This page gives a list of tips for answering exam-style reading questions. It uses texts and questions from Road To Grammar’s Ultimate Reading web app as examples.
1 Identifying the main verb
The verb is the most important part of any sentence in English and identifying the main verb can help you to understand what is going on.
“Pythagoras, born on the Aegean island of Samos in the 6th century B.C. and active in southern Italy, was an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician best known for a theorem in geometry that was named for him.”
Q: What is the main verb in the sentence?
This sort of sentence can be confusing because we insert a clause between the subject and the verb. We take the basic sentence:
Pythagoras was an ancient Greek philosopher.
...and we add extra information like this:
Pythagoras, who was born on the Aegean island of Samos in the 6th century B.C. and active in southern Italy, was an ancient Greek philosopher.
We can shorten it a little by removing ‘who was’:
Pythagoras, born on the Aegean island of Samos in the 6th century B.C. and active in southern Italy, was an ancient Greek philosopher.
Note that we enclose the clause inside commas.
2 Identifying what a pronoun refers to.
We use pronouns a lot in English. In a paragraph containing complex sentence structures, it can be difficult to see what ‘it’ or ‘they’ refers to.
The teachings of the school aren't strictly what we think of as philosophical. They also include rules on living and what to eat.
Q: What does the word ‘they’ refer to?
A: The teachings of the school
The words ‘it’ and ‘they’ generally refer to something previously mentioned in the passage, so we should usually look at the preceding sentence. ‘They’ must refer to something plural and we can see that ‘the teachings of the school’ fits.
Note that we have something in English known as the ‘empty it’. In this case, the word ‘it’ is part of the grammatical structure, but does not actually refer to anything! Some examples:
It looks like it might rain.
It’s great to see you again!
3 Be aware of a simple word with a special meaning
The short everyday words in English can be much harder to understand than longer words. In particular, these everyday words can have multiple meanings that may confuse a language learner.
Hitchcock’s image, seen during Hitchcock’s frequent cameos in his own films and before each episode of the hit TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, has become synonymous with suspense.
Q: The word ‘hit’ means _____
A: c) popular
The most common use of the word ‘hit’ is similar in meaning to ‘beat’. If you were to rush through this question and assume you know the answer, you would choose b). However, when we analyse the sentence, we know it must be an adjective and the best match is c).
4 Use common sense to answer a question
Don’t forget to use your common sense! Sometimes you know the answer to a question using your background knowledge. For instance, in the example below, many people may already know that Snow White is a cartoon.
Snow White was the first full-length animated feature film; it briefly held the record for the highest grossing sound film, and it still exists as one of the top 10 American film moneymakers of all time.
Q: An animated film is a _____
b) movie with sound
c) color film
5 Infer the meaning of a word from context
One of the most basic reading skills is the infer the meaning of a word from the context.
Today it seems incredible that anyone could actually believe that a mammoth hull made of 70,000 tonnes steel was unsinkable, but this was exactly what people believed in 1912.
Q Mammoth means ______
a) very tall
b) very big
c) very strong
The answer is a). The writer finds it incredible that people would think something so big was unsinkable.
6 Infer the meaning of a word from its parts
Sometimes the word itself can give us a clue to its meaning.
Eadweard Muybridge's groundbreaking motion photography was accomplished using multiple cameras and assembling the individual pictures into a motion picture.
Q What does ‘groundbreaking’ mean?
c) new and innovative
The answer is c). We can guess this from the context, but the word itself gives us a clue. We ‘break the ground’ before we build a new building. Hence, we can guess the meaning is ‘new and innovative’
Here’s another example:
“...a monolith is a really big stone...”
Q: If mono means single, then lith means…
Answer a) makes sense, so that the word monolith means ‘single stone’.
7 Infer the meaning of a word by substituting other words.
With a multiple choice question, we can substitute each option and see which one makes sense.
Are all four of a horse's hooves ever off the ground at the same time while the horse is galloping?
Q Hooves are what we call a horse’s ______
Which option makes sense?
a) Are all four of a horse's feet ever off the ground at the same time while the horse is galloping?
b) Are all four of a horse's neck ever off the ground at the same time while the horse is galloping?
c) Are all four of a horse's ears ever off the ground at the same time while the horse is galloping?
Obviously, the answer must be a).
8 Applying information from the passage to a task
In some questions, you may be asked to figure out a task using information from the passage.
“The countdown of children's age in Korea does not begin with the birth of a child, like in the West, but starts in the beginning of the year, rounding up the time spent by a child in the mother's womb. In addition, people become older not on the day of birth, but on January 1st, according to the lunar calendar. For example, a child born in late December of 2013 will turn two on January 1st, 2014.”
Q: I was born in Korea on December 1st, 2012. On January 1st, 2013, I was ______.
A: 2 years old
This is perhaps the most difficult type of question, because you need a very full understanding of the text in order to answer correctly. In this example, the answer goes against common sense (which is the point). Note that the example in the text is very similar to the question given.
9 Understanding the purpose of a sentence.
A common question is to determine the purpose of a sentence.
Just like the society it inhabits, the South Korean film industry has been in perpetual flux for the past few decades.
Q The purpose of the sentence is to ______
a) give an example
b) give a quote
c) compare two things
The answer is c). We can come to the answer through elimination: no example or quote are given, so the answer cannot be a) or b). Or we can look for key structural words. The phrase ‘just like’ shows us that two things are being compared. If the answer was a), we would expect to see language like ‘for example’, ‘for instance’ or ‘such as’
10 Understanding when, where or why a passage was written
To check for full understanding, exam questions may sometimes ask questions regarding the text as a whole.
Following a turbulent history and rapid economic growth, Korean cinema has seen a quick rise and as 2012 comes to a close, its most successful year ever, the industry is beginning to set its sights overseas
Q When was this text written?
For questions like this, we need to scan the text to find clues. In this case, we can find the phrase ‘as 2012 comes to a close’, which tells us that the text was written near the end of 2012.
11 Understanding phrases of size and quantity
Phrases describing size and quantity can be hard to understand.
As a game bird, the turkey has but few equals.
Q: As a game bird, the turkey has ______ equals.
b) too many
c) not many
The answer is c). We can get this from the context - the writer wants to say the turkey is special, it has not many equals. Or we can answer based on our knowledge of phrases of size and quantity.
To practice phrases of size and quantity, try these quizzes:
12 Understanding writing techniques
Some questions ask you to analyse a writer’s technique.
I have seen the Mexican wild turkey constantly running or flushing in front of us from morning till night as we traveled through their country for days.
The writer uses ______ to make a point
a) personal experience
We can see that the writer talks about his personal experience (he uses ‘I’), so the answer must be a).
13 Understanding parts of speech
Many words can function as a verb in one sentence and as a noun in another.
The caterpillar, or what is more scientifically termed a larva, stuffs itself with leaves, growing plumper and longer through a series of molts in which it sheds its skin.
Q: Which word is NOT used as a verb?
‘stuffs’ is the main verb in the sentence. ‘sheds’ is also a verb, matching ‘it’. ‘leaves’ here is the noun meaning leaves of a tree, not the verb, which means ‘depart’. Hence, the answer is a).
14 Reading carefully
Sometimes a single word will give you the answer. You must locate the sentence containing the answer then read carefully.
The First Persian Gulf War, also known as the Gulf War, was an armed conflict between Iraq and a coalition of 32 nations including the United States, Britain, Egypt, France, and Saudi Arabia. It was a result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990
Q: Kuwait started the war by invading Iraq.
The phrase ‘Iraq’s invasion OF Kuwait’ tells us that Iraq invaded Kuwait, not vice versa. The answer is FALSE.
However, the phrase ‘Iraq’s invasion BY Kuwait’ would make the question TRUE.
Hence we need to read carefully and pay attention to words like OF and BY.
15 Finding a word, given the meaning
Sometimes you will be given a meaning and asked to find the word.
There are throngs of people everywhere, queuing outside the station, at the ticket halls, on the concourse and on the platforms. The departures board shows scores of destinations many of which are more than a thousand miles away.
Q: Which word means ‘a large group’?
Looking at the context of each word, we can see that ‘concourse’ describes a place, ‘scores’ seems to mean ‘many’, which is similar to, but not the same as ‘a large group’. ‘Throngs’ describes people and seems to fit the meaning ‘a large group’. Hence, by elimination and context, we can see that the answer is c).
16 Understanding idioms and metaphors
An idiom is a word or phrase where the meaning does not match the actual words used; it has a symbolic meaning. When we say something is a ‘piece of cake’, we are not talking about cake - we mean that it’s simple.
English is an expressive language and we use lots and lots of idioms. When guessing the meaning of an idiom, look at the context and think about the symbolism.
The brains of happy people are tuned to notice and enjoy the positives in life that may pass others by, according to research that may explain why some folk seem to go about wearing rose-tinted spectacles.
Q: Wearing rose-tinted spectacles is _______
a) being silly
b) being positive
c) being negative
Spectacles are glasses and the color ‘rose’ in English symbolises something nice and pleasant. Therefore, we could guess that the answer is b). Looking at the context of the sentence confirms that the topic is ‘people who are happy’.
17 Understanding structural language
We use many phrases to structure our sentences, such as:
These structural phrases help the reader to understand the function and structure of the sentence.
English is an expressive language and there are many structural phrases in use. Some are common and some are more unusual. It’s important to try to build up a repertoire of these phrases that you can use and understand.
He goes from serene to angry almost instantly, but can also be conniving and, on the flip side, warm-hearted.
Q: ‘on the flip side’ could be replaced by _______
a) on the other hand
We can observe from the sentence that ‘on the flip side’ is a phrase of contrast, showing another perspective. Hence the answer is a).