Can Reading Comprehension Be Taught for Standardized Tests?

French students work on the test of Philosophy as they take the baccalaureat exam (high school graduation exam) on June 18, 2
French students work on the test of Philosophy as they take the baccalaureat exam (high school graduation exam) on June 18, 2012 at the Pasteur high school in Strasbourg, eastern France. Some 703.059 candidates are registered for the 2012 session. The exam results will be announced on July 6, 2012. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/GettyImages)

When it comes to standardized test preparation, reading comprehension seems to be the most confounding subject for parents and students, which is perfectly understandable. Memorizing vocabulary is self-explanatory, and math presents finite content to be refreshed or learned. But no exam issues a reading list, it is unlikely that a standardized test will contain any literature familiar to its target students and a seemingly endless array of questions can be asked for any given excerpt. As a result, many conclude that there is little useful preparation to be done for standardized test reading comprehension and enter their exams simply hoping for the best.

The reality is that while it is indeed impossible to predict the exact material on any reading comprehension test, the skills required to excel and the types of questions presented are relatively consistent. For example, the crux of practically any nonfiction passage is its thesis statement from which all other components (supporting details, transitions, purpose, etc.) stem. By actively reading to identify the main argument and supporting details within a passage, students set themselves up to anticipate what the questions might ask and ultimately save valuable time. With assistance, even students who struggle with their English coursework are capable of perfecting active reading strategies. The key to standardized test reading comprehension is not deep and nuanced insight but rather an efficient allocation of the student's attention to the elements of the reading which truly matter. Structured practice is essential for the student to feel comfortable reading this way, but he or she can also practice independently since most kinds of reading material, from literature to magazine articles, lend themselves to this kind of analysis.

Additionally, the types of questions standardized tests ask about reading comprehension are, by necessity, predictable and thus teachable. Standardizing a subject like reading comprehension leaves no room for questions about subjective interpretation which limits both the depth of analysis and scope of the questions. As a result, there is a finite (and actually quite small) number of categories into which all standardized reading comprehension questions fall. These include things like inferences, tone and author's purpose, in addition to the objective categories of theses and details mentioned above. With questions separated into different categories, it becomes much easier to stress one type at a time, enabling the student to narrow his or her focus and practice the skill until mastery is achieved, at which point we move on to the next question type. With repetition and a structured methodology, students become more adept at identifying what a specific question is looking for and the steps required to find it.

The tremendous variability of topics for reading passages on standardized tests can make preparation seem daunting. However, presentation is not the whole story. Students can be taught active reading strategies and approaches for each type of question they could possibly see. With those skills solidly in place, the subject simply doesn't matter.