Improving Critical Reading for Standardized Tests

Reading strategically is an important skill for mastering reading comprehension sections of standardized tests at any level. Teaching reading strategically, especially to younger students, can be difficult. This article will illustrate an effective method for teaching students how to efficiently read and mark up a passage, as well as identify important information for answering questions.


Explaining how to read strategically can be difficult, especially with younger students and those with special needs. Since reading comprehension sections on standardized tests require students to pay attention to a single passage and set of ideas for longer than other sections, students often have trouble staying focused on the passage at hand and keeping track of relevant information from the passage when answering questions.

Examples of Problem: Students often either have trouble focusing throughout the passage or get caught up on details at the end of a passage that distract them from the overall message. Incorrectly reading the passage can waste time, and lead students to get tripped up on questions that a student who had properly read the passage would be able to readily answer.

One of my younger students has trouble stayed focused throughout the passage, missing important observations that are useful for answering questions Similarly, I have an older student with ADHD who struggles to stay focused throughout the reading comprehension passages, leading him to waste time and not make it all the way through the section in time.

Other students struggle with reading comprehension because they get caught up in details, missing the broader questions dealing with main idea, purpose and tone. One of my other students often misconstrues the author’s tone and intended message, leading her to opt for more extreme answers in questions regarding the author’s thesis and attitude. Others struggle because they don’t feel confidant in their reading comprehension abilities, and waste times second guessing their answers.


I like to begin sessions on reading comprehension with an explanation of how to view them and attack them. This involves showing students how to mark up the passages and use the space on the page strategically. For each paragraph students will circle certain words and write two or three words about the main point of the paragraph. Outlining a strategic plan before jumping into sample passages helps students feel more confident moving forward.

Showing students which words to circle involves explaining how to differentiate structure and content words in a piece of writing; this is especially with younger students who will be less aware of this distinction. Besides identifying transition words (and, but, instead, whereas, therefore, etc.) and content words (proper nouns), it is also important to demonstrate the importance words used for emphasis (very, increasingly, significant etc.) and those that indicate the author’s opinion. I like to use the analogy of the passage as a body: the circled words are the bones of the passage that hold it together and form its base, whereas the content words are the muscles which will change from passage to passage, and can easily be referred back to once the bones are marked. Having students practice this technique on sample sentences is a good way to reinforce this explanation, and make sure they don’t jump into a passage circling the wrong words. I have had students jump into passages circling every word, which means its time to go back and reinforce this initial explanation with sample sentences. For older students who seem to understand just by explanation alone, I don’t think this is necessary.

In order to practice writing summaries of the individual paragraphs and pieces students must get straight to the sample passages. I suggest going through the first two passages with the students, alternating reading aloud the paragraphs and circling words. This way they can see you circle the words as they read, and then have someone reading as they circle the words. For younger students and those that have more trouble focusing, I like to do more passages with students in this manner in order them to keep them concentrated and efficiently use my time with them.

At the end of each paragraph, have the students jot down two to three words about the paragraph. At the end of the reading passage, have them write down T, P, MI vertically, standing for Topic, Purpose, and Main Idea. Have them write down a couple words for each of these so that they synthesize the information from the passage for themselves first before tackling the questions.

When going through questions for the first time, I always explain the different types of questions that might appear in the reading comprehension section, such as Main Point, Purpose, Inference and Detail. Especially with younger students, I try to just get students to distinguish between “broad” questions and “detail” questions, and then make a prediction before evaluating answer choices (when possible).

For detail questions, always make sure students are referring back to the passage, reading before and after the line in questions for context, and then gathering evidence before looking at the answer choices.  Often students rush into questions and put down an answer using a gut instinct rather than looking back at the passage for evidence. Stressing the importance of finding evidence can help students initially get away from choosing answers for detail questions impetuously.

Obviously, students must learn to tackle reading passages on their own as well. I like to assign one more reading passage than is on the actual test in order to have students simultaneously build up theirs skills while working on stamina/timing. I would assign a maximum of two sections at one time if you have already practiced with the student as well, but more could be assigned for homework of course.

Examples of Solution in Practice

I only had to spend one to two sessions with most clients using this strategy of teaching critical reading, meaning that I had more time to spend on prepping for other sections of the test. Depending on time limitations, this method can also be condensed. Students with whom I used this method were able to get through the questions faster after taking the time to read the passages strategically, identify question types and make predictions.

A couple of my students went from getting about half of all reading comprehension questions wrong to answering virtually all of the questions correct in timed sample sections. Most of the others perfected their already productive methods for approaching reading comprehension.


Based on the success I have had with this method, I suggest adapting some or all of the recommendations from this report, mainly:

  1. Explaining strategic reading
  2. Showing how to mark-up a passage
  3. Identify the Topic, Purpose and Main Idea of the passage as well as question types.


About the Author

Francesca Schley tutored standardized test preparation at General Academic’s Houston Rice Village office.  She graduated from Rice University in May of 2012 with a BA in Arts and History.  As of 6/21/13, she was teaching in Brazil as the recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship.

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