Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Reading Comprehension

Preface: This post belongs to a series of posts that discuss organic strategies for test preparation. State testing is always a sticky issue and I want to steer clear of the “stickiness.” This series of posts does not aim to discuss the controversial nature of teaching to the test, but rather aims to inform both families and teachers of options for more organic ways to approach test-prep in the classroom and/or at home by finding ways to integrate testing strategies into strong teaching.

Special Note: While reading, please keep in mind that my teaching has been done in New York City so my background knowledge lies mostly with NYS tests. While some of the specifics may differ from your state, I believe that the strategies and ideas will be applicable regardless of location.

Reading Comprehension can be assessed in a variety of ways. This post will discuss ways to prepare students for comprehension assessments that are short response and multiple choice. I will have a future post on writing in response to literature/extended response. 

What is Reading Comprehension? If you google “reading comprehension,” you will find many definitions, most of which are full of jargon. A simple definition: reading comprehension is the ability to understand written text.

How is Reading Comprehension Assessed? Reading comprehension can be assessed in a few different ways. There are informal classroom assessments that ask a student to read a text and respond verbally to a teacher. The student may be asked to give a verbal response to a question, and/or give a verbal re-tell (summary) of the text. In regards to formal testing, one popular form of assessment is to have students independently read a collection of reading passages and answer a series of literal and inferential questions. Literal questions are about basic facts that have been presented in the text. Inferential questions rely on student interpretation and ability to “read between the lines” and understand what is not necessarily written in the text.

Why Are Reading Comprehension Assessments So Challenging For Students?

Stamina is one key factor. Without stamina, students can tire easily, especially when presented with multiple passages in one sitting.

Confidence is another issue. If a student lacks confidence in reading and/or understanding texts, they may be overwhelmed at first glance of the amount of work…or even give up.

Vocabulary works together with comprehension. Students who possess a wide vocabulary often experience greater success with comprehension, because their knowledge of words and definitions supports them in making meaning of the texts they read.

Anxiety is another factor that impacts reading comprehension. Many students, whether they struggle in reading or not, experience high levels of anxiety over comprehension assessments.

How Can We Help?

1. Model, teach and practice stamina: Stamina doesn’t just happen! It is something that must be practiced and built up throughout the year. It’s like excersize…we need to push students to read for increased periods of time. If they come into school in September able to read for 15 minutes, we must push them to read for 20 minutes. Set goals with students, for example: “By January, you will be able to read independently for 30 minutes.”

2. Model and teach confidence: I know this sounds strange, but we can and must teach students, especially our struggling readers, how to demonstrate persistence when faced with a challenging text. The worst thing they can do is give up! We can teach students how to use what they do know to solve problems. We can teach students to take a mental break for a moment if they need to re-focus themselves. I have even given students a “mantra,” something they can say to themselves silently that will boost their confidence like “Marisa thinks I am awesome :-D.”

3. Explicit Vocabulary Instruction: There will be a different post on vocabulary test-prep but I think it deserves a moment in the spotlight in this post as well. Explicitly teach students to underline words they do not understand and to try a variety of strategies to figure out what it means. Strategies can be:

  • Using context clues (use the words surrounding the tricky word to figure out what it means)
  • Using root words (are there any other words that sound/look similar to this word and make sense in it’s place? ex: secretive)
  • Using prefixes and suffixes
Here are some strategies to improve reading comprehension. Explicitly teach these strategies and demand that students use them on all classwork and homework to get extensive practice before the big day!
  • Read the passage twice.
  • Underline crucial information the second time you read the passage (ie: Characters, dates, places, etc.)
  • When answering a question, go back into the text. Find the part in the text that supports your answer and underline it.
  • Underline the specific question right before the question mark! (Sometimes questions are packed in with unnecessary details. We want to help kids identify what the question is asking by simplifying it!)
  • A controversial strategy is teaching students to read the question before reading the passage. I am not agreeing or disagreeing philosophically with this strategy, but I will say that I have seen it improve student accuracy on comprehension assessments.
  • Offer practice with multiple choice questions in reading and teach students to use the process of elimination for challenging questions. Students should immediately cross out any answers which they know are absurd.
  • For short response questions, teach students to restate a piece of the question in their answer for example: Question: Does Elizabeth enjoy spending time on the farm? Response: Elizabeth does not enjoy spending time on the farm because…
  • Offer sentence starters to help students’ work flow for example, “In the passage it says…” or “The article states…”

Grade 6 NYS Book 1 2010 From (Multiple Choice)

Grade 6 NYS Book 2 2010 from (Long Response)

Families and Teachers: You should know that there are a ton of resources out there to help you prepare for different kinds of tests. I must say from experience that many of these resources are bland and are not highly engaging for students. I recommend looking at prior tests to familiarize yourself with the material, and then using more exciting resources to tailor your practice. Here are a few resources that I use:


EdInformatics (A website where you can find prior NYS tests in all areas and use them for practice)
NYSED APDA (A website where you can find prior NYS tests in all areas and use them for practice)
Scholastic Printables (Reading Comprehension passages)
Use the News (A previous article from EdGeeks about how to use non-fiction publications such as newspapers and magazines to increase engagement in reading.)

Do you have other resources or strategies that you use to practice reading comprehension? Share them here by leaving a comment!

Do you have further questions? Submit your question by leaving a comment and I will get back to you with a prompt response!

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