Tricks for English Reading Comprehension

‘Comprehend’ means ‘to take in the meaning, nature, or importance of something

or somebody’. It is the act of grasping the meaning of a given passage or text. It is

often not realized that comprehension broadly means ‘understanding through

reading and integrating it with the knowledge you already have. It involves a wide

range of skills and interests. It is truly a multi-dimensional affair. It encompasses a

variety of abilities with respect to vocabulary, grammar, spirit of the text,

inferential processes and contextual knowledge. The most important factors

operating in comprehending a text or passage are: remembering word meanings,

following the structure of a passage, finding answers to questions answered

directly or indirectly, recognizing the writer’s purpose, attitude, tone and mood and

thus drawing inferences from the passage.

Usually, making out the meaning of a question and writing the answer down is one

way often found in school and college examinations? Besides this, there is the

second kind known as objective comprehension, in which multiple answers are

given only to choose the correct answer out of the alternatives given under the

questions. This type is often found in the present competitive examinations.

Some important techniques:

• Use your pencil as a pointer to guide your eye along a line of the text and to

read as speedily as possible.

• Circle key words and phrases in order to identify them immediately as an

answer to a question posed.

• Don’t get bogged down even if there is a word or a phrase or a sentence

which you don’t understand. Don’t worry. You can sense the meaning from

the context later. So move on to come back later if the time permits.

• Another good reading comprehension strategy is to read the questions first

(which doesn’t mean to read the answer choices). This helps you know what

information you need after reading the text. It will remind you to concentrate

more on the required details from where the questions drawn.

• Read the passages as fast as you can and re-read the questions for correct

understanding. For fast reading understanding the spirit of the text given,

you have to train your eyes and mind to function simultaneously. As your

mind begins to look for ideas rather than words, your eyes will begin to obey


your mind, which is always supreme. Good reading is good grasping and

good grasping is only good reading.

The questions for reading comprehension usually test the ability to find out

the following.

1. Main idea or a suitable title for the text.

2. Information directly given or specified in the passage or text.

3. Any inferences to arrive at logical conclusions from the passage given.

4. The meaning of new and strange words in the text.

5. The author’s style, mood or point of view.

Among the choice answers, there will be certainly one or two answers most

illogical and inappropriate. They must be eliminated. Some general knowledge,

common sense and logical thinking will do the job of elimination. The remaining

answers are either from the information given directly from the text or for

inference. So, finally, the three words information, elimination and inference will

do the job for being successful in reading comprehension. The following example

from Davis quoted by Carroll would make any reader proficient only in simple

comprehension feel out of his depth.

The delight Tad had felt during his long hours in the glen faded as he drew

near the cabin. The sun was nearly gone and Tad’s father was at the wood pile. He

was wearing the broadcloth suit that he wore to Church and to town sometimes.

Tad saw his father’s hands close around a bundle of wood. He was doing Tad’s

work and in his good clothes. Tad ran to him. “I’ll get it, Pa.”

When Tad saw his father, he felt

A) disappointed B) impatient C) angry D) guilty

It is not easy to say which linguistic skills in what order and combinations would

enable the expert reader to infer or deduce D as the correct answer. However, as

pointed out by Carroll, the following two important points seem to be indisputably

involved in comprehension:

1) Language comprehension occurs in situational contexts whose characteristics

may influence not only the degree to which comprehension processes operate

but also the nature and extent of certain other processes that may accompany

comprehension, usually as a consequence of it. The special arrangements that

are frequently necessary to test comprehension constitute such situational


2) Two processes often co-occurring with comprehension are memory and

inference; while they are conceptually distinguishable from comprehension,

their occurrence may make it difficult to assess the separate occurrence of the

comprehension process itself.

Let us look into comprehension in practice as part of language in use.

We are going to take up sample passages and illustrate various kinds of difficulties

involved in comprehending them.

Passage 1: Luckily at the moment he was much too busy talking to the man

opposite him to catch sight of me.

Two things are necessary to understand this sentence fully. First, one has to

know the structure ‘too – to’ (too busy to catch sight of me), so that one gets to

know that the person mentioned was so busy doing something that he could not see

the narrator. Secondly, under the given circumstances the narrator did not want to

be seen by the man referred to. The latter understanding is implied by the use of

the word ‘luckily’.

Passage 2: These nephews of mine never give me any peace – that young man is

the worst of them all! As you see, when he needs money, he even follows me into

the country. Well, perhaps next time he won’t even warn me by writing me a letter.

Confronted with a text like the above, assuming that the context is not known, one

is called upon to make intelligent guesses, particularly, if one were asked to say

what kind of man, a person who says such things, could be. This point can be

exemplified by framing the following question:

The person who said these things is most likely to be

a) Contented b) angry c) complaining d) miserly

Surely, there must be some skill or skills which would enable the reader to make

the correct guess and choose c) as the best alternative. This too is an important part

of the general ability making full comprehension possible.

Passage 3: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. The

general recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase, ‘It is the busiest

man who has time to spare.’ Thus, an elderly lady at leisure can spend the entire

day writing a postcard to her niece. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard,

another hunting for spectacles, half an hour to search for the address, an hour and a

quarter in composition and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an

umbrella when going to the pillar box in the street. The total effort that would

occupy a busy man for three minutes, all told, may in this fashion leave another

person completely exhausted after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.

1. Explain the sentence: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its


A) The more work there is to be done, the more the time needed.

B) Whatever time is available for a given amount of work, all of it will be


C) If you have more time, you can do more work.

D) If you have some important work to do, you should always have some

additional time.

The answer here is B. This can be found out through simple inference. A statement

is made right in the beginning of the passage and the story of the lady illustrates

the fact that whatever time is available for a work, people tend to use all of it.

2. Who is the person likely to take more time to do work?

A) A busy man B) A man of leisure

C) An elderly person D) An exhausted person

Here, the answer is B. It requires inference. The answer is to be inferred from the

facts given in the passage that the more the time you have, the more you will need.

Therefore this answer is arrived at through complex inference.

3. What does the expression ‘pillar box’ stand for?

A) A box attached to the pillar B) A box in the pillar

C) Box office D) A pillar-type post box

The answer is D. It can be derived through implied information. The lady has to go

to the pillar box to drop her letter.

4. What happens when the time to be spent on some work increases?

A) The work is done smoothly B) The work is done leisurely

C) The work consumes all the time D) The work needs additional time

Here the method of elimination applies and simple inference confirms it. A and D

are eliminated at the first reading. The description that the lady who has enough

leisure time takes the entire day in writing the postcard gives us the clue that the

correct answer is C. This again is complex inference.

5. What is the total time spent by the elderly lady in writing a postcard?

A) Three minutes B) Four hours and five minutes

C) Half an hour D) A full day

The answer is D and it is based on the information given in the passage.

Passage 4: The last half of my life has been lived in one of those painful epochs of

human history during which the world is getting worse, and past victories which

had seemed to be definitive have turned out to be only temporary. When I was

young, Victorian optimism was taken for granted. It was thought that freedom and

prosperity would spread gradually throughout the world through an orderly

process, and it was hoped that cruelty, tyranny, and injustice would continually

diminish. Hardly anyone was haunted by the fear of great wars. Hardly anyone

thought of the nineteenth century as a brief interlude between past and future


1. The author feels sad about the latter part of his life because:

A) He was nostalgic about his childhood

B) The world had not become prosperous

C) The author had not won any further victories

D) The world was painfully disturbed during that period of time

2. The victories of the past:

A) Brought permanent peace and prosperity

B) Ended cruelty, tyranny and injustice

C) Proved to be temporary events

D) Filled men with a sense of pessimism

3. The word ‘definitive’ used in the passage means:

A) Defined B) Final C) Temporary D) Incomplete

4. During the Victorian age people believed that:

A) Strife would increase

B) There would be unlimited freedom

C) Wars would be fought on a bigger scale

D) Peace would prevail and happiness would engulf the whole world

5. A brief interlude between past and future barbarism’ can be interpreted as:

A) A short period of time between past and future acts of savagery

B) A short space of time between two great events

C) An interval between cruel wars

D) A dramatic performance during wars

Now, let us examine the answers:

1. The answer is ‘D’. You can hit at the answer through inference. The clue is in

the first sentence itself—’the world is getting worse’. The whole passage also

implies that the last half of the life of the author was a period of turmoil.

2. The answer is ‘C’ and it can be based on information given in the passage: ‘the

nineteenth century was a brief interlude’.

3. The answer is ‘B’. Both information and simple inference suggest this answer.

4. The answer is ‘D’. It is based on information.

5. The answer is ‘A’. The information is implied in the question itself—’barbarism’.

The passage also confirms it.