Tips on Handling
Passage-Based Reading Questions


Read Purposefully: Passage, Questions, and Answer Choices

As you work through the passage, try to identify what kind of writing it represents, what techniques are being used, who the intended audience may be, and what feeling (if any) the author has toward this subject. Try to retain names, dates, and places for quick reference later. In particular, try to remember where in the passage the author makes major points. Underline key words, if you like, or indicate main ideas with a star (*) or arrow. Then, when you start looking for a phrase or sentence to justify your answer, you may be able to save time by going back to that section of the passage immediately without having to reread the whole thing.

Read as rapidly as you can with understanding, but do not force yourself. Do not worry about the time element. If you worry about not finishing the test, you will begin to take shortcuts and miss correct answers in your haste.


The Questions-First Approach

• As you read each question, be on the lookout for key words, either in the question itself or among the answer choices.

• Run your eye down the passage, looking for those key words or their synonyms. (That's called scanning.)

• When you spot a key word in a sentence, read that sentence and a couple of sentences around it.

• Decide whether you can confidently answer the question on the basis of just that part of the passage.

• Check to see whether your answer is correct.


Figure out whether it ever helps you to read the questions before you read through the passage. For the long passages, our general advice is, to read the passage first; then read the questions. We find most students do better tackling reading exercises in this way. However, if you habitually read slowly and methodically, you may be better off reading an individual question and then scanning the passage to find its answer. Likewise, in dealing with an extra-long, 800-word reading passage, you may want to try skimming the questions before you read the passage to get a sense of what you should be on the lookout for. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses as a reader before you can select the approach that is right for you.

Use the practice exercises at the end of this chapter to find out whether or not the “questions first” approach works for you. Select an 800-word passage and skim the questions on it. Next, read the passage and answer the questions. Check your answers. Then think over your experience.


    • Did you get through the passage and all 12 questions in 15 minutes or less?

    • Did you answer a reasonable number of questions correctly?

    • Did you feel in control as you started to read the passage, or did you feel as if you had a jumble of question words dancing around in your head?

    • Did you feel that skimming the questions in advance slowed you down too much and wasted your time?

Try another 800-word passage, this time reading the passage first, and compare how you did on this passage with your result on the first one. Then decide what’s right for you.

In answering questions, don’t just settle for the first answer choice that looks good. Read each choice, and compare what it says to the actual words of the passage. When you come to an answer choice that contradicts information in the passage or that doesn’t answer the question being asked, cross it out.