In theory, reading comprehension is not that complicated. There are only a few types of questions that typically come up, and there are aren’t a large number of writing styles tests typically use. In practice, however, some students can find reading comprehension difficult due to having trouble figuring out complicated wording, not being able to read quickly, or a variety of other reasons. If no one has ever taken the time to break down the shortcuts and keys you should look for, it can feel like you’re flying blind in these assessments. Thankfully, to improve your skills and master reading comprehension, there are only a few things that you need to learn to do very well.
You can’t avoid this one. You need to read, and you need to read often. Just like anything, whether it’s sports or math, you need to practice to get better. For reading comprehension, that means reading. It’s not enough to read a lot, though. You’re not being tested on your ability to read things but your ability to understand the material and its context. While you’re reading, think about the question words: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
- Who is important in this book/scene/
- What is going on?
- Where is this happening?
- When is it happening?
- Why is this (event/relationship/person/viewpoint/etc.) important? Why is it happening?
- How does this relate to (other characters/events/etc.) in the story?
Asking yourself questions like these will help you prepare for the questions any reading comprehension exam asks you.
Second, you need to read a variety of books. It doesn’t have to be only classical novels – in fact, we actively encourage you not to only read classic novels. You should be familiar with a wide variety of text and should get comfortable with reading textbooks, newspapers, reports, novels, magazines, speeches, and more. As we’ve stated before, even reading comic books and graphic novels can be helpful in cultivating this skill. Find and read books that interest you. What’s important is that you become familiar with how narratives flow, how authors organize the important information, and understanding how various styles of text present that information.
Work on speed reading
Understanding the information you read is half the battle. One of the major struggles students have with reading comprehension is that they’re not able to fully read the passage and answer the questions in the time allotted. To practice this skill, time how long it takes you to read 4-5 paragraphs of information. Work on beating that time, and see how quickly you can answer those important questions we listed above.
Should I read the entire passage?
In most cases, yes. You may have heard that it’s better to read the questions first and then find those answers in the passage. This strategy can be helpful in saving you time on the test, but it can also be a double-edged sword. The problem with this strategy is that you have to have a strong command of being able to find the most important and relevant information easily in the text. You also have to be skilled at putting together the context of a story with minimal information. If you find yourself confused while attempting to use this strategy, it’s a sign that you need more information. In that case, it’s better for you to just read the entire passage. If you don’t understand the information from the little pieces you get through the questions, you’ll waste more time being confused, re-reading information, and trying to stitch together what you can. It’s more effective for you to read the entire passage and take notes while you do. Write down the themes. Underline the sentences you believe are the most important to the passage as a whole. Write down any comments to yourself that will help you find the vital information more quickly.
Should I read the questions first?
It can be helpful to read the questions first. Reading the questions beforehand will tell you what information you need to look out for in the passage. The questions typically are written in the order that the information appears in the passage, so just worry about reading a few of the questions at a time and then reading through the passage. As mentioned above, if reading the questions ahead of time causes more confusion for you than reading the passage first, just disregard this time and focus on reading the whole passage and taking notes.
Other tips you should know
The questions are in order
You may or may not have realized this, but reading comprehension tests – especially standardized tests – tend to present the questions in the same order that the information in the passage appears. This tip is most useful if you’re reading questions first before looking at the passage.
In short, if there are 10 questions for a particular passage, and you are on question 3, you should expect that information to be in the first few paragraphs of the passage. If the passage has 5 paragraphs, it’s more likely to be in paragraph 1 or 2. Few questions will ask you to refer to a specific line. In that case, you should read the entire sentence for that information (not just that line) and the sentence before and after it as necessary for additional context. This only applies to questions that ask for specific details, though, about something that’s happening in the progression of the story or case. General questions about main idea, tone, and so on require other strategies.
Finding answers to questions about the main idea
To find the main idea of a passage or section, you should pay attention to three things: the introduction, the conclusion, and the details that frequently appear. You probably remember learning that you’re supposed to lead with what you intend to discuss in the papers you’ve written. Likewise, you typically end a paper by reviewing those same points again. Guess what? Authors do that too. It’s a standard that you’ll see in most writing. As a result, the most important points the passage will cover tend to be in the introduction and conclusion. When trying to find the main idea, pay attention to the beginning and end of whatever unit of the passage the question refers to. If it asks about the main idea of the passage as a whole, read the first and last paragraphs. If it asks about the main idea of a paragraph, read the first and last sentences.
Additionally, you should pay attention to the information that comes up again and again. When we’re trying to make a point, we often emphasize that information by referring to it again and again. Likewise, the author of a passage will bring up the most relevant details to the main idea frequently. If you see similar wording and points appearing throughout the passage, odds are that it’s a very important part of what you’re reading, and you should take note of it.
Finding answers to questions about tone
Many students have difficulty with questions about tone because it’s not as straight forward as finding a few details in the passage. These questions require you to dive deeper into the story and truly understand the author or character’s point of view. To answer these questions, pay attention to words that indicate some sort of emotion and the nuances in how the events are portrayed. If someone laughs, they’re likely in a good mood, but if they laugh uncomfortably, it’s no longer a positive situation. If someone says the sky is blue, that’s just a statement of fact, but if they say it’s a radiant blue, the word “radiant” seems to imply that they’re amazed to some degree fand have a positive affinity with the sky. Figuring out the tone of a passage requires you to put yourself in the shoes of the character or author and pay attention to how they feel and the emotions they’re conveying.
Finding answers for inference questions
Answering inference questions requires you to pay attention to how the various parts of the passage and how they all interact with one another. It also requires you to draw from your experience about how stories progress or how authors make their cases in order to predict what will come next. For example, if a question asks you to infer what should come next in a passage, you need to think carefully about what has already happened and how each part of the passage developed. Using that information, you must then decide how it accomplishes the overall goal of the text, what should logically follow, what is being implied, or some other inference.
Finding answers to questions about the passages’ structure
If you are asked to determine the best place for the sentence or paragraph or omit/add material to the passage, you need to think carefully about the logical progression of the story and points the passage makes. If the author is making an argument about whether a decision is a good or bad one for an organization, it makes most sense for them to state the potential options before delving into why their option is the best. If you’re asked to move material in the passage, you must re-read the text up to that point and think about whether the story flows better or if the argument is more or less convincing when the new material is in that position. If you are asked to omit material, you must re-read the passage and think about how the story or argument functions without that information. Is it more or less convincing? Is the omitted part vital information that should absolutely be included in the text?
Finding answers to questions about application
Application questions are a more specific type of inference question where you are tasked with taking the information from the passage and using it to determine how else the passage can be changed. These questions typically involve asking you to replace words or sentences, identify the meanings of words, or describe the situation in the text. Just like with other inference questions, it is important to pay attention to how the other parts of the passage relate to the part of the passage from which the question is asking you to make your inference.
Learning how to approach reading comprehension yields many benefits. Not only is it a skill that will help you on tests during your school years, but it is a skill that will be useful throughout your lifetime. The more you are able to understand what you are reading, the more you will be able to function in life, learning, and your future careers. Having strong reading comprehension skills can open the doors for many opportunities in the future as you will be able to understand more of what’s happening in the world around you and how it fits in with the things you care about. Reading comprehension isn’t complicated, but it does take dedicated and consistent practice. What else is new, though? Anything you want to do takes dedicated practice.
Whether it’s a classic novel, a newspaper, a magazine, or a comic book, pick up something that you find interesting and get to reading. Occasionally, try to challenge yourself by reading something a bit more complicated or different material than you usually gravitate towards. Have discussions with the people around you about what you are reading. Ask them their opinions. Ask yourself the questions we described above. The more you practice doing these things, the better you’ll become at mastering and understanding the text before you.