Timed test tips
February 5, 2008 8:19 PM   Subscribe

I need tips for tackling a timed reading comprehension exam in a foreign language.

The exam is divided into three sections of increasing length and difficulty. Each section has 3-4 general questions requiring written answers. I have 90 minutes to complete it.

I'll be okay for the first section but will have some difficulty with the vocabulary in the second and will really be struggling with the third.

I'm very weak in reading comprehension in general - both in English and other languages - and tend to space out if I encounter more than two or three words I don't know.

I know I don't have time to actually read the sections through from beginning to end, so what's my best plan of attack?
posted by anonymous78 to Education (3 answers total)
I have never taken a reading comprehension exam in a language I was not completely familiar with but I have done very well in English reading comprehension tests. Some advice:
All that's important is the questions they ask you about the pasage. Skim quickly through the passage first just to get a general idea of what it's about and how it's laid out. Then jump straight to the questions and look for the specific answers to the questions in the passage. You really don't need to understand every single word in the passage or even read it. The one tricky thing is questions that ask about motive or intent or the general mood of the passage. One effective technique for such questions is making a logical plan of the pasage -- something like in the first paragraph they're arguing in favour of single payer healthcare but in the second passage they outline its dangers. The ordering or such passages might give you an idea of the message the author is trying to convey. Many reading comprehension tests are trying to test how well you can figure out the meaning of a word from the context its in so don't panic if you don't understand a word. Very often the way it's used in the passage will give you a good idea of its meaning.
posted by peacheater at 8:35 PM on February 5, 2008

Following along what peacheater said - skimming is good not necessarily for the concept, but more for the word choice. Word choice can make or break things. I've taken both French and German reading comprehension exams before, and they're usually more about knowing how to beat the system than understanding everything down to the minutiae.

That said, back to word choice. Read the questions carefully. Whisper them under your breath if you have to, so you don't accidentally add or drop a preposition because your mind thinks the question is asking one thing when it actually wants something else. Once you're certain you know what they're looking for, match up phrases in the question with phrases from the passage. If they say "What are the three ways of value-creation a marketing company can use to target a specific segment", look for 'value creation', 'target' and 'segment'. Most of the time, the exam is not out to get you, make you fail, or trip you up.

Also, stay calm. If you notice zoning out, skip to something else, just for the variety. Read another article first, read the questions instead. Count to ten with your eyes closed. That sort of thing. As long as you're aware that you have this problem/do tend to zone out, it'll be easier to combat the boredom for the 90 minutes.

Best of luck!
posted by Phire at 9:25 PM on February 5, 2008

It sounds like your general exam technique needs work. Can you get some copies of past years' tests, or tests from other colleges or wherever (depends what it is, and what it's for) to practice with? Can you make up your own practice paper with a classmate? Get a newspaper article in the language, for instance, and ask each other questions about it. Practicing will help a lot, especially to reduce your nervousness about it.

The first thing to do is take some perusal time, even if you're not made to by the examiners. Skim the whole paper, as peacheater suggests. Give yourself at least 5 minutes to do only this task. During this time, identify the questions you immediately know the answer to or will find easy to work out, and mark these in some way (eg with a star). As soon as you've identified one of these, move on, don't attempt to answer it yet. Out of the rest of the questions (and they might all be in this category, and that's OK) identify the questions that seem to have the highest amount of marks for the least amount of effort. Read with a pen in your hand, and underline, make notes about, and otherwise mark the paper as much as you like. The paper should tell you how many marks it's worth, all up - from this, work out a number of marks per minute, and thus, about how many minutes you should spend on each question. If you're up to half that time for the question and you can't clearly see the way to the end of it, go on to another question.

Limit what you need to worry about. Aim to do well, not to do perfectly. Example: "Q1. Young Johnny took his pet navliska Gromm to the park, to meet Amanda. While he spoke thurrinal to beautiful Amanda, Gromm ran away and started a fight with a gurvik and another navliska, and Amanda laughed and laughed to see Johnny in the yellow park-mud, struggling to oprikat the animals. Johnny was put into much furd by Gromm's behavior, and scolded Gromm, as he was hoping Amanda would perhaps jan-kat with him. Instead, Johnny's navliska has done par-thurrinal to him. (1) What should Johnny say to Amanda next time he sees her? (2) How could Amanda have assisted with the oprikat without doing further par-thurrinal to Johnny?" We don't know the exact translation of the italicised words (no-one does, I just made them up now) but it should be clear from context what they all mean, at least to the extent required to write a sensible answer to the question. And that's enough, for exam purposes. They're testing your comprehension, not so much your vocabulary knowledge or grammar or spelling. It's about whether you understand the general meaning of the article.

You don't necessarily need to know, unless the question is about that, the precise distinction between similar words. Example: We are told in the reading that "Fred casually asked John to tell him the time", "Fred enquired of John the time", or "Fred berated John and insisted he be told the time, now!". We were earlier told that John's wristwatch broke, and now we are told that "John glanced at his watch and said, six o'clock". If the question asks, "Did John at any time in the story lie to Fred?", then we can say "Yes". It doesn't matter how rudely Fred asked the question. In other words, don't answer questions you aren't asked, except as much as they will help you answer questions you are asked.

You don't have to do the exam in the order it's written on the paper. Just clearly mark which question number you're answering, and ideally do it in a way that can be assembled back into the paper's order (eg, each section in a booklet). Do the easy questions first, then do the questions starting with the ones that give the most marks for the least effort.

In this sort of sectional exam, questions may provide clues to answering other questions. If there's a word or phrase you're struggling with in one question, check if the concept is referred to in the other questions, and if you can work it out from context.

Now, it seems to me that if you're finding the time allotted to read some text and answer questions about it to not be enough even to read the text, that may indicate a deeper problem.

I'm very weak in reading comprehension in general - both in English and other languages - and tend to space out if I encounter more than two or three words I don't know.

Have you been tested for a reading disability (eg, dyslexia)?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:52 PM on February 5, 2008

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