Tackling Reading Comprehension Tests

In this second blog in the ‘hacker’ series, I tackle reading comprehension skills.

Answering reading comprehension questions, and especially in an exam situation against the clock, requires a steady and methodological approach.

Just like in the previous blog on ‘How to write an essay’, I offer some actions and chants to help students understand and embed techniques. Getting the body involved can cement ideas that might otherwise be abstract and difficult to grasp. It is sometimes referred to as somatic learning, from the Greek word ‘soma’, meaning body.

For some boys and girls I sell this as a rugby hacker, for others it’s a dance or a set of exercises to keep us fit. Whatever you choose to call it, somatic learning works.

Each action accompanies a statement to be shouted out at the same time. I’ve listed them below, with a short rationale for each one.

How to tackle reading comprehension tests

1. Skim then scan

It’s best to skim through a passage to get the gist, read the questions and then scan for answers.

Action: Pretend to hold a bricklayer’s trowel and imagine you’re skimming a layer of cement on a brick wall that you’re building. Move the trowel from left to right in a flat line.  Then imagine you’re holding a pair of binoculars up to your eyes and scan from left to right.

Say aloud: ‘SKIM THEN SCAN!’

2. Marks and minutes

Look closely at the marks and try to divide up your time so that you don’t spend too long on 1-mark questions. Often the bigger marks come towards the end of the test, so plan enough time for them.  

Action: Raise left arm out front, fist closed (marks). Raise right arm out front, fist closed (minutes).


 3. Read between the lines

Some questions ask you to hunt for clues, not in what is actually written in the passage but by what is implied. Reading ‘between the lines’, means inferring extra evidence by thinking around a problem and applying some deductive logic and reasoning.

Action: Place both arms in front of you parallel to each other, laterally, with a gap in between. Pretend to read a line of text in the space between your arms.


4. Support with quotes

Many questions require you to support your answers with ‘evidence from the text’ or ‘words from the passage’.

Action: There are three words in this chant and three distinct actions:

  1. Left hand out in front, index finger extended to show one quotation mark in the air.
  2. Right hand out in front, index finger extended to show the other quotation mark in the air.
  3. Keeping both hands in position, move your index fingers up and down to ‘animate’ the quotation marks.

Say aloud:  ‘SUPPORT – WITH – QUOTES!’

5. Stay on track

It’s so easy to become distracted and chase tangents when answering questions. Sometimes we do this just to ‘get something down’, but valuable time can be wasted by writing comments that are not relevant to the question. It’s best to stay on track, focused on the question.

 Action: Imagine you’re running a race, arms moving back and forward, running on the spot (picture your own lane on the running track in front of you).

Say aloud:  ‘STAY ON TRACK!’

6. Leave a gap and come back.

You can lose time by spending too long a question that you simply cannot answer. Leave a gap and move on. You can always come back if you have time at the end, and put something – anything – down!

Action: Arms out-stretched, palms on their side, with a gap in between (‘leave a gap’). Then with your right hand, put your thumb up and point back over your shoulder (‘and come back’).

Say aloud: ‘LEAVE A GAP AND COME BACK!’.  

7. Check your answers

Always remember to read through and check your work. You never know when you have accidentally omitted an important key word or repeated other words without realising.  

Action: Draw a giant tick in the air with your index finger (‘check’ is the down stroke and ‘answers’ is the long up stroke).


 Now that you have learned each step, it’s time to put it all together as one dance/rugby hacker…








Learning these steps will help students to tackle reading comprehension tests confidently and efficiently, because now they have a structured method – and it’s one they will never forget it.





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