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Guide to 11+ English: reading comprehension

By Atom | May 30, 2024, 12:53 PM

Reading comprehension exam skills

Reading comprehension is part of the English paper for most 11 plus and independent school entrance exams. It's also part of the Year 6 SATs English paper.

Beyond preparing for exams, reading comprehension skills will benefit your child for life. Reading allows us to 'expand our knowledge and horizons, build on past knowledge, master new information', and connect with others (Zimmerman and Hutchins, 2003).

Here's our advice on how to support your child to build these crucial skills. Plus, sign up to Atom's free 11 plus course to get a full reading comprehension practice paper!

What is reading comprehension?

Reading comprehension is the ability to read, process and understand text. It relies on us being able to decode and form meaning from words and sentences.

Comprehension questions assess your child’s ability to analyse and interpret text through:

  • Deduction: forming an understanding based on the evidence given in the text

  • Inference: making an interpretation that goes beyond the literal information given

  • Rephrasing: putting information into your own words

  • Summarising: explaining an entire passage in just a few sentences

Reading comprehension question types

Your child may come across many different comprehension question styles in an entrance exam. Some common question types include:

  • Vocabulary, explaining the meaning of words in context

  • Retrieval of information

  • Summary (summarising ideas)

  • Inference

  • Evidence

  • Prediction

  • Structure

  • Authorial intent

  • Comparison (e.g. across the text, between characters, between styles)

  • Parts of speech

  • Literary devices (e.g. personification, alliteration, similes, metaphors)

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Verbal reasoning paper

What format are reading comprehension exams?

GL Assessment 11+ comprehension

Most grammar schools use GL Assessment 11 plus exams. The structure of the English paper varies from school to school. Most papers include a reading comprehension task followed by spelling, punctuation and grammar questions.

The comprehension section consists of a passage of text which might be fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. It could be a traditional or contemporary text. Your child will need to answer questions to show:

  • their literal understanding of the text

  • their ability to infer implied meaning and deduce information

  • that they can understand vocabulary in context

Depending on the format of the test, your child will have multiple-choice answers (most common) or will need to write short written answers.

The picture below shows the format of an online GL Assessment 11+ English comprehension practice test on Atom. Downloadable paper tests are also available with an Atom subscription.

Example reading comprehension question on an Atom GL Assessment 11+ mock test

ISEB English

The ISEB Common Pre-Test includes an English test. This has two sections: reading comprehension and SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar). The questions are adaptive, so as your child answers more questions correctly, the level becomes more challenging.

Your child will see a series of short passages – usually between 300–500 words. These could be fiction, non-fiction or poetry, and taken from a range of time periods. The test is taken on a computer and children can scroll to read each passage. All questions are multiple-choice.

Take a look at the format of an ISEB English test, as shown on Atom.

Summarising example question on an Atom ISEB English mock test

Year 6 SATs reading

The Year 6 SATs reading paper has a time limit of 60 minutes (including time for reading). Questions are based on the Key Stage 2 national curriculum. There are 50 marks available.

Your child will have three texts to read and will need to answer questions on each text. Some questions include a page reference, so your child knows which page their answer should be based on.

Each text might be a different genre. Your child should read one text and answer the questions about it, before moving on to the next text. The space given for the answer will help your child work out what type of answer is needed.

Year 6 SATs practice tests are available on Atom. The reading tests look like this:

Example reading comprehension question on an Atom Year 6 SATs English test

CEM Select comprehension

Comprehension is one of the longest sections on the CEM Select test. It is included in the verbal reasoning section (there is no separate English section).

Like the ISEB, this is a computerised test. Your child will see a scrollable passage of text (fiction or non-fiction) on the left of their screen. Questions will appear on the right side of the screen.

Here's an example comprehension question in a CEM Select test on Atom.

Reading comprehension question on an Atom CEM Select mock test

FSCE 11+ English

A few grammar schools in England use 11+ exams set by the FSCE. These tests are similar in style to GL Assessments.

Your child will need to read a short passage of text, which could be fiction or non-fiction. They will then work through questions which assess how well they have understood what they have read.

The picture below shows an example question from an online Reading School 11+ practice test on Atom. Reading School uses the FSCE for its 11+ exams. Paper tests are also available with an Atom subscription.

Example from an English mock test for Reading School on Atom

How to develop your child's comprehension skills

There are lots of ways you can help develop your child's comprehension skills at home. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Read widely

Reading a broad range of texts on a regular basis is the best way to develop comprehension skills. Find tips for engaging your child with reading here.

You can also encourage your child by modelling reading habits. Showing your child that reading is an activity you do for entertainment or relaxation can have influence. Try reinforcing this with positive comments, such as "I'm going to relax with my book now", or "My book is so good, I can't put it down!"

If you're reading together, ask your child questions about the story. This will help them get into the habit of analysing and interpreting what they're reading. You could ask questions such as:

  • What do you think is going to happen?

  • How would you describe this character?

  • How might this story be different if it was told from another character’s point of view?

  • Can you summarise what has happened in this chapter?

Looking for more advice? In the free parent webinar below, Hannah explains how to engage your child with reading. Learn about:

  • The importance of reading and knowledge

  • How to encourage your child to read

  • Reading and comprehension

  • Why reading to your child is as important as hearing them read

Learn more about 11 plus subjects, senior school entrance exams and Key Stage 2 learning. Register for an Atom parent webinar today – no subscription needed!

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Practise keywords

Reading comprehension exam questions are usually formed around one or more keywords. If you're preparing for an exam, work through this vocabulary checklist together and make sure your child is comfortable and familiar with each of these terms and what they mean:

  • Compare

  • Technique

  • Explain fully

  • React

  • Summary

  • Statement

  • Atmosphere

  • Contrast

  • Purpose

  • Effective

  • Comparison

  • Quotations

  • Function

  • Select

  • Impression

  • Phrase

  • Sequence

Download checklist

Develop exam technique

Developing a strong exam technique will empower your child to tackle any difficult questions. Here's our strategy for approaching comprehension questions:

  1. Read the passage – ideally twice.

  2. Read the question carefully. Pay particular attention to keywords and phrases such as 'in your own words'. If your child is taking the test on paper, they can underline command words in the question (e.g. who, what, when). If the question explains which part of the text it is referring to (e.g. lines 36–38), reread that portion of the text.

  3. Check how many marks are available for the question. Make sure to make a point for each mark. Questions with 3 or 6 marks usually require PEE answers (point, evidence, explain). If a written answer is needed, always write in full sentences. If the question is multiple-choice, use the process of elimination.

  4. Take a deep breath before moving onto the next section. Remind your child to focus on their own test and not compare themselves to others in the exam room!

Comprehension: easy with Atom.

Preparing for school entrance exams? Get your child's roadmap to exam success with Atom Home. Atom has everything you need to get prepared, in one package.

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  • Refine exam technique with mock tests for 11+, ISEB, CEM Select, CAT4 and more

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