pronouns. There is a cumulative review after the section on Dashes and another after the section on Relative Pronouns. Within Rhetoric, the book covers the following: Shorter is Better, Diction and Register, Transitions, Is it Relevant? Sentence and Paragraph Order, and Suppose the Writer’s Goal . . . There are also two tests, an answer key, a score conversion chart, and three appendices (Questions by Category, Questions by Test, and Who vs. Whom).

The material itself is covered very concisely. Many concepts are covered in a couple of pages. The concept is first introduced and then explained. Incorrect and correct examples are provided. Important notes are given in bold font. If there is an applicable tip for the ACT, that will also be provided. For example, with Non-Essential and Essential Clauses, Ms. Meltzer first discusses Non-Essential Transition Words and Phrases and Transitions: Two Commas vs. Semicolon or Period. Then there is Drill: Identifying Non-Essential Clauses. In this drill, you are presented with five passages such as you might see on the ACT, and you are given the chance to practice what you have just learned. Next, Ms. Meltzer discusses Essential Clauses with and without “That,” The Case of “Who:” Non-Essential vs. Essential Clauses, and Commas with Names and Titles. Then it’s time for Drill: Commas with Essential and Non-Essential Clauses, and six more passages. And that’s the end of the section! Each section proceeds in much the same manner.

In some ways, then, it is fair to say that this book is not meant to be a teaching tool as such. After all, a topic as weighty as essential and non-essential clauses (which I capitalized previously because it was the title of a chapter and sections within that chapter; Ms. Meltzer would have to tell me if I made the right choice!) is treated in less than 15 pages, and several of those pages are review. Instead, the book is meant to be a guide: it introduces the topic (ideally, not for the first time in a student’s academic career), highlights the important things to remember about the topic, and shows you how the topic could appear on the ACT. In that way, the book definitely serves its purpose as an ACT prep tool.

Having said that, I think that this book absolutely can serve as a teaching tool, depending on the person you are intending to teach. If your student has a firm grasp on grammar and doesn’t require much, if any, review to solidify a concept, I think this book makes an excellent high school grammar text. I’m seriously considering using it that way for at least one of my children. Every time I look through it, I find more to fall in love with. In fact, not only could it make a great high school text, it also makes a great grammar guide. Since I got it for review, I have already used it to check a couple of grammar points for my own reference. Yes, I have other grammar guides—“real” grammar guides—but they cover so much more than this one. They cover instances of comma usage that I hope never to encounter either in my own or in anyone else’s writing. This guide, because it is tailored to the ACT specifically, doesn’t cover every instance of comma usage ever conceived. Don’t get me wrong—it covers quite a few, but they are the ones you are more likely to encounter in real life.

My essential point is this: if you spend the roughly $22 to buy this book, you are getting more than just a great guide to ACT English preparation. The book will serve you very well in that way. I’m confident that it will give my 16-year-old daughter the tools she needs to score nearly perfectly on that section of the ACT. She is already gifted in this area, so being able to review the material in this concise way has enabled her to prepare for the English portion of the ACT without getting bogged down “studying.” Rather, she is able just to brush up on skills she has already learned but may have forgotten, put a name to skills she intuitively knows but never had to put a name to because she is self-taught on many of them, and drill them lightly to make sure she knows what she needs to without the kind of “kill-and-drill” approach that turns so many students off.

At the same time, the book will be great for my 14-year-old son. He has been learning grammar rigorously his entire homeschooled life. Now that he is hitting high school, I am ready to allow him to start easing off it some. He completed a high school grammar curriculum in middle school, so he probably already knows what he needs to know for the ACT. However, he has several years before taking it. That’s why I think this book will make a great high school grammar text for him. It will review what he has already learned, prepare him for the test, and remind him of what he will need to know, all without boring him.

Like I started to say above, though, you are getting more than a great ACT guide and potential high school text. You are also getting a great grammar guide for yourself. Perhaps you think you may have spliced a comma, but you’re not sure. Ms. Meltzer will tell you about comma splices and how to fix them in this book. Not sure about how to use dashes? This book tells you. Who vs. Whom? Who knows which is correct? Ms. Meltzer does, and she goes over it in this book. So, when your kids are done with the ACT, this book can live on your bookshelf and continue to serve your needs. It’s a great investment.

As much as I endorse this book, there is one thing I wish were different. While I appreciate the simplicity of the text—simple black and white with no distractions of any kind—I wish that there were some kind of boxes or lines incorporated within it, especially on the pages of text that are doing the teaching (reviewing the concept). As you’re flipping through the book, it is hard to distinguish one section from the next, and it is easy to get lost in a sea of type. Another alternative would be to have headings or footers that have the chapter/section noted. If you’re just looking for one or two things in the book, it can take a little while to find what you want. This is a small quibble and changes nothing about my overall recommendation for this book.

If you have a student who will be taking the ACT in the next couple of years, regardless of whether he or she is homeschooled or public schooled, The Complete Guide to ACT English is a book that should be on your bookshelf.

-Product review by Laura Delgado, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, July 2017