Reading Comprehension – The Complete Guide

Reading Skills are a perennial topic for standardized tests.   Nursing Entrance Test generally have a reading comprehension component as do most College Entrance Exams.  Some tests, like the Nelson Denny, is primarily reading comprehension.  Before entering University or Nursing School, the institution wants to make sure that you will be able to handle reading technical material and textbooks.   Most High School Tests have reading comprehension components as this is a critical skill required for graduation.

At first sight, reading comprehension tests look challenging especially if you are given long essays to answer only two to three questions. While reading, you might notice your attention wandering, or you may feel sleepy. Do not be discouraged because there are various tactics and long
range strategies that make comprehending even long, boring essays easier.
Your friends before your foes. It is always best to tackle essays or passages with familiar subjects rather than those with unfamiliar ones. This approach applies the same logic as tackling easy questions before hard ones. Skip passages that do not interest you and leave them for later when there is more time.

Don’t use ‘special’ reading techniques. This is not the time for speed-reading or anything like that – just plain ordinary reading – not too slow and not too fast.

Read through the entire passage and the questions
before you do anything. Many students try reading the questions first and then looking for answers in the passage thinking this approach is more efficient. What these students do not realize is that it is often hard to navigate in unfamiliar roads. If you do not familiarize yourself with the
passage first, looking for answers become not only time consuming
but also dangerous because you might miss the context of the answer you are looking for. If you read the questions first you will only confuse yourself and lose valuable time.

Familiarize yourself with reading comprehension questions.
If you are familiar with the common types of reading questions, you are able to take note of important parts of the passage, saving time. There are six major kinds of reading questions.  Reading comprehension practice questions here and here

Main Idea– Questions that ask for the central
thought or significance of the passage.
Reading 29
Specific Details – Questions that asks for explicitly
stated ideas.
Drawing Inferences – Questions that ask for a statement’s
intended meaning.
Tone or Attitude – Questions that test your ability to
sense the emotional state of the author.
Context Meaning – Questions that ask for the meaning
of a word depending on the context.
Technique – Questions that ask for the method of
organization or the writing style of the author.

Read. Read. Read. The best preparation for reading comprehension
tests is always to read, read and read. If you are not used to reading lengthy passages, you will probably lose concentration. Increase your attention span by making a habit out of reading.

Reading Comprehension tests become less daunting when you have trained yourself to read and understand fast. Always remember that it is easier to understand passages you are interested in. Do not read through passages hastily. Make mental notes of ideas that you think might be asked.

Reading Strategy

When facing the reading comprehension section of a standardized test, you need a strategy to be successful. You want to keep several steps in mind:

• First, make a note of the time and the number of
sections. Time your work accordingly. Typically, four to
five minutes per section is sufficient. Second, read the
directions for each selection thoroughly before beginning
(and listen well to any additional verbal instructions, as they will often clarify obscure or confusing written guidelines). You must know exactly how to do what you’re about to do!

Now you’re ready to begin reading the selection.
Read the passage carefully, noting significant characters or events on a scratch sheet of paper or underlining on the test sheet. Many students find making a basic list in the margins helpful. Quickly jot down or
underline one-word summaries of characters, notable happenings, numbers, or key ideas. This will help you better retain information and focus wandering thoughts. Remember, however, that your main goal in
doing this is to find the information that answers the questions. Even if you find the passage interesting, remember your goal and work fast but stay on track.

• Now read the question and all the choices. Now you have read the passage, have a general idea of the main ideas, and have marked the important points. Read the question and all the choices. Never choose an answer without reading them all! Questions are often designed to confuse – stay focused and clear. Usually the answer choices will focus on one or two facts or inferences from the passage. Keep these clear in your mind.

• Search for the answer. With a very general idea of what the different choices are, go back to the passage and scan for the relevant information. Watch for big words, unusual or unique words. These make your job
easier as you can scan the text for the particular word.

• Mark the Answer. Now you have the key information the question is looking for. Go back to the question, quickly scan the choices and mark the correct one. Understand and practice the different types of standardized reading comprehension tests. See the list above for the different types. Typically, there will be several questions dealing
with facts from the selection, a couple more inference questions dealing with logical consequences of those facts, and periodically an application-oriented question surfaces to force you to make connections with what you already know.

Some students prefer to answer the questions as listed, and feel classifying the question and then ordering is wasting precious time. Other students prefer to answer the different types of questions in order of how easy or difficult they are.

The choice is yours and do whatever works for you. If you want to try answering in order of difficulty, here is a recommended order, answer fact questions first; they’re easily found within the passage. Tackle inference problems next, after re-reading the question(s) as many times as you need to. Application or ‘best guess’ questions usually take the
longest, so, save them for last.

Use the practice tests to try out both ways of answering and
see what works for you.

For more help with reading comprehension, see Multiple
Choice Secrets at

Main Idea and Supporting Details

Identifying the main idea, topic and supporting details in a passage can feel like an overwhelming task. The passages used for standardized tests can be boring and seem difficult – Test writers don’t use interesting passages or ones that talk about things most people are familiar with.

Despite these obstacles, all passages and paragraphs will have the
information you need to answer the questions. The topic of a passage or paragraph is its subject. It’s the general idea and can be summed up in a word or short phrase. On some standardized tests, there is a short description of the passage if it’s taken from a longer work. Make sure you read the description as it might state the topic of the passage. If not, read the passage and ask yourself, “Who, or what is this about?” For example:
Over the years, school uniforms have been hotly debated. Arguments are made that students have the right to show individuality and express themselves by choosing their own clothes. However, this brings up social and academic issues. Some kids cannot afford to wear the clothes they like and might be bullied by the “better dressed” students. With attention drawn to clothes and the individual, students will lose focus on class work and the reason they are in school. School uniforms should be mandatory.

Ask: What is this paragraph about?
Topic: school uniforms

Once you have the topic, it’s easier to find the main idea. The main idea is a specific statement telling what the writer wants you to know about the topic. Writers usually state the main idea as a thesis statement. If you’re looking for the main idea of a single paragraph, the main idea is called the
topic sentence and will probably be the first or last sentence.

If you’re looking for the main idea of an entire passage, look for the thesis statement in either the first or last paragraph. The main idea is usually restated in the conclusion. To find the main idea of a passage or paragraph, follow these steps:

1. Find the topic.
2. Ask yourself, “What point is the author trying to make about the topic?”
3. Create your own sentence summarizing the author’s point.
4. Look in the text for the sentence closest in meaning to yours.

Look at the example paragraph again. It’s already established that the topic of the paragraph is school uniforms.

What is the main idea/topic sentence?

Ask: “What point is the author trying to make about school uniforms?”

Summary: Students should wear school uniforms.
Topic sentence: School uniforms should be mandatory.
Main Idea: School uniforms should be mandatory.

Each paragraph offers supporting details to explain the main idea. The details could be facts or reasons, but they will always answer a question about the main idea. What? Where? Why? When? How? How much/many? Look at the example paragraph again. You’ll notice that more than one
sentence answers a question about the main idea. These are
the supporting details.

Main Idea: School uniforms should be mandatory.
Ask: Why? Some kids cannot afford to wear clothes they like and could be bullied by the “better dressed” kids.

Supporting Detail

With attention drawn to clothes and the individual, Students will lose focus on class work and the reason they are in school.

Supporting Detail

What if the author doesn’t state the main idea in a topic sentence? The passage will have an implied main idea. It’s not as difficult to find as it might seem. Paragraphs are always organized around ideas. To find an implied main idea, you need to know the topic and then find the relationship between the supporting details. Ask yourself, “What is the
point the author is making about the relationship between the details?”

Cocoa is what makes chocolate good for you. Chocolate comes in many varieties. These delectable flavors include milk chocolate, dark
chocolate, semi-sweet, and white chocolate.

Ask: What is this paragraph about?
Topic: Chocolate
Ask: What? Where? Why? When? How? How much/many?
Supporting details: Chocolate is good for you because it is made of cocoa, Chocolate is delicious, Chocolate comes in different delicious flavors

Ask: What is the relationship between the details and what is the author’s point?
Main Idea: Chocolate is good because it is healthy and it tastes good.

Testing Tips for Main Idea Questions

1. Skim the questions – not the answer choices – before reading the passage.
2. Questions about main idea might use the words “theme,” “generalization,” or “purpose.”
3. Save questions about the main idea for last. On standardized tests like the SAT, the answers to the rest of the questions can be found in order in the passage.
3. Underline topic sentences in the passage. Most tests allow you to write in your testing booklet.
4. Answer the question in your own words before looking at the answer choices. Then match your answer with an answer choice.
5. Cross out incorrect answer choices immediately to prevent confusion.
6. If two of the answer choices mean the same thing but use different words, they are BOTH incorrect.
7. If a question asks about the whole passage, cross out the answer choices that apply to only part of it.
8. If only part of the information is correct, that answer choice is incorrect.
9. An answer choice that is too broad is incorrect. All information needs to be backed up by the passage.
10. Answer choices with extreme wording are usually incorrect.

Drawing Inferences And Conclusions

Drawing inferences and making conclusions happens all the time. In fact, you probably do it every time you read—sometimes without even realizing it! For example, remember the first time that you saw the movie “The Lion King.” When you meet Scar for the first time, he is trapping a helpless mouse with his sharp claws preparing to eat it. When you see this
action you guess that Scar is going to be a bad character in the movie.

Nothing appeared to tell you this. No caption came across the bottom of the screen that said “Bad Guy.” No red arrow pointed to Scar and said “Evil Lion.” No, you made an inference about his character based on the context clue you were given. You do the same thing when you read!

When you draw an inference or make a conclusion you are doing the same thing, you are making an educated guess based on the hints the author gives you. We call these hints “context clues.” Scar trapping the innocent mouse is the context clue about Scar’s character. Usually you are making inferences and drawing conclusions the entire time that you are reading.

Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly making educated guesses based on context clues. Think about a time you were reading a book and something happened that you were expecting to happen. You’re not psychic! Actually, you were picking up on the context clues and making inferences about what was going to happen next!

Let’s try an easy example. Read the following sentences and answer the questions at the end of the passage.

Shelly really likes to help people. She loves her job because she gets to help people every single day. However, Shelly has to work long hours and she can get called in the middle of the night for emergencies. She wears a white lab coat at work and usually she carries a stethoscope.

What is most likely Shelly’s job?

a. Musician
b. Lawyer
c. Doctor
d. Teacher

This probably seemed easy. Drawing inferences isn’t always this simple, but it is the same basic principle. How did you know Shelly was a doctor? She helps people, she works long hours, she wears a white lab coat, and she gets called in for emergencies at night. Context Clues! Nowhere in the
paragraph did it say Shelly was a doctor, but you were able to draw that conclusion based on the information provided in the paragraph. This is how it’s done!

There is a catch, though. Remember that when you draw inferences based on reading, you should only use the information given to you by the author. Sometimes it is easy for us to make conclusions based on knowledge that is already in our mind—but that can lead you to drawing an incorrect inference.

For example, let’s pretend there is a bully at your school named Brent. Now let’s say you read a story and the main character’s name is Brent. You could NOT infer that the character in the story is a bully just because his name is Brent. You should only use the information given to you by
the author to avoid drawing the wrong conclusion.
Let’s try another example. Read the passage below, and answer the question.
Social media is an extremely popular new form of connecting and communicating over the internet. Since Facebook’s original launch in 2004, millions of people have joined in the social media craze. In fact, it is estimated that almost 75% of all internet users aged 18 and older use some form of social media. Facebook started at Harvard University as a way to get students connected. However, it quickly grew into a worldwide phenomenon and today, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has an estimated net worth of 28.5 billion dollars.

Facebook is not the only social media platform, though. Other sites such as Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have since been invented and are quickly becoming just as popular! Many social media users actually use more than one type of social media. Furthermore, most social media sites
have created mobile apps that allow people to connect via social media virtually anywhere in the world!

What is the most likely reason that other social media sites like Twitter and Instagram were created?
a. Professors at Harvard University made it a class
b. Facebook was extremely popular and other people
thought they could also be successful by designing
social media sites.
c. Facebook was not connecting enough people.
d. Mark Zuckerberg paid people to invent new social
media sites because he wanted lots of competition.

Here, the correct answer is B. Facebook was extremely popular and other people thought they could also be successful by designing social media sites. How do we know this? What are the context clues? Take a look at the first paragraph. What do we know based on this paragraph? Well, one sentence refers to Facebook’s original launch. This suggests that Facebook was one of the first social media sites. In addition, we know that the founder of Facebook has been extremely successful and is worth billions of dollars.

From this we can infer that other people wanted to imitate Facebook’s idea and become just as successful as Mark Zuckerberg.

Let’s go through the other answers. If you chose A, it might be because Facebook started at Harvard University, so you drew the conclusion that all other social media sites were also started at Harvard University. However, there is no mention of class projects, professors, or students designing social media. So there doesn’t seem to be enough support
for choice A. If you chose C, you might have been drawing your own
conclusions based on outside information. Maybe none of your friends are on Facebook, so you made an inference that Facebook didn’t connect enough people, so more sites were invented. Or maybe you think the people who connect on Facebook are too old, so you don’t think Facebook connects enough people your age. This might be true, but remember
inferences should be drawn from the information the author
gives you! If you chose D, you might be using the information that
Mark Zuckerberg is worth over 28 billion dollars. It would
be easy for him to pay others to design new sites, but remember,
you need to use context clues! He is very wealthy, but that statement was giving you information about how successful Facebook was—not suggesting that he paid others to design more sites!

So remember, drawing inferences and conclusions is simply about using the information you are given to make an educated guess. You do this every single day so don’t let this concept scare you. Look for the context clues, make sure they support your claim, and you’ll be able to make accurate inferences and conclusions!

Meaning From Context

Often in reading comprehension questions, you are asked for the definition of a word, which you have to infer from the surrounding text, called “meaning in context.” Here are a few examples with step-by-step solutions, and a few tips and tricks to answering meaning from context questions.

There are literally thousands and thousands of words in the English language. It is impossible for us to know what every single one of them means, but we also don’t have time to Google a definition every time we read a word we don’t  understand! Even the smartest person in the world comes across words they don’t know, but luckily we can use context
clues to help us determine what things actually mean.

Context clues are really just little hints that can help us determine the meaning of words or phrases and honestly, the easiest way to learn how to use context clues is to practice!

Let’s start with a few basic examples.

In some countries many people are not given access to schools, teachers, or books. In these countries, people might be illiterate.

You might not know what the word illiterate means, but let’s use the clues in the sentence to help us. If people are not given access to schools, teachers, or books, what might happen? They probably don’t learn what we learned in school so they might not know some of the things that we learned from our teachers! Illiterate actually means “unable to read
or write.” This makes sense based on the context clues!

Let’s work through another example.

We have so much technology today! So much technology that many people have started using tablets and computers to read ebooks instead of paper
books! In fact, some of these people actually think that reading paper books is archaic!
Let’s look for the context clues. Well, what do we know from this paragraph? We have a lot of technology and sometimes people read ebooks instead of paper books. From this we can draw the conclusion that ebooks are beginning to replace paper books because ebooks are newer and better.
So if ebooks are newer and better, it must mean that paper books are older. Archaic actually means “very old or old fashioned,” which again we determined from the context clues.
Let’s see if you can try a few on your own now.

Cody noticed the strawberries in his refrigerator were old and moldy, so he abstained and threw them away.

What does abstained most likely mean?
a. chose not to consume
b. washed
c. shared
d. cut into pieces

The correct answer here is A. The context clues told you the strawberries were old and moldy and told you that Cody did something and then threw them away. If the strawberries were moldy, and Cody abstained, it makes sense that he didn’t eat them—which is choice A. You may have chosen answer B. If the strawberries were old and moldy, Cody could have washed them. But use ALL of the context clues. After he abstained, he threw them away. Why would Cody wash them and then throw them away?

That doesn’t make sense! In addition, why would he share them if they were old and moldy? Finally, I suppose Cody could have cut them into pieces, but why would he need to do that before throwing them away? It doesn’t make as much sense, so choice A is the correct answer!

Let’s do one more.

Scott had a disdain for Lily ever since she lied to their boss and got him fired.
a. Compassion
b. Hate
c. Remorse
d. Money

The correct answer is B. Scott was fired because Lily lied. Can you imagine if this happened to you? I think you would have some pretty strong feelings just like Scott! It’s simple! By understanding the context, you can determine the meaning of even the hardest of words!

7 thoughts on “Reading Comprehension – The Complete Guide”

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