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Helping Students Improve Their Performance on Reading Comprehension Tests

This article describes some of the thought processes that can help students perform well on standardized tests of reading comprehension. It includes two reading passages along with sample test questions that call on skills that eighth grade students should master to be on track for college readiness. Also included are explanations for the correct answer choices.

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Reading passage 1

When the triangle sounded in the morning, Jody dressed more quickly even than usual. In the kitchen, while he washed his face and combed back his hair, his mother addressed him irritably. “Don’t you go out until you get a good breakfast in you.”

He went into the dining room and sat at the long white table. He took a steaming hotcake from the platter, arranged two fried eggs on it, covered them with another hotcake and squashed the whole thing with his fork.

His father and Billy Buck came in. Jody knew from the sound on the floor that both of them were wearing flat-heeled shoes, but he peered under the table to make sure. His father turned off the oil lamp, for the day had arrived, and he looked stern and disciplinary, but Billy Buck didn’t look at Jody at all. He avoided the shy questioning eyes of the boy and soaked a whole piece of toast in his coffee.

Carol Tiflin said crossly, “You come with us after breakfast!”

Jody had trouble with his food then, for he felt a kind of doom in the air. The two men stood up from the table and went out into the morning light together, and Jody respectfully followed a little behind them. He tried to keep his mind from running ahead, tried to keep it absolutely motionless.

His mother called, “Carl! Don’t you let it keep him from school.”

They marched past the cypress, where a singletree hung from a limb to butcher the pigs on, and past the black iron kettle, so it was not a pig killing. The sun shone over the hill and threw long, dark shadows of the tree and buildings. They crossed a stubble-field to shortcut to the barn. Jody’s father unhooked the door and they went in. They had been walking toward the sun on the way down. The barn was black as night in contrast and warm from the hay and the beasts. Jody’s father moved over toward the one box stall. “Come here!” he ordered. Jody could begin to see things now. He looked into the box stall and then stepped back quickly.

A red pony colt was looking at him out of the stall. Its tense ears were forward and a light of disobedience was in its eyes. Its coat was rough and thick as an airedale’s fur and its mane was long and tangled. Jody’s throat collapsed in on itself and cut his breath short.

“He needs a good currying,” his father said, “and if I ever hear of you not feeding him or leaving his stall dirty, I’ll sell him off in a minute.”

Jody couldn’t bear to look at the pony’s eyes any more. He gazed down at his hands for a moment, and he asked very shyly, “Mine?” No one answered him. He put his hand out toward the pony. Its gray nose came close, sniffing loudly, and then the lips drew back and the strong teeth closed on Jody’s fingers. The pony shook its head up and down and seemed to laugh in amusement. Jody regarded his bruised fingers. “Well,” he said with pride—”well, I guess he can bite all right.” The two men laughed, somewhat in relief. Carol Tiflin went out of the barn and walked up a side-hill to be by himself, for he was embarrassed, but Billy Buck stayed. It was easier to talk to Billy Buck. Jody asked again—”Mine?”

This passage is adapted from the novel The Red Pony by John Steinbeck (©1961, 1965 by John Steinbeck).

Questions about passage one

1. After he showed Jody the pony in the barn, Carl Tiflin went off by himself because he felt:

  1. lonely
  2. sad
  3. embarrassed*
  4. amused

Relationships: Recognize clear cause-effect relationships described within a single sentence in a passage

The best answer is C. Paragraph ten states, “Carl Tiflin went out of the barn and walked up a side-hill to be by himself, for he was embarrassed …” Given what the passage states about Carl’s motive, there is no evidence in the passage to support A (lonely), B (sad), or D (amused), making each of those choices incorrect.

2. The inside of the barn is described in the passage as:

  1. dark and cold
  2. bright and warm
  3. airless but bright
  4. dark and warm*

Supporting Details: Locate basic facts (e.g., names, dates, events) clearly stated in a passage

The best answer is D. Paragraph seven states, “The barn was black as night in contrast [to outside] and warm from the hay and from the beasts.” A is incorrect because while the barn was dark, it was also warm, not cold. B is incorrect because while the barn was warm, it was also dark, not bright. C is incorrect because the barn was dark, not bright, and also because the passage doesn’t describe the barn as airless.

3. It can reasonably be inferred from the second “Mine?” uttered by Jody in paragraph ten that he:

  1. won’t curry the horse after school.
  2. can hardly believe the pony is his.*
  3. is wondering how he’s going to afford the pony.
  4. is embarrassed by what his father has done.

Generalizations and Conclusions: Draw simple generalizations and conclusions about the main characters in uncomplicated literary narratives

The best answer is B. Jody asks, “Mine?” the first time in a way that’s described as “very shyly” (paragraph 10), implying that he’s genuinely unsure. “No one answered him” and Carl Tiflin left, which led Jody to ask again whether the pony was his. This strongly suggests that Jody has a hard time believing the pony is really his. This conclusion is reinforced by the mood of the fifth paragraph , which is one of “doom.” Jody is hardly expecting a gift, which makes the pony all the more surprising. A is incorrect because while Jody’s father mentions that Jody needs to curry the horse (paragraph 9), there’s no evidence in the passage that Jody plans to neglect this duty. C is incorrect because money is never raised as an issue in the passage. D is incorrect because while Carl Tiflin is “embarrassed,” there’s no evidence that Jody is.

4. The narrator’s statement that Jody “tried to keep his mind from running ahead” (paragraph 5) suggests that Jody:

  1. is trying not to get too worried or excited about what might happen*
  2. has great respect for his father and especially for Billy Buck
  3. wants to avoid thinking about how he’ll be punished for missing school.
  4. knew exactly why he had to follow his father and Billy Buck

Meanings of Words: Understand the implication of a familiar word or phrase and of simple descriptive language

The best answer is A. The fifth paragraph shows that after Carl Tiflin ordered Jody to come with the men after breakfast, Jody “had trouble with his food then” and felt “a kind of doom in the air.” This strongly suggests that Jody suspects something serious is going to happen and that it would be better not to think about it too much. B is incorrect because while the passage suggests that Jody does have great respect for his father and Billy Buck, this is not what the statement in paragraph five refers to. Jody “respectfully followed a little behind” the two men, but the statement in question points more directly to Jody’s attempt not to let his thoughts race with worry. C is incorrect because while Jody’s mother does warn Carl Tiflin not to let Jody be late for school (paragraph 6), there’s no evidence in the passage that Jody is ever actually tardy or absent. D is incorrect because while Jody feels “a kind of doom in the air” (paragraph 5), it’s a vague sort, and he doesn’t have a clear sense of what’s going to happen.

Reading passage 2

I already knew everything I planned to say to my new mama.

Ever since I saw her at church I rehearsed what I would say and a variety of answers she might give me. I just hoped I had made a good impression when she spotted me at church. I had on the same clothes and my hair bangs were stuck down the best I could manage with just spit to work with. She’s bound to recognize me I thought. I am not just a face in the crowd.

So I stood in front of her house with my box and tried not to think about where I would go if she said she had a house full of girls already. And I decided that if she turned me down I would just have to give up. I racked my head trying to think of another place but I was fresh out of folks. There was always Julia and Roy but I was too wore out to track them down.

I saw her girls moving around inside the house. They had the curtains pulled back and I could see her girls milling around ….

Lord I thought that house could try out for a greeting card. Merry Christmas from the Fosters! it might say.

And I said then Ellen you can stand out here and freeze or you can knock on her door. So I went ahead and …knocked… .

She came to the door and there I was. I tried my best to look proud.

She asked me more questions right off than I could answer. Like are you cold? Are you hungry? Where did you come from? Would you like to come inside? What’s your name? Why are you outside? Were you in an accident? Who are you?

Lord I said to myself she is really interested in me.

I started out by saying I would like to come in and no I have not been in a accident. I came here by myself. I mean to be here.

I went in her house that smelled like a Christmas tree and I saw fruit laying all around in bowls. And somebody fried a chicken in this house yesterday. I could smell that separate from the Christmas tree scent and I wondered if they had any wings or thighs left in the refrigerator.

Why don’t you come back here and warm up? Come on back to my room she said to me and then she yelled for Stella to take my box for me. Stella and the other girls had the parades turned up loud and they were sprawled out on the floor relaxing like you are supposed to do on Christmas Day.

I followed her back to her room and took off my coat.

And she noticed my dress right away.

What a pretty dress! she said. You sure are mighty spiffed up to be out walking on Christmas. Tell me honey. Did you run away?

I told her I did not. I am not in trouble I said but I do need a place to stay. What do you think of me staying here?

Well I’ve had some pretty unusual requests before but this is the strangest yet. I need to find out who you are and a few other things like your parents’ names. Are you sure you didn’t run away from home? I bet your mom and dad are pretty worried about you right now.

No they aren’t. They are both dead and I have just been thrown out of my aunt’s house. You might know her. Nadine Nelson. But it is no use to call her and ask her to come fetch me back. She told me flat out to leave.

Well how did you know to come here?

Last Sunday at church I saw you and your girls and I asked Dora who you were. She told me and I figured since you already had some girls about my size that you might be able to squeeze me in.

This passage is adapted from the novel Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (©1987 by Kaye Gibbons).

Questions about passage 2

1. According to the passage, which of the following is Ellen’s aunt?

  1. Dora
  2. Nadine*
  3. Julia
  4. Mrs. Foster

Supporting Details: Locate basic facts (e.g., names, dates, events) clearly stated in a passage

The best answer is B. Ellen states in paragraph 18 that Mrs. Foster may know Ellen’s aunt, who is Nadine Nelson. A is incorrect because the last paragraph mentions Dora but doesn’t establish who she is in relation to Ellen besides the fact that she’s someone Ellen knows. C is incorrect because all we know about Julia from the passage is that she’s someone Ellen doesn’t know how to locate (paragraph 3). D is incorrect because there’s no evidence in the passage that Mrs. Foster, the person whom Ellen tries to get to take her in, is Ellen’s aunt. The passage, in fact, suggests that Mrs. Foster is almost a stranger to Ellen.

2. Which of the following best characterizes the Foster woman, given the information provided in the passage?

  1. Strange and impulsive
  2. Carefree and overly
  3. familiar
  4. Compassionate and concerned*
  5. Nosy and opinionated

Generalizations and Conclusions: Draw simple generalizations and conclusions about the main characters in uncomplicated literary narratives

The best answer is C. The eighth paragraph shows Mrs. Foster asking friendly but concerned questions of Ellen regarding Ellen’s welfare. In the twelfth paragraph , Mrs. Foster invites Ellen again to come in and “warm up.” In the fifteenth paragraph, Mrs. Foster compliments Ellen on her dress and wonders, sympathetically, whether Ellen has run away, a notion she returns to in the seventeenth paragraph when she suggests that Ellen’s parents must be worried about her. While Mrs. Foster regards Ellen’s asking to live with her as the “strangest” request she’s ever had (paragraph 17), she doesn’t reject the idea out of hand. A is incorrect because there’s no evidence in the passage to suggest that Mrs. Foster is strange or impulsive. Ellen seeks out Mrs. Foster as a potential mother, which suggests that she’s reliable, and Mrs. Foster methodically asks questions of Ellen. B is incorrect because there’s no evidence in the passage that Mrs. Foster is carefree or overly familiar. She seems quite concerned about Ellen, which hardly makes her carefree, and Ellen doesn’t regard her questions as inappropriate. D is incorrect because while Mrs. Foster does ask a lot of questions of Ellen, it’s because Ellen has come to her with a strange request. Mrs. Foster does offer some opinions about Ellen and her situation, such as noting that Ellen has a pretty dress (paragraph 15), but she spends more time asking questions of Ellen than offering her own opinions.