11 Plus - Reading Comprehension Techniques

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The first thing to bear in mind while taking a Reading Comprehension test and while preparing for the test is that Reading Comprehension questions test your reading and comprehending skills. 11 Plus especially, in these questions, tests your comprehension rigorously. Hence, whenever you are solving Reading Comprehension questions, make sure that you have:

  • adequate comprehension of the passage

  • adequate comprehension of the question

  • adequate comprehension of each option

The errors in Reading comprehension answers arise because we tend to compromise on the comprehension of one or the other factors mentioned above.

Comprehension of the Passage

The comprehension of the passage may be compromised because of vocabulary constraints, unfamiliar subject matter, the complexity of the sentences in the passage, or the complexity of the ideas.

When you solve RC passages in the 11 Plus make sure that vocabulary constraints do not come in the way of the comprehension of the passage. Though it is likely that some of the words in the passage are unfamiliar to you, at least intelligently guess the meaning of those unfamiliar words by paying careful attention to the context in which they occur, and try to get a firm grip on the ideas presented in the passage. Through active reading, make an attempt to understand the structure of the passage and in what hierarchy the ideas are presented. An efficient reader would focus on the parts of the passage that are clearly understood, and then make educated guesses about the parts that are too complex to immediately understand. Make sure that the passage is therefore adequately understood.
If the passage presents dense and complex sentence structure try to break those sentences into smaller idea units, and understand how those parts (idea units) are related to one another. This would help make even extremely complex structures easier to understand.
Unfamiliar ideas or subject matter would not pose a big problem if one has the reading habit. Hence, while you are preparing for an exam like the 11 Plus, make sure that your efforts include regular reading. Also, try to read diverse subjects, although it is not necessary to master every subject under the sun. By reading widely and patiently on several subjects students learn not to be intimidated by different subjects like philosophy, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, or science etc.

Unless the passage is sufficiently understood, attempts to answer questions can give negative results. This is of utmost importance during your practic

Comprehension of the Question Asked

Sometimes, we make mistakes when answering because we do not pay sufficient attention to the exact nature of the question that is asked. For example, a question may ask: which of the following options makes the author's thesis less supportable? Comprehension of this question would mean that you first define the author's thesis in the passage. In this case, many of us tend to spend more time evaluating the options without clearly defining the thesis. As a result, we are confused by the options. Whenever you are confused by the options, you need to check whether it is your inadequate comprehension of either the passage or the question that is creating the confusion. Another question may ask you to identify 'the real reason' behind some aspect of the passage. We are baffled if all the options appear correct. Since the question asks you to identify the real reason, which means you have to identify the motive rather than the reasons that may be stated in the passage and the options. In short, bear in mind that you have to take sufficient care to ensure that you have understood what exactly the question asks you to do. The close options then will not pose such a formidable challenge as some of us experience.

Comprehension of Each Option

Once the above stages of comprehension (of the passage and of the question) are adequately addressed, pay close attention to what each option means. More often than not, especially in the 11 Plus, the incorrect options either subtly side-track the question, or generalise unnecessarily on the facts presented in the passage, or undervalue the facts presented in the passage, or intensify the facts in the passage, or make inferences that are not sustained by the passage. A few options may also be contrary to the passage.

Often, the options may also require you to reason with them. This makes the test a little more than a mere test of comprehension. The reasoning required is generally suggested by the question itself. For example: Which of the following is the prime purpose of the passage, and which of the following is the thematic highlight of the passage may appear similar but the former is asking you about why the passage is written and the latter merely asks you to identify the gist of what is written. In short, make sure that apart from trying to understand the option clearly, you also have to determine the line of reasoning to apply when you work with the options.

Questions First or Passage First?

Your task in the test is to score. For this purpose you may adopt one of the following techniques described below. If you are not sure which method you should use, experiment with the different methods and see which of the methods helps you score the maximum marks in the minimum time. You may want to experiment under test conditions (10 to 12 minutes per passage to answer 7 to 8 11 PLUS level questions). Different people find different methods comfortable.

  • Read the entire passage and answer the questions referring back to the passage to ensure accuracy

  • Read part of the passage carefully (half the passage). Read all the questions and decide if a few can be answered. Answer those questions. Read the rest of the passage and answer the remaining questions

  • Skim through the entire passage. Skim through the questions and options. Read the entire passage. Answer the questions

  • Read all the questions. Identify what each question is asking. Read the entire passage, answering the questions as you go along

All the above are correct methods. Practice and decide on your method.

Use of a pacer and the habit of underlining

Some people trace their way through the passage using their finger or a pencil. Using a pacer helps avoid regression, enhances your focus on the text, and your concentration. It slows you down slightly, but it ensures that no word or idea is missed. To my mind, it is wise to use a pacer while doing Reading Comprehension, but, you be your own judge. Experiment and see if it is worth it. If you find it a waste of time, do without it.

Some people have the habit of underlining the key elements of the passage. Some students even make brief notes in the margin. I have also noticed that some students make underlining a substitute for comprehension - they are more interested in identifying and underlining the key elements than in learning those points. In such a case underlining is a waste of time.

Once the key elements are identified and assimilated, in order that recall of those key points becomes easier, they are highlighted by underlining. This is the true purpose of underlining. That the underlined key elements trigger back into your memory the important details surrounding that key element. Hence if properly done, underlining helps highlight the important points and enhance your comprehension and retention. Underlining is not a substitute for understanding.

Making notes, or summarising, in the margin goes a step beyond merely underlining, and can be very helpful in creating a mind map of the essay - the structure - as one reads along. Try it out and experience the benefits.

Get used to reading a lot and that too variety of subjects. You can switch to reading your daily newspaper (as a part of the practice for the 11 PLUS). Take several practice comprehensions to get used to the techniques.

Should I attempt all the questions in a passage or a limited number?

The immediate answer is: attempt a limited number of questions and ensure accuracy to them. However, if your overall attempts are far below the target you have set, it is necessary to attempt questions to meet that target. At all times, in a competitive exam with negative marking, your attempt should be to maximise your marks not merely by attempting the maximum number of questions possible, but also by minimising the negative.

Further, you will need to analyse your performance during practice to decide the number of attempts to maximize your score. Since different individuals have different accuracy percentages, the number of attempts and speed are specific to each individual in order to optimize the score.

Tackling Reading Comprehension Questions in 11 PLUS

Any 11 Plus entrance test - for Grammar school or Independent schools - always has two main areas viz. Quantitative Aptitude and Verbal Aptitude. There may be differences in the other sections but these two areas are common for all the tests. Generally, the Verbal consists of Reading Comprehension, Grammar, Vocabulary, and reasoning questions. Generally, these different areas are given equal importance in terms of number of questions and marks allotted.

Reading Comprehension questions involve a passage, followed by questions based on the passage. The length of passage and number of questions vary from test to test. The nature of questions also differs. Generally, the tests have 2-3 passages with different lengths in terms of number of words. The small passage contains around 400 words and medium sized passage has around 400-700 words. Passages with more than 700 words are the long passages.

An attempt has been made by us over here to cover almost all doubts that the students face while tackling the Reading Comprehension questions.

Q. How can the students tackle this unpredictability?

A. One of the most important points about the RC questions is their unpredictability. The passages can be on any topic, any length and any questions can be asked on them. Due to this, there is no definite method of studying RC questions. One can solve 100 numerical problems on a topic and then for the 101st problem, can refer to the learning from the previously solved problems. This is not applicable in RC. After solving 100 RC passages and questions, the 101st passage and questions are still a new experience. This unpredictability of RC makes them the most important questions in the MBA entrance tests.

Q. What questions are asked for RC?

A. All of us have solved RC questions in our schools and colleges. However, there is a crucial difference. In our earlier years, the passages that we came across were either from our textbooks and the questions were straightforward. So, most of the times, we used to look at the questions first and then search the answer in the passage. However, for the11 plus entrance tests, the questions are asked in a different manner. They require the understanding of the passage. There are three types of questions which can be seen - a) Main Idea Question - this is about the central or main idea of the passage. b) Inference Question - this is about the inference or opinion one can draw from the information given in the passage. c) Passage-based Question - Apart from the first two types, the questions can be asked on any information given in the passage.

One must always attempt questions by referring to the passage. For example, if the question is about an inference and the passage suggests one inference, then you should mark the appropriate option. The passage will completely support the answer choice.

Q. How much time should be spent on a passage?

A. If the passage is small or medium, 10 minutes are sufficient. If it's a long passage, then 15 minutes will be required. Unlike the school or college RCs, in which one has to write an entire answer, 11 Plus entrance tests require you to mark the answer on an OMR sheet or on the screen. Since it does not take much time to mark the answer, one should devote maximum time to reading and understanding it. In the 10 minutes allotted for the passage, one should spend 9 and half minutes in reading the passage. Once the passage is understood, then answering the questions is easy.

Q. How to improve the reading speed?

A. Reading speed is a function of familiarity with the words. If one's vocabulary is good, then the reading speed is also good as the brain registers familiar words out of habit. Therefore, apart from regular reading, improving vocabulary is also required. The combination of regular reading practice along with good vocabulary will result in good reading speed.

Q. On what topics are the passages based?

A. The subject matter and the topic of the passages can be anything under the sun. However, it has been observed that passages from fiction generally do not appear. Philosophy, Science, Literature, Art, Social Science, Politics, Fairy tales, Current Affairs - any topic can be asked. If the student has the habit of reading widely, it definitely helps.

The Verbal Section is a crucial area in any 11 Plus entrance test. RC questions are the most crucial in this section. What makes them so significant is the fact that one cannot say that his or her preparation of RC is complete. So, facing the questions in a calm and quiet manner, not getting distressed, and reading the passage at least twice before marking the answers are the points one should remember while attempting these questions.