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Reading comprehension exam skills and worksheets

By Atom | Jun 29, 2023, 8:30 AM

Reading comprehension exam skills

Reading comprehension is part of the English paper for most 11 plus exams and independent school entrance exams. It's also part of the Year 6 SATs English paper. But beyond preparing for exams, strong reading comprehension skills will benefit your child throughout their education and life. Reading, after all, 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 – along with some free 11 plus comprehension worksheets which you can download.

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.

In English exams, comprehension questions are designed to assess your child’s ability to analyse and interpret text in various ways:

  • 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 will likely encounter several different comprehension question styles in an 11 plus 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)

Download a selection of sample comprehension questions below for your child to try out:

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Reading comprehension questions

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Reading comprehension example questions

What format are reading comprehension exams?

GL Assessment 11+ comprehension

The majority of grammar schools in the UK 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 – around two sides of A4 in length – 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

On the ISEB Common Pre-Test, the English paper is 40 minutes long. It contains 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 11+ 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 of 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

Here are our top tips to support your child to develop their comprehension skills!

Read widely

Reading a broad range of texts as part of daily life really is the best way to develop comprehension skills. Find tips for engaging your child with reading here. You can encourage your child by modelling reading habits, saying "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 to help them get into the habit of analysing and interpreting what they're reading.

  • 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?

Practice 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:

  • 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 calmly tackle any challenges that come up on the paper. Here's our strategy for approaching comprehension questions:

First, read the passage. Next, read the question carefully. Take note of keywords and phrases like 'in your own words'. If completing your test on paper, underline command words in the question (e.g. who, what, when). If the question tells you which part of the text it is referring to, reread that portion (e.g. lines 36–38).

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

When you finish a section, take a deep breath and clear your mind before moving on. And remember to focus on your own test – don't compare yourself to others around you!

Free parent webinar: watch now!

Supporting your child's comprehension skills

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More free resources

Comprehension poster

Download this free poster to share with your child and help them become confident with comprehension!

Comprehension lessons

Get six free video lessons on creative writing and comprehension! Simply join Atom's mailing list to unlock your lessons.

Comprehension made easy with Atom

Wondering how to make sure your child covers the exam curriculum and stays on track with their progress? Online learning is a particularly efficient, cost-effective (and fun) way to do this!

Atom is the award-winning online learning platform which supports children aged 7–11 with general learning and entrance exams for grammar schools and independent schools.

Children work independently through over 90,000 interactive practice questions in English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. Teacher-created helpsheets and videos help them discover new concepts and consolidate their learning.

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