May 30

How to Read Tests

Digital Textbook: Reading Tools and Tips

Reading Tests

The test of any man lies in action.


Tests are a text like any other, complete with their own demands and features. While we should not give them any special pride of place amongst the many types we teach, we do need to show our sudents how to read such tests. We can do this by showing them how langauge works and how tests are designed and must be read.

What to Do:  Reading and Taking the Test

Skim and scan: Depending on how much time students have for the test, they should flip through to get a sense of the terrain: number and type of questions, what’s easy, what’s hard. This will orient them and allow them to prioritize their time and attention.

Do the easy ones first. Like in pick-up-sticks, you get just as much credit for the easy ones as the hard ones. After skimming through the test, knock out the ones you know so you have the time you need to read the others more closely. This will also activate students’ background knowledge, thus making it more likely they can figure out the harder questions.

Read all the possible answers first before answering. Test makers depend on inattentive readers to make mistakes that conscientious readers will not. Even if you see the answer you know is right, read through them all to make sure there is no surprise hiding under answer E (e.g., “All of the above).

Eliminate the wrong answers. If you don’t see the obvious answer, work backwards by ruling out those that cannot be right.

Paraphrase the question in your own words to help you better understand what it is asking.

Watch out for traps. Some tests use the word not to trip you up; stop and ask yourself what it’s really asking. Avoid answering questions that include information from the passage, especially on standardized tests. Instead look for questions that answer the question.

Try to answer the question before looking at the answers. Paired with the previous strategy, this method gets to primed to know the answer when you see it; if you have already determined the answer in your head, you know what to look for when you check the possible answers.

Read recursively. Good readers frequently and habitually circle back around to check what they are reading and thinking against what they have already read to see that they agree. This habit also keeps them attentive to what they are supposed to be doing. On an essay test, for example, after reading and underlining the key words in the directions, students should pause periodically to re-read the directions. This will help them measure the extent to which they are answering the question; it might also provide useful information to spark new ideas for their essay.

Read the answer sheet. Know how it works. A group of students in my honors English class neglected to do this and they scored a -2.6 on the reading test. We calculated this to mean they were reading at the level of a fetus in its second month. They had missed a crucial direction on the answer sheet that made all their answers out of sequence after number twenty.

Answer in the order that works best for you. Students should work through the test in the order that makes most sense to them and will help them read it best. If reading the multiple choice and fill-in will help remind them of all they should address in their essay, so be it. One important point, however: they must use some sort of system to indicate which questions they have to still answer and be sure to erase any such marks before turning in the test.

Questions to Ask

  • Why is that the best answer?
  • Why did I not choose that answer?
  • How did I arrive at this answer?
  • Is this answer based on my experience and opinion or information found in the text on which I’m being tested?
  • Where else can I look for this information (e.g., another section of the test?)
  • What does that word mean in this context?
  • What does the rubric or other scoring guide suggest I need to understand or look for in this question?
  • What are they actually trying to test?
  • Is it better to guess or leave it blank?

The information on this page comes from Reading Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques, by Jim Burke.


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