Teacher Guide: How to Prepare Students for Reading Exams

Written by: TEFL Toolkit



Time to read 6 min

Make sure they know about the exam

How long is it? How many texts will there be and of what length? How many questions will there be? What is the marking scheme? Are all questions of equal value, or are some worth more marks than others? How do they record their answers - on the question paper or a separate answer sheet?

All of this information will help them manage the time they have available. Practise planning with them – get them thinking about how much time to spend on each section and question. Remind them that it is important to try to answer all the questions. If they are struggling with a question, they shouldn’t be tempted to spend lots of time on it. It is more important for them to give themselves enough time to answer every question – even if they need to use an educated guess. Also, they may miss out on much easier marks. Remember that, in many exams, the first few questions in a section are easiest.

With reading exams, the kinds of structure and question type will depend on what is being tested. Commonly, reading exams will test the candidate’s ability in one or more areas, such as:

  • general or specific comprehension skills.
  • the ability to recognise the text type or genre.
  • the ability to identify the purpose of the text.
  • the ability to identify the attitude or opinion of the writer.
  • the ability to quickly scan the text for specific information.
  • the ability to identify subtext or infer meaning.

Make sure your students know what they are being tested on. Have them practise reading and re-reading exam questions and discussing exactly what is required. The ‘read and re-read the question’ advice will have them rolling their eyes, but don’t let up on this – we know how easy it is to misread exam questions and instructions because we all know students who have done it, and have had to learn from bitter experience!

A final word of advice here. Make sure your students know what will lose them marks as well as gain them. Will they be penalised for mis-spelling answers or poor grammar? Will an answer be disallowed if they choose multiple answers when they have only been asked to choose one or answer ‘yes’ instead of ‘true’ to a true/false question? Will they be penalised if they write an answer that is too short or too long?

Developing General Reading Skills and Strategies

Encourage your students to read regularly (and for fun!) – this need not involve a huge time commitment. Suggest they make it a part of their daily routine. Taking ten minutes a day to read a short article (or even just a paragraph) will dramatically increase their vocabulary and hone their reading skills. So there is a pay-off in other areas of their learning.

Every now and then include a ‘speed reading’ task. Give them a strictly limited amount of time to scan for key information, or to get them to note down the main points of a text to produce a short oral summary. This will get them used to the pressure of reading under timed conditions.

It is good if you can help them develop their reading skills more generally before the exam. In this respect, it is good to identify and apply effective strategies that are used by skilled readers. For example:

  • Predicting: Good readers find clues and make predictions before they start reading and whilst they are reading. Initial clues might include the title or section headings images, diagrams, or quotes that have been used alongside the text. Have them skim the text to get a general sense of the topic. If they can identify the broad topic, it is worth telling them to think about what might be included. They can use their own experience and knowledge of the world to think about what the text might contain. For example, if the text is about global warming, they might predict that it is likely to include facts about common sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the current state of the planet, what the future holds if we take no action, initiatives that are being implemented successfully and different scenarios for the future.
  • Clarifying: Good readers notice when they don’t understand something and use strategies to help work out meanings. Clarifying strategies help them to understand words and phrases they don’t know or are confusing. Here are our best clarifying strategies if they come across a word or phrase they don’t understand in their exam: first, try re-reading the sentence; if this doesn’t help, try to guess the meaning from the other words in the sentence (ask them to think about whether it is like any other word they know), identify the word class (noun, adjective, verb, adverb), break up the word and see if they recognise any of the parts).
  • Summarising: Good readers look for the main ideas as they read and, if asked, would probably be able to give a rough outline of what a text contains. Strategies include: identifying topic sentences (these are the sentences that contain the main ideas covered in each paragraph); asking wh- questions (who, what, where, when, why, and how?); identifying keywords and phrases and marking these in the text using circling, underlining or highlighting.

Work with your students to help them practise and develop their skills and strategies.

Targeted Exam Practice

Get them to study past papers to help them get a feel for the exam, the kinds of texts and questions, and any commonly recurring topics. Make them aware that exam formats and marking schemes usually develop and change over time. Try to find out if there are likely to be any changes for their specific exam – the last thing they need is to be confronted with a different format or structure on the day!

For some exams, you will find that the exam board has produced model answers or examiners' reports that analyse previous candidates’ responses, including their strengths and weaknesses. There may be examples of real answers given in previous exams, along with the grades awarded and the reasons why. Sometimes access to examiners’ reports is restricted, but sometimes they are freely available online. If there are examiners’ reports available relating to your students’ exams, make use of these – they are a great resource.

There are a variety of question types used in reading exams. Some exams are relatively simple, focusing on a specific question type – for example, multiple-choice or short answer questions. Other exams may include a whole range of question types – including, for certain advanced exams, questions that are less comprehension-focused, and have more to do with grammar. 

Have students practise all the question types that are relevant to their exam

Question types include:

  • Multiple choice – where they choose one or more answers from a selection (read our previous blog on how to deal with multiple-choice questions).
  • Short answer questions – usually requiring a single word response, a few words, or a sentence. A word of warning here – some exams are very specific in the instructions about the response they require. For example: ‘answer using exactly three words’. If they do not answer in the form required, they will lose marks.
  • Gap-fill – this involves completing a sentence frame with an appropriate word or words (sometimes from a selection).
  • Matching exercises – matching headings, statements, or summaries to specific paragraphs, or parts of the text.
  • Summarising – providing a summary of some or all of the text.
  • Re-wording (sentence transformations) – they may be asked to reformulate a sentence from the text using a different structure (for example, transforming a sentence from the active to passive form).
  • Word formation – they may be given the base form of a word and be asked to provide the corresponding form from another word class (for example, the adjectival, verbal, or nominative form).

If you apply the suggestions above, you will give your students the best chance to perform well in their next reading exam. Let us know how you get on - and if they or you find a specific suggestion particularly useful.