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3 Comprehension Strategies for Reading Test Passages

Boost your confidence and your score!

By: Jess Mazzone

Navigating the demands of the ELA test can be hard, especially when readers have to do so much…reading! Toggling from one passage to another can be challenging, especially if readers aren’t equipped with the tools they need. Here are 3 comprehension tips to help your readers approach test passages with confidence and to hold onto what’s most important:

1. Read what comes before the passage itself. All too often, our readers dive right into the main portion of a text without reading “the fine print.”  In this case, the fine print is the directions and italicized prelude to the passage.  The test passages are often excerpts from the middle of longer texts, and the prelude generally provides critical background knowledge about the topic, the characters, the problem, or the time period. Additionally, the directions usually name the type of passage, i.e. a story, an information text, an essay, etc. 

Teaching students to read what comes before the passage sets them up with clues about the genre and context. 

2. Read with genre in mind. Imagine going on a road trip without a map. You drive aimlessly, you get lost, you lose stamina. Now imagine going on that same road trip with a plan. You know what direction to go in, anticipate what stops you might need to make along the way, and budget your time. Sure, you might make a few wrong turns along the way, but you’re better equipped for what’s to come.  

Teach your students to approach test passages with a road map for their reading. They can use that road map as a reminder of what elements to look for in the genre that they’re reading. This will help readers approach a text with confidence, notice the most important parts of a text, and transfer their reading strategies to test passages.

3. Make quick annotations.  So many test questions require readers to go back and reread part(s) of the passage. This can be a huge time sucker and cause students to run out of stamina. To ease frustrations, teach your readers to make quick annotations as they read, either in the margins of the text or on scrap paper.

If your students are testing with pen and paper, jotting symbols and/or emojis beside paragraphs  is a great way to track story elements, character traits, feelings and change. Readers might use other symbols like + and - for pros and cons, make quick sketches of text structures, or to pop out main idea(s) and supporting details. You might teach students to create their own “symbol bank” that they can pull from again and again so they’re not thinking about how to draw things, but about what parts of the text to mark up.  

If your students are testing on the computer, you might encourage them to jot down paragraph numbers as a way to “timeline” the text. They might then jot down key words and/or phrases, sketch quick symbols, or draw emojis to help them hold onto key details. 

When readers have to refer back to the text to answer the questions, they now have their annotations to guide them.

Looking for more strategies for Test Prep? Read our tips for writing a high-scoring extended response here.