Getting to Grips with Comprehension

Comprehension skills are tested in 11+/grammar school exams and also form part of the Key Stage 2 English Test as the Reading Test – it is the skill of reading with understanding that is being tested. Reading and comprehension skills are essential to every subject that is taught in school; they are the backbone of learning. You need to learn to read in order to be able to read to learn. So how can you read with understanding?


Reading Skills

Reading actively is the best method of understanding the comprehension passage. It involves either highlighting or underlining the text as you read and noting any points of interest/important information in the margins so that you are then able to quickly find that information and review those points if required. This is called annotating the text. Mark keywords, names, places, dates, what is happening, how and why. These can be easily remembered as the 5 W’s with an H: WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW. Ideally, this is done the second time that the passage is read but in a timed exam it may be best completed when the passage is carefully read for the first time. Annotating a text will help pupils to read carefully and properly, leading to a good general understanding of the passage. 

What’s next after annotating the text? There are a number of slightly different suggested strategies for completing comprehension tasks and your choice of method will depend on the test format (standard or multiple-choice) and the time allowed for this part of the English exam. Whatever the test format, the next task is to read the questions. There may be some simple questions that can be easily answered at this stage.

After reading the questions, scan-read the passage again and then answer the rest of the questions, referring back to any annotations that were made so that you can quickly find the correct information to support the answers. The last task is to look over the test and answer any questions that remain unanswered. In a standard test it is important to note how many marks are allocated to each question and not to spend too much time on a question that is only worth 1 mark. 

What types of questions are asked?

There are basically four types of questions that are used in comprehension exercises:

  1. Selecting information’/closed questions’ – where the exact answer may be found in the passage.

  2. Analytical questions – which require an explanation e.g. how, why, where, what etc. These are based on the information in the passage and the questions may require you to scan-read the passage quickly and use your annotations to quickly find the answer.  Remember to P.E.E. = make your point, give evidence and explain how this answers the question.

  3. Word or phrase questions – which ask you to explain the meaning of a word or phrase in the context of the passage. Often there is a line number or paragraph number given for these questions – use this information to look up the word/phrase and read around a little to aid understanding of the meanings. Some word/phrase questions include questions about English grammar and word knowledge i.e. which of these phrases is a simile or which word is an adverb?

  4. Inferential/reasoning questions – which ask you to explain what you understand from what is suggested/implied in the text and not what is actually written. You may have to scan-read quickly a part of the passage to form your opinion. This skill relies on the ability to ‘read between the lines’ and form a conclusion.

Multiple-choice Format

Some 11+/Entrance exams use a multiple-choice format and that can require some different and additional skills to those tested in a standard format exam. 

cross_out_multiple_choiceHere are some tips that will help you answer the comprehension part of a multiple-choice exam:

  1. Carefully read and annotate the text as you would in a standard format exam.

  2. Read all the answer choices for each question even if you think that you already know the answer as there may be some subtle wording differences. The correct answer is the one that completely answers the question and is the best match.

  3. Do not just pick an answer because it provides you with a true statement about something that you have some knowledge about – it must answer the question.

  4. For questions that ask about the meaning of a word or phrase in the passage, ensure that you select the answer that gives the meaning of the word/phrase as it has been used in the passage.

  5. Cross out answers that you know to be incorrect on the question paper. This will narrow down the choice and enable you to consider the options more carefully.

  6. Do read the whole question before you attempt to choose your answer and then start to think what your answer would be in your head before you look at the options given. Choose the one that best summarises your thoughts.

  7. Try not to spend too long on any one question as all the questions in multiple-choice exams carry the same marks. 

  8. Remember that your first response to a question is probably the correct answer. If you think about the answer too long you may confuse yourself. It is better to re-read the question if there is any doubt about your answer.

  9. Do not leave any question unanswered – have an educated guess as you go along and mark your exam paper to show you it is a guess. Then, if you have time at the end of the exam, go back to any questions that you have guessed and try to work out the correct answer.

  10. Don’t change your answers unless you have re-read the appropriate part of the comprehension passage and decided to choose a different answer option.

Comprehension tests examine a wide variety of English skills. Ensure that your child/pupil knows the types of questions that are asked and give them some practice with a wide variety of text types.

Useful Links

Question Practice

My 11PLUS (Chuckra Online Assessment Tool) has good comprehensions which form part of the past English mock tests. These are all great for comprehension practice.

Games for core skills

Make sure to have some games up your sleeve. Always a great way to keep the mind active. Many games are perfect for the whole family to enjoy.

11+ Playing Cards – the fun way to…

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Find out why our playing cards are so popular as part of 11 plus exam preparation. 


Get the edge – exercise your brain

Brain training games are an excellent addition to 11 plus preparation and may just give your child that extra edge needed to pass. Students get access to around 20 online educational games, specifically designed to test the core skills needed to succeed in 11plus entrance tests, when you buy any Credits pack for My 11PLUS.

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