Part 9: How To Answer Comprehension Questions

Do you have nightmares about comprehension questions? Don't worry, in this article, we're going to take the mystery out of answering questions about unseen texts with a step-by-step process!

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Do you fret when you hear the dreaded phrase: “comprehension section?” Well, Matrix is here to skill you up! Over the last 19 years, we’ve learned a thing or two about how to answer comprehension questions and, in this article, we’re going to share that with you now.

Like anything to do with studying English, there’s a process for approaching and answering comprehension questions. And it’s the same for year 7 & 8 students as it is for Year 12 students sitting HSC English Paper 1.

So, if you learn it and get it down now, you’ll be acing things calmly when it really counts!

 

What’s in this article?

In this article, we’re going to show you how to ace your next comprehension assessment. We’ll look at the following:

So, to get started, let’s look at what a comprehension section looks like.

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What’s a comprehension section?

A comprehension section is where you are given a feature article, an extract from a novel or short story, or a poem that you haven’t seen before. You need to read the text and then answer a series of questions on it.

Some questions will be mulitple choice, others will be written. The questions will be worth different marks and will require different length answers.

 

What’s the point of comprehension questions?

Remember how in Part 3 of this Guide we discussed comprehension and how well you interpreted information from a text?

Well, a comprehension section tests those skills. The questions are designed to see how well you have read and processed (called parsing) the information and ideas in the text.

Obviously, comprehension questions assess how well you have comprehended a text. But they also assess how well you can turn your findings into responses and arguments.

Throughout your study of English in high school, you’ll need to demonstrate your ability to read texts and produce critical responses to them. The comprehension questions you answer in Years 7 & 8 are introducing you to that.

As you likely know, when you are in Years 7 and 9, you’ll have to answer comprehension questions for NAPLAN.

Clearly, comprehension skills are really important. So, let’s show you how to attack comprehension sections.

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“Comprehension sections can be really “ruff”!”

How to answer comprehension questions – Step-by-step

To show teach you how to answer comprehension questions, we will first walk you through the process and then we’ll work through an example with you.

The process we’ll look at is:

  • Step 1: Read the questions
  • Step 2: Unpack the questions
  • Step 3: Read the text
  • Step 4: Read for relevant information and techniques
  • Step 5: Answer the questions – Mulitple choice, or
  • Step 5: Answer the questions – written responses
    • Identify and restate the keywords in the question
    • Present your answer
    • Incorporate your evidence
    • Explain your example
    • Conclude your response
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The process for attacking comprehension questions

Step 1: Read the questions

It may seem backwards to read the questions first. But it actually isn’t.

Reading the questions first tells you what you need to look for in the unseen text you’ve been given.

 

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You need to unwrap what the question wants from you if you want to answer it effectively.

Step 2: Unpack the questions

Make sure you read the questions a couple of times so that you know what to look for.

Questions will come in several varieties:

  • Multiple choice
    You are given a question or statement and 4-5 possible responses to choose from
  • Questions asking you to retrieve information from the text
    For example, “The narrator of the text has two friends, what are their names?”
  • Questions asking you to relate information from different parts of the text
    For example, the text may include difficult words that students likely won’t know. This information will be in a footnote or other part of the document. Students will need to be able to relate this information together.
  • Questions asking you to finish a statement
    For example, “In the text, Joanna works as a ______.”
  • Questions asking you to identify a technique and/or its effect
    For example, “What is the effect of Donna’s observation that Eli had ‘eye’s like a lion’?”
  • Questions asking you to interpret the text and provide analysis of it
    For example,  you may be asked to explain why a character does a certain action or has a certain response to things.

You should learn to identify these different types of questions by familiarising yourselves with the format and, also, learning the key verbs used in these questions.

Once you’ve memorised the picture, make a mental note of the information you need to find.

 

Step 3: Read the text

Now you know what you need to answer, you are ready to read the text they are about.

When you read the text, you need to be mindful of the time. You don’t want to rush it, but you also don’t want to skim read.

You want to be aware of the amount of time you to read the text. If you have enough reading time, you should read the text twice after you’ve read the questions.

As you read, you need to read to:

  1. Understand the meaning of the text as a whole, and
  2. Find the information the questions are asking for.

If you have the time to read the text more than once, aim to read the text the first time to understand it.

Then, read the text the second time to find what the question is asking you for.

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Step 4: Read for relevant information and techniques

While you are reading you need to look for the information the questions are asking for.

As you already know what you need to answer, this will make your job easier.

Depending on the things that you are asked, you should pay attention to the following while you read:

If you can’t make notes during the reading time, you need to remember the parts of the text that contain the useful information you need.

If you can make notes, try to make some dot point notes with the relevant information.

What we’re going to do now is look at how to answer different types of comprehension questions: multiple choice or short answer responses.

Let’s start with multiple choice.

 

Step 5: Answer the questions – Mulitple choice

If you have a multiple choice format, you are going to want to choose the most appropriate answer from the list.

Make sure that you read the question thoroughly and look for:

  • Key verbs such as identify, implies or relates to
  • The specific words you are asked to identify
  • Ambiguous terms in questions

Don’t rush the question, take the time to make sure that you are answering correctly.

Don’t be afraid to reread the pertinent part of the passage before you respond.

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Step 5: Answering the questions – written responses

When you are answering written responses there are some structural steps you need to take in your response.

They are:

  1. Identify and restate the keywords in the question
  2. Present your answer
  3. Incorporate your evidence
  4. Explain your example
  5. Conclude your response

Let’s take a gander at these in more detail.

 

1. Identify and restate the keywords in the questions

All questions will have important verbs and nouns in them that tell you what you need to do and what you need to discuss.

Identify the verbs in the question. Note what they are asking you to do.

Identify the key nouns and noun-phrases in the question.

You’ll begin your response by restating or, ideally, paraphrasing these questions.

 

2. Restate the keywords and present your answer

Next, you need to present your answer to the question. In the step above, you incorporated the language of the question to frame (or introduce) your response.

Now you need to present your response clearly and succinctly. To do this we’re going to use a T.E.E. structure.

  • Technique
  • Example
  • Effect

If you’re unsure of what a T.E.E. statement is, read this post.

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High scoring responses to comprehension questions require you to have found the right items to discuss.

3. Incorporate your evidence

Some questions will require you to cite evidence in your response.

When you need to include an example in your responses, you should ensure that you incorporate it into the grammar of your sentence.

Let’s look at what this means with an example.

Let’s use Atticus Finch’s statement that “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand” from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) as our evidence.

In this example, Atticus is using a metaphor – “courage is a man with a gun in his hand” – to explain to his son that courage is often non-violent and doesn’t involve weapons. He distinguishes between “real courage” and the kind of courage represented by “a man with a gun in his hand.”

If we need to discuss Harper Lee’s use of metaphor, we’d state:

To describe courage to his Jem, Atticus uses the metaphor of courage as “a man with a gun in his hand” to personify what courage is not.

You’ll note that in the above response, we’ve incorporated the technique and example from the T.E.E statement.

Now we need to explain it.

 

4. Explain your example

The length of your explanation will depend on how many marks the question is worth.

When you explain your example, you need to explain how you think the example, and its technique, support your response to the question you’ve been asked.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for 1-2 sentences per mark. Obviously, if you need to write an extended response, you’ll be writing something much longer that requires more examples.

Let’s look at a sample question and response to make things clear for you.

Question:
How does Atticus try and explain courage to his son, Jem? (2 Marks)

Answer:
When Atticus is explaining courage to Jem, he states that he “wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” In this statement, Atticus uses contrast and metaphor to show Jem that “real courage” is not “a man with a gun in his hand.”

 

5. Conclude your example

If you have a comprehension question worth 3 or more marks, you may want to include a statement that sums up and concludes your argument.

When writing a concluding statement make sure that you address the key points of the question by including the keywords or synonyms in your response.

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Now you know what to do, let’s go through a sample text and questions.

How to answer comprehension questions – Sample response

So you can really grasp how to answer comprehension questions, let’s look at a sample text and questions:

Sample text: Langston Hughes – ‘Dreams’

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

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Now we’ll look at some comprehension questions about the Langston Hughes poem “Dreams”

 

Sample questions

1. According to the poem, if you don’t hold onto your dreams ________ (1 mark)

  • Life is exciting
  • Life is very cold
  • Life is aimless and empty
  • Life needs to go to the vet

2. How does Langston Hughes use metaphor to convey the importance of dreams? (3 marks)

 

Step 1: Read the questions

Take a few moments and read the questions two or three times.

 

Step 2: Unpack the questions

Let’s see what the questions are asking you to discuss:

  1. Question 1 wants us to finish a statement that infers the overall meaning of the poem
  2. Question 2 is asking us to identify a specific technique in the poem – metaphor – and relate this to “the importance of dreams”

 

Step 3: Read the text

Read the poem through once to get a sense of what it is about.

We can see that the narrator (known as the persona) is telling the reader that we need to have dreams and we need to have them as aims or our life will lose meaning.

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Broken dreams lack purpose.

Step 4: Read the text for relevant information and techniques

Now we need to reread the poem with an eye to the questions and the information we need to answer them.

Take a moment to read the poem again.

Let’s see what the key information is for each question:

  1. The consequences of not holding onto dreams are they die and:
    • “Life [becomes] a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly”
    • “Life [becomes] a barren field / Frozen with snow.”
  2. Question 2 asks us to identify a metaphor. Metaphors are where something is made to be something else. As you can see, there are two in this poem:
    • “Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly”
    • “Life is a barren field / Frozen with snow.”
    • We need to relate this to the poems overall meaning: that is, if we don’t hold onto our dreams then life loses meaning.

Step 5: Answering the questions

Now we have all the information, we are ready to answer the questions. Let’s start with the multiple choice question.

Question 1: According to the poem, if you don’t hold onto your dreams ________ (1 mark)

  • Life is exciting
  • Life is very cold
  • Life is aimless and empty
  • Life needs to go to the vet

A good approach is to work through a process of elimination. Let’s do that:

  1. Life needs to go to the vet – clearly, this isn’t the answer because it is too literal and a little bit silly as a consequence.
  2. Life is exciting – This is not something that is directly conveyed by the poem.
  3. LIfe is very cold – This is a literal reading of the second stanza. Because it is literal, it doesn’t really convey the actual meaning of the poem.
  4. Life is aimless and empty – This answer infers the meaning from the two similes. This is the correct answer because it is extrapolating the concept of aimlessness from the metaphor of the bird with broken wings and emptiness from the barren wasteland in the second metaphor.

Now let’s look at question 2, the short response comprehension question.

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Without dreams, life is bleak and empty.

 

Question 2: How does Langston Hughes use simile to convey the importance of dreams? (3 marks)

We have already identified the metaphors in Hughes’ poem and what they are conveying.

Now we need to write a response. Remember that the process for writing a T.E.E comprehension response is:

  1. Identify and the keywords in the question
  2. Restate the keywords and present your answer
  3. Incorporate your evidence
  4. Explain your example
  5. Conclude your response

Let’s put this into action:

1.  The keywords are – how, use, simile, convey, “the importance of dreams

 

2. To restate this in our response we would write that:

Hughes uses a pair of metaphors to represent the importance of dreams.

This is the Technique of our T.E.E. response.

 

3. Now we need to expand on this and develop it answer by incorporating our evidence.

Remember this is worth three marks, so we should probably use a couple of pieces of evidence to back up our answer.

Don’t forget that we need to try and incorporate the quotation, or quotations, into our full sentences.

Hughes relates to us that if we forget or fail to nourish our dreams, life becomes “a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly” and “a barren field / Frozen with snow.”

This is the Example part of our T.E.E. structure.

 

4. We’re ready to present our explanation and explain what we think Hughes means.

These metaphors capture the importance of dreams to the meaning we find in our lives. 

This is the Effect part of our T.E.E. structure.

 

5. Finally, we need to add a concluding statement to hammer our analysis home.

In his poem, Hughes is saying that without dreams to drive us, life becomes empty and devoid purpose.

 

Let’s put it all together.

Hughes uses a pair of metaphors to represent the importance of dreams. Hughes relates to us that if we forget or fail to nourish our dreams, life becomes “a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly” and “a barren field / Frozen with snow.” These metaphors capture the importance of dreams to the meaning we find in our lives. In his poem, Hughes is saying that without dreams to drive us, life becomes empty and devoid purpose.

Now, while this is a good response that would get full marks, it is a little long-winded.

As you practice your writing you want to learn to be a bit more concise. We could make this response more concise by rewriting it as:

Hughes uses a pair of metaphors to relate to us that if we forget or fail to nourish our dreams, life becomes “a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly” and “a barren field / Frozen with snow.” These metaphors represent Hughes’ belief that without dreams to drive us life becomes empty and devoid purpose, capturing the importance of dreams to the meaning we find in our lives. 

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Finishing comprehension sections can be a race against time!

Strategies to beat the clock!

Comprehension sections pit you against the clock. This means that to do well, you need to be as efficient as possible.

So, what can you do to beat the clock?

Let’s have a look.

 

1. Take advantage of your reading time

You will always be given more reading time than you should need. Use it to its utmost by reading the questions first, and then reading the texts.

If you have time to read your text again, read the questions again and then look specifically for the answers.

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2. Take the time to make brief notes.

When your writing time begins, take a few minutes to plan your written responses. This isn’t the waste of time it sounds like.

If you plan what evidence you will use in your answers and how you will use it, you won’t encounter writer’s block when responding.

In addition, you will have the opportunity to reevaluate your initial ideas as you write your responses.

 

3. Figure out the time-value of questions

Students often ask, “how long should my response be?” This is the wrong question.

Students should ask, “How much time should I spend on each question?”

The best way to figure this out is to divide the total number of marks on offer by the total writing time of your exam.

For example, if you have a forty-minute test with ten minutes reading time that is worth fifteen marks, then you should spend 2 minutes per question.

Why? You only have thirty minutes to write. 15 marks for a 30-minute exam means that you 2 minutes per mark (\(30 \over 2 = 15\))

 

4. Prioritise! Get the marks into the bag!

If you’re worried about running out of time, be strategic.

What does this mean? If you have a question worth 5 marks and three questions worth 1 mark, you really need to get that 5 mark question answered. If you run out of time on a 1 mark question, you only lose a mark. But if you don’t start the 5 mark questions or only partly answer it you will lose more marks.

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Don’t waste your words and time writing waffling, shallow sentences.

5. Be concise

Finally, you need to be erudite and concise. When answering comprehension short answer question, don’t waffle. Get to the point as quickly as you can.

If you have a question worth 2 marks, don’t use three examples and write a paragraph. Write a couple of sentences using 1 or 2 sentences.

Don’t say something in 5 words if you can say it in 2.

Don’t write: The composer, Hughes, tries to show the audience why we need to look after and nourish our dreams.

Do write: Hughes explores why we should nourish and follow our dreams.

 

How do I get better at comprehension sections?

There is no golden bullet for improving your responses to comprehension questions. You have to practice the skills involved:

  1. Reading
  2. Critical thinking and textual analysis
  3. Writing

The best way to do this is to take as many practice comprehension papers as you can get your hands on.

 

What now? Test your skills with our comprehension test!

Test your comprehension skills with our Year 7 & 8 Comprehension test! Download the paper today and have a go at it, and we’ll send you the solutions and sample answers in 24 hours so you can see how you went!

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© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2019. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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