Exam Prep: Reading Comprehension Multiple Choice

Most ESOL exams (like the TOEFL or IELTS, for example) have a reading section, and most of those have questions with multiple choice answers. For intermediate to advanced learners, some of these questions/answers might be purposefully tricky. Here are a few techniques you can teach your students as they prepare.

Create Your Own Answer First

Students should use a notecard or other piece of paper to cover up the answer choices as they read the question. Once they have a sense of what the question is asking, they should write their own answer off to the side (if the answer would be a full sentence, they can just write two to four words to represent it). Students may need to go back and read part of passage before answering, and that’s okay. Only after students have formed their own answer should they remove their notecard and reveal the possible answers that the exam provides. Hopefully, one of them will be the same or at least close to the answer they already wrote down. If that’s the case, that answer will most likely be the correct answer. Any other option would need to be incredibly compelling to overcome this.

Forget What You Know

Whatever students think they know about the subject material of the passage is irrelevant; the only thing that matters for the sake of the test is what the passage says. I’ve even known times when my students have been more accurate, precise, or up-to-date than the information conveyed in the passage and its corresponding questions. But if they answer according to their own knowledge instead of what the passage says, their answer might be counted wrong. Remember that the exam has nothing to do with the students’ understanding of a particular subject matter; rather, it’s about how well students can understand what they’ve just read. Which leads us to…

Find the Evidence

There will almost always be evidence in the passage that aligns with the correct answer. It doesn’t matter whether an answer feels right or seems reasonable. For preparation, students should return to the passage and highlight the sentence that reveals the answer (then in the margins next to that sentence, write the question number to help them keep track). Hopefully, the correct answer will use the same words that were used in the passage. If not, there should be some synonyms, or else the highlighted sentence might phrase things differently but convey the same meaning as one of the possible answers.

During the real test, students may choose not to highlight for the sake of time or their own personal preference, but have them do this during practice to instill the habit of checking for evidence within the passage.

Beware of Trap Words

Sometimes, a single word can turn an otherwise correct answer into an incorrect one, or at least a questionable one. The biggest example is the word ‘not’. Also keep an eye out for ‘never’ and ‘always’; just a single instance of the contrary will prove those answers wrong. You may want to encourage students to circle or underline words like these so that they’ll be less likely to escape the students’ notice.

Consider all the Possibilities

Since students are pressed for time, it’s easy to pick the first answer they see. Sometimes they’ll find a pretty decent answer, then move on to the next question. But many exams will specify that you should “choose the best answer” for each question. That means that while there is at least one decent answer, there might be an even better one if they keep reading. Students can mark an answer as correct when they come across it, but they shouldn’t leave that question until they’ve seen all the other answers and have confirmed that they selected the best one.

Eliminate the Wrong Answers

When students are unsure of what is the right answer, they should start by crossing out all the answers that are definitely wrong. Some of these might even have proof of their falsehood within the passage. If students are lucky, there’ll be only one answer left, and that must be the correct answer. Even if students narrow it down to two possible answers, randomly picking 1 out of 2 has a lot better chances of success than 1 out of 4 or 5.

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