Test-Taking Strategy for Reading or Verbal Comprehension

Oct. 9, 2006
Reading comprehension for civil service exams is different then school exams.

Verbal comprehension measures your ability to read and understand the types of written materials a firefighter might be expected to read on the job. You will be presented with a reading passage and then asked to answer questions about the passage. All the information needed to answer the questions will be included in the passage itself.

In answering the questions based on the reading passage, it is important that you answer the questions only according to the information given in the passage. If you have information from your own experience and knowledge, you should not use it to answer a question of this type. Even if you think that there is a mistake in the reading selection, you must still answer the question on the basis of the information given in the reading passage.

The kinds of Reading Comprehension questions which appear on a civil service exam tend to be somewhat different from the reading comprehension questions on a school related exam. That is because there are different kinds of reading--skimming, reading for general understanding, reading for details, etc. Your exam will be based mostly on reading technical materials, not anything like a novel or essay. Hence, your exam will have more focus on exact grasp of details.

There are certain techniques that will help you do well on reading comprehension questions. Here is a summary of the most important techniques.

Use your pencil. To begin with, use your pencil as a pointer. Using the pencil to guide your eye along a line of text helps you to focus on the details in the reading; it holds your attention to the precise words in the passage. In a long test, attention may weaken. Fatigue may blunt your attention to details. But using your pencil as a pointer will help to preserve your attention to details.

Another benefit of using the pencil as a pointer is that it will probably speed up your reading. The steady flow of the pencil across the page with each line of text draws the eye along at a steady pace. Do not go faster than you can grasp the text, but do try to keep your reading going at a steady pace set by the pencil.

Circle key words and phrases. In a Reading Comprehension test you are not reading for just a vague general understanding of the passage. You usually have to read for detailed understanding. There will be individual words which are important for grasping a point exactly. You do not want to write so much on a passage that it is hard to read a second time if you need to go back to check a detail. But you do want to circle key words or phrases which will enable you to zero in on precise points needed to answer a question.

Read short questions carefully the first time. When you are reading a short question for the first time, read it carefully. A short question is one that is only seven or eight lines long. You can retain all of the main ideas and remember where particular things are mentioned from one careful reading. Hence, you do not want to waste time reading this passage twice.

Besides wasting time, another bad consequence of reading a short question very carelessly the first time is that it may leave you with some false impressions of what you have read. Wrong ideas can get stuck in your head from a careless reading. Then it will be more difficult to get the correct answer.

For long questions, look ahead to see what is being asked. Take a look at the "stem" of the question, the sentence which precedes the answer choices. And look at the kinds of choices which are being offered. Sometimes reading passages are long but the questions are asking only for particular details. In that case you can often skim a long passage to find the particular detail.

Keep forging ahead. Do not get bogged down if there is a word or sentence you do not understand. You may get the main idea without knowing the individual word or sentence. Sometimes you can sense the meaning of the word from the context. Sometimes the word or sentence may not be the basis of any question. If there is some idea you need to answer a question but do not understand, read it one more time. If you still do not understand it, move on. You can come back to this question later if you have more time at the end of the test.

Picture what you read. Try to form a picture in your mind as you read. School books used to teach reading contain many pictures because pictures aid comprehension. When reading material without pictures, it will aid your comprehension if you use your imagination to picture in your mind what you are reading. Read as if you were a professional illustrator who has been hired to do an illustration for the passage.

Ask yourself questions as you read. When you finish reading a sentence, ask yourself what the author was saying. At the end of a whole paragraph, ask yourself what the point of the whole paragraph was. If you ask yourself questions, you will find that you are paraphrasing the passage in your mind. That will help your understanding.

Know where the author stands. Sometimes a passage will contain an evaluation of some ideas of tools or procedures. The author may want to make the point that certain practices or procedures are bad or that certain tools may not be right for a particular job. Be sure you know if the author is accepting or rejecting something.

Another good reading comprehension strategy is to read the questions before starting the passage. This does not mean to read the answer choices at this time. By reading the questions, you will have an idea of what information you will need after reading the passage. This may alert you to certain details, ideas and specific areas in the paragraph where the questions are being drawn from.

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