SAT/ACT Verbal for International Students

Feb 17, 2021

The Verbal sections of the SAT (Reading and Writing & Language) and the ACT (Reading and English) present unique challenges – and opportunities! – for international students whose native language is not English or who struggle in general with reading speed, reading comprehension, and grammar rules.

In this article, I’ll walk you through some of the most common obstacles to acing the Verbal SAT/ACT sections and offer tips and strategies for how to navigate them. It’s worth noting that these challenges impact ALL students in some way, even those whose native language is English! But here, I will focus specifically on International Students.

Challenge 1: TIMING

The SAT Verbal and ACT Verbal both require you to move through the passages at a steady clip, which can be difficult for students whose native language is not English or who are slower readers in general. Luckily, we have a toolbox of different strategies to model and experiment with during tutoring sessions and while completing homework.

On the Reading side, these tools might, for instance, include reading the questions before the passage; or reading the introductory paragraph, concluding paragraph, and topic sentence of each paragraph; or reading only the portions of the passage required to answer a given question; or switching up the order in which you tackle the different passages.

On the English/Writing & Language side, this might look like going directly to the underlined portions rather than reading the whole passage, or learning to quickly spot the grammar rule being tested by looking at the question and answer choices.

We can also utilize speed drills in tutoring sessions and while completing homework, and set target time allocations for each passage or section.   

Challenge 2: VOCABULARY

The SAT and ACT test vocabulary in two different ways: directly and indirectly. Direct vocabulary questions usually look something like this: “As used in line 29, the word afford most nearly means [blank].” More often than not, the meaning of the word in this particular context is NOT the most common meaning of the word. For instance if the word afford most commonly means to be able to pay for something, in the context of the passage it may mean to confer or grant someone something, e.g., “she afforded him the opportunity to speak.”

However, the SAT and ACT also test vocabulary indirectly—for instance, when you need to understand key vocabulary terms in order to understand what’s happening in a sentence/section of the passage.

The best way to build vocabulary over time is to read good writing on a regular basis. This might mean reading English-language novels, reputable journalism outlets, or sophisticated online sources. But when it comes to standardized test prep, we don’t always have the luxury of time. So, the main advice I have for international students who encounter unfamiliar vocabulary words is to use what you already know to your advantage. Let me explain.

English is unique in that it shares roots with both Germanic and Latin/Romance languages. So, if you’re a native speaker of German, Dutch, Scandinavian languages, etc., or if you’re a native speaker of Italian, Spanish, French, etc., chances are, you will recognize lots of commonalities between English words and words in your native language.

This can help you on the exam!

Let’s take the word “amicable” as an example. Maybe you’re not familiar with this word in English, but you do know that in Italian, a very similar word, amico, means “friend,” and an even more similar word, amichevole, means something like “friendly.”

We can also practice breaking words up into their constituent parts. For instance, the word ambivalent: the prefix “ambi” means “both,” which maybe you could figure out if you’re familiar with the word ambidextrous. Knowing the meaning of the prefix can then help you figure out or narrow down the meaning of the whole word (in this case, having mixed – or having “both” – feelings about something).


The SAT and ACT Reading sections both test your ability to comprehend – that is, understand and grasp the ideas of – a variety of texts in English, ranging from fiction, to social science, to natural science, to history. If you’ve ever found yourself reading the same paragraph over and over, trying to figure out what in the world the author is saying, then you know that reading comprehension can be a big challenge for many students, particularly those whose first language is not English.

Texts often contain layers of meaning, some obvious and others subtler. Sometimes students find it easy to answer questions that ask for information stated explicitly in the passage, but struggle with questions that ask them to “read between the lines” or make an inference based on the passage. Other times, particularly in passages written in more antiquated forms of English, students get thrown off by unfamiliar syntax, phrasing, or idioms.

Together with a tutor, students can learn to scan a passage for overall meaning, annotate key phrases and sections, pick up on cues like tone and attitude, analyze graphs/figures in relation to a given passage, and develop meta-awareness of when they begin to lose focus and miss the meaning of what they’re reading.

Challenge 4: GRAMMAR RULES

Grammar rules differ between languages, so international students often fall into the trap of applying the grammar rules of their native language to the grammar rules of American English.

Take, for instance, a “comma splice”—a grammatical error that occurs when a writer tries to link two independent clauses using only a comma, as in the following (grammatically incorrect) example: “Jenny went to the beach yesterday, she said she saw Mary there.” The first part of the sentence, “Jenny went to the beach yesterday,” is an independent clause that can stand on its own as a complete sentence. The same thing goes for the second part of the sentence, “she said she saw Mary there.” In English, the comma is not strong enough to connect two independent clauses.

However, in a language such as Italian, there is nothing wrong with connecting two independent clauses using only a comma, and so students whose native/dominant language is Italian might, quite understandably, fall into the trap of assuming the same rules apply to both English and Italian.  

When tutoring students in SAT Writing & Language or ACT English, I like to take a two-prong approach: first, and most importantly, we look for patterns in the student’s mistakes (some common pain points include comma usage, transition words, dashes, and questions with the option to DELETE the underlined portion) and tackle those using actual test questions. Second, I like to equip students with a customized grammar essentials sheet so they have a unified material to reference as necessarily and can get a bird’s eye view of all the grammar rules tested on the exam.  


Standardized test performance is about more than mastery of content-knowledge and test-taking strategies. Regardless of how well you’ve prepared, how many practice problems you’ve done, or how well you’ve scored on your homework, you’re bound to be nervous on Test Day. Sometimes those nerves can work in your favor, keeping you alert, focused, and engaged. However, other times, those nerves become debilitating and negatively impact test performance in an unhealthy cycle. That’s why Onsen incorporates mindfulness training into tutoring packages. Read more about the impacts of test stress here and explore the research-backed benefits of mindfulness for test prep here.

The Take-Home Message

The Verbal sections of the SAT and ACT present unique challenges and opportunities for international students and students whose first language is not English. Onsen’s tutors have immense experience working with international test-takers and tailoring lessons to meet each student’s individual needs to help them meet their fullest potential.

Written by

Margret Ann Thors
Author Image A professional writer and three-time graduate of Columbia University, Margrét Ann has tutored the SAT, ACT, GRE, SSAT, as well as creative and academic writing for the past eight years. In addition to her one-on-one tutoring work, Margrét Ann has taught undergraduate writing and education courses at Columbia University and University of Colorado, Boulder, as well as pre-college summer workshops at such colleges and universities as Yale, Fairfield, Haverford, and Vassar.

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