How To Ace ISEE Reading Comprehension Passages: Top Tips for 6 Question Types

In order to be successful on the ISEE’s Reading Comprehension section, students must be able to read grade level appropriate reading passages and answer related curriculum-based comprehension questions.

Selected passages are contemporary and high interest, and questions adhere to the standards established by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Question types fall into one of six categories:

  • Determining main idea

  • Identifying supporting details

  • Defining vocabulary in context

  • Identifying organizational elements

  • Understanding mood, tone, point of view, and figurative language

  • Making inferences
  • Determining Main Idea

    The “main idea” of a passage is its central message or theme. These straightforward questions ask students to identify the key idea or purpose behind a piece of writing.

    In general, the main idea of a passage is mentioned within the first paragraph, although this is not always the case.

    It is important to remember that the main idea should not be too specific. All of the specific details in a passage are working to support, explain, and expand the main idea, so the main idea itself must be a more general topic.

    At times, these questions explicitly ask, “What is the main idea?” At other times, you may be asked about the passage’s “primary purpose” or, “What is the passage primarily concerned with?” Ultimately, all of these questions are asking about main idea.

    Let’s take a look at an example from an Upper Level assessment.

    Upper Level Reading Comp Passage Example 

    Upper Level Reading Comp Passage Example 

    Upper Level Reading Comp Question Sample

    Upper Level Reading Comp Question Sample

    First, read the passage, remembering to focus on what the passage is primarily about.

    Next, look at the answer choices. For main idea questions, a correct answer choice must meet the following three requirements:

    1. It is true. No matter how good an answer choice sounds, it cannot be correct if it contains inaccurate information about the passage.

    2. It is not too specific. Remember that the main idea should not be a specific detail, but a general idea that conveys the overall meaning of the passage.

    3. It is the best answer choice. It’s possible that multiple answer choices may meet the above two requirements, so be sure you are selecting the best available answer.

      In this case, Answer Choice A says that totem poles are making a comeback. Is this true? Yes. Lines 27-29 mention that totem poles have come “back from the brink of extinction.”

    However, is this an answer choice that is not too specific? No. The information in this answer choice is not even mentioned until the passage’s final paragraph, meaning it is too specific and does not apply to the passage as a whole.

    Answer Choice A can be eliminated.

    Answer Choice B states that totem poles are no longer an artistic achievement. Is this true? No. Throughout the passage, totem poles are referred to as “art,” and the passage never states that they are no longer an artistic achievement.

    Answer Choice B can be eliminated.

    Answer Choice C says, “The art of totem pole carving almost died out.” This answer choice is extremely similar to Choice A.

    Like Choice A, Choice C contains information that is true. However, this information is also too specific and is only related to the passage’s final paragraph, not the passage as a whole.

    We can also eliminate Choice C.

    Since we’ve eliminated Choices A-C, the answer is probably D, but always read every answer choice to ensure that your answer is correct.

    Answer Choice D says “Northwest Coast Indians are famous for large, beautiful totem poles.”

    Is this information true? Yes. The first sentence of the passage mentions that totem poles are a “trademark” of the Northwest Coast Indians, meaning they are known or famous for the totem poles. Throughout, the passage talks about totem poles being a work of art.

    Is this a choice that is not too specific? Yes. This is a general idea, not a specific detail. We can safely say that every paragraph in the passage relates to this idea.

    Is this the best answer choice? Yes. We eliminated A-C, meaning D is the correct answer choice.

    To recap, the correct answer for a main idea question should be accurate, not too specific, and something that can apply to the passage as a whole.

    Identifying Supporting Details

    Supporting details are the pieces of information that explain, provide evidence for, or elaborate on another idea.

    These questions ask students to identify specific details that support either the passage’s main idea or another idea in the text. At other times, students may be asked to identify which provided statement is best supported by the details in the passage.

    For supporting detail questions, imagine if you were in an argument or debate and trying to prove that your statement was true. Which information do you think would be the most convincing?

    Let’s practice with an example from a Middle Level ISEE.

    Middle Level Reading Comprehension Sample Passage  

    Middle Level Reading Comprehension Sample Passage
     

    Middle Level Reading Comprehension Sample Question

    Middle Level Reading Comprehension Sample Question

    This Supporting Details question asks us which statement is best supported by the passage. We must find the answer choice that has the most evidence in the passage to support/prove it .

    Answer Choice A says that not all elephants fear the same things. Is there evidence in the passage to support this statement?

    Yes. Line 10 says that although most elephants don’t seem to fear mice, “it is quite possible that individual elephants may have such a fear.” This implies that different elephants may have different fears.

    Since there is some evidence to support Choice A, we’ll keep it in the running for now.

    Choice B states that elephants fear only what they have seen. Is there evidence supporting this statement in the passage?

    No. The passage mentions nothing at all about elephants fearing what they have or have not seen, so Choice B can be eliminated.

    Choice C says that elephants never fear anything larger than they are. Can we find evidence in the passage to support this statement?

    No, not really. The passage does say that elephants’ greatest fears are dogs and humans, which are both smaller than elephants. However, there is nothing to suggest that elephants never fear larger creatures, and size is never mentioned in the article.

    We can eliminate Answer Choice C.

    Lastly, Choice D suggests that elephants fear one thing in the wild and another in captivity. Can we find evidence supporting this statement in the text?

    No. The article states that there is no evidence that elephants fear mice, either in the zoo or in captivity. This information seems to contradict the statement that elephants fears differ based on location.

    We can eliminate choice D.

    Since there is no evidence in the passage to support Choices B, C, and D, we can conclude that Answer Choice A is correct.

    If you encounter a question in which there is some evidence for multiple answer choices, remember to select the answer choice that has the most evidence to support it.

    Defining Vocabulary in Context

    These questions test your ability to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on how and when it is used. Using the passage’s context, you should be able to determine the word’s meaning.

    If you have several months remaining before you will take the ISEE, try reading more frequently in order to improve your vocabulary. You can also learn about common roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

    Even if you don’t have much time, every Vocabulary in Context question provides you with enough context clues to determine the word’s meaning.

    Pay attention to clues that another word in the sentence is the selected word’s synonym or antonym. Clues may also include examples or even a definition of the word in question. In other situations, you will have to determine the word’s meaning by simply using logical thinking.

    Consider the following question from the Middle Level passage about elephants above.

    Middle Level RC Sample Question

    Middle Level RC Sample Question

    First, you need to find the part of the passage that is mentioned in the question and read the sentence.

    In this case, the sentence in Line 16 says, “Many years ago, a popular writer asserted that elephants are afraid of mice…”

    If you think it will be helpful, you can also read a bit of information right before and right after the sentence for additional context.

    Before even looking at the answer choices, think of your own definition for the word. This will help you avoid tricky answer choices. If you aren’t able to come up with your own definition, you can still solve the question.

    In this case, you might guess that “asserted” means something along the lines of “said” or “suggested.”

    Let’s examine the answer choices.

    Answer Choice A says “claimed.”

    One of the best strategies for these questions is to replace the word in question with the word in the answer choice, and then reread the sentence.

    In this case, the sentence would read, “Many years ago, a popular writer claimed that elephants are afraid of mice…”

    Does this sentence make sense? Yes. Does it have the same meaning as the original sentence? Yes.

    A looks good so far, but let’s look at the other choices.

    Choice B says “discovered.”

    Did the popular writer discover that elephants are afraid of mice? No. The passage states that elephants are not actually afraid of mice. The author most likely invented this story, so it was not a discovery.

    For this reason, Answer Choice B can be eliminated.

    As Answer Choice C suggests, did the author fear that elephants were afraid of mice? No. This choice does not make sense.

    C can be eliminated as well.

    Answer Choice D says “proved.” Did the popular writer prove that elephants are afraid of mice?

    No. The article states that there is no proof that elephants fear mice.

    Choice D can be eliminated as well, so Choice A is the correct answer.

    In general, always do the following for a Vocabulary in Context question:

  • Go back to the passage to read the sentence referred to in the question.

  • If you’d like, read a little information both before and after the question.

  • Mentally come up with a definition for the word before even reading the answer choices. Look for the answer choice that most closely matches your definition.

  • Insert each answer choice into the sentence to make sure that it makes sense, sounds good, and doesn’t change the meaning of the original sentence.

  • Use process of elimination by crossing out obviously wrong answers.
  • Identifying Organizational Elements

    Organizational elements include structure, patterns, sequences, and relationships. Upper and Middle Level students may also be asked to identify major text features of various genres.

    In general, these questions measure your ability to recognize and analyze the way in which a passage is organized. This can include understanding chronological order, comparison/contrast, problem/solution, and providing evidence to support a claim.

    Let’s return to the Upper Level passage about totem poles to work with an example.

    UPPER LEVEL READING COMPREHENSION QUESTION

    UPPER LEVEL READING COMPREHENSION QUESTION

    Here are the lines in question:

    First, reread the lines that are mentioned in the question, paying attention to how information is presented.

    In this case, it appears that the process of creating a totem pole is being described. Words like “before” and “after” indicate that the process is being described chronologically, or in order.

    Let’s evaluate our answer choices.

    Choice A claims that different designs for totem poles are contrasted. Do these lines discuss different types of totem pole designs?

    Not specifically, no. It does mention that design was left to the carver and that painting depended on the tradition of the area, but the lines do not specifically talk about different designs or contrast them. We can eliminate A.

    Choice B states that “a process is described in chronological order.” Is a process described? Yes, the process of creating a totem pole.

    Is this process described in chronological order? Yes, the process is described in order from the first step to the last.

    B may be our answer, but let’s take a look at the others just in case.

    Choice C says that an opinion is presented and is then supported with facts.

    Lines 8-17 don’t mention any opinions but instead list several facts. For this reason, Choice C can be eliminated.

    Remember that an opinion is an expression of someone’s feelings that cannot be proven, like, “Totem poles are awesome!” A fact is a statement free of bias or emotion that can be proven, like, “The colors of a totem pole depend on the tradition of the area.”

    Lastly, Answer Choice D states, “The history of totem poles is traced from past to present.”

    Are these lines about the history of totem poles? No. These lines are about how to make a totem pole.

    We can eliminate Choice D, so the answer is Choice B, a process is described in chronological order.

    These questions can typically be answered using solid reasoning skills and process of elimination.

    Understanding Mood, Tone, Point of View, and Figurative Language

    This is a very broad question type, so we’ll start by addressing some vocabulary terms.

    Mood refers to the emotions a piece of writing causes the reader to feel, or the atmosphere of a literary work.

    By contrast, tone is the author’s attitude toward a subject. An author’s tone can be positive or negative, ranging from “admiring” to “angry,” for example.

    Point of view is the perspective from which a story is narrated. A first-person narrative uses “I” and is told from the perspective of a character in a story, while a third person narrative does not use “I” and is told from an outsider’s perspective.

    Figurative language refers to poetic, creative language that should not be taken literally.

    Types of figurative language you may be asked about include irony, personification, and imagery. Middle Level students may also be asked about simile and metaphor, and Upper Level students will answer questions about hyperbole as well.

    To prepare for this question type, it is necessary to thoroughly understand these literary terms and to practice a variety of questions. Here’s one example from a Middle Level passage about Dorothea Lange.

    Middle Level Reading Comprenhension Passage


    Middle Level Reading Comprenhension Passage

    Middle Level Reading Comprehension: Practice Question


    Middle Level Reading Comprehension: Practice Question

    For this type of question, you should mentally come up with an answer before looking at the answer choices.* You will choose the answer choice that most closely matches your own in order to avoid falling for tricky choices.

    In this case, let’s read through the passage to determine how the author seems to feel about Dorothea Lange. What types of words, anecdotes, or examples does the author use to describe Lange?

    For example, you may notice words like “influential,” and “insightful.” The author also mentions that Lange’s photographs helped persuade the government to help struggling migrant workers. He talks about Lange’s determination and obstacles that she overcame.

    Based on this information, how do you think the author feels about Lange? He definitely appears to have a positive opinion of Lange. He seems to think her work is important and impressive.

    As we review the answer choices, look for a positive word that suggests the author is impressed by Dorothea Lange’s character and photography.

    Answer Choice A, admiring, is certainly a positive word. We’ll keep Choice A in mind for now.

    Choice B, critical is a negative word. The author does not seem to be criticizing Lange at all, so we can eliminate Choice B.

    Choice C, humorous, is not a negative word, but it does not seem to describe the author’s tone toward Lange. The passage deals with very serious topics, so we can eliminate C.

    Choice D, worried, is also not a negative word, but it does not describe the author’s feelings toward Lange. The author seems proud of Lange and impressed by her, not worried, so we can also eliminate D.

    This means that the correct answer is A, “admiring.” The author certainly seems to admire Dorothea Lange, both for overcoming obstacles in her own life and for making a difference with her photography.

    Making Inferences

    An inference is when you draw conclusions based on information that is not explicitly or directly stated in the text.

    For example, if the author says that Jenny’s stomach was growling, we can infer that Jenny is hungry, although the author has not directly told us this information.

    These questions are usually signaled with phrases like “implies that” and test your ability to piece information together in order to draw logical conclusions.

    We’ll look at an example from the Middle Level Dorothea Lange passage above.

    Question 23 ML.JPG

    Here’s the passage again for your reference.

    To answer this question, we must determine how Dorothea Lange’s mother influenced her. Since this is an inference question, the answer likely won’t be directly stated.

    Let’s look at Lines 11-17, which discuss Dorothea’s relationship with her mother. What was Joan’s role in Dorothea’s life? She was a role model of independence, and she helped Dorothea overcome physical limitations.

    Now let’s take a look at the answer choices to see which most accurately reflects the influence of Dorothea’s mother.

    Choice A states that Dorothea’s mother forced her to support herself. Is this information accurate?

    No, Dorothea’s mother worked two jobs to help support Dorothea on her own. We can eliminate Choice A.

    Choice B says that Dorothea’s mother supported her move to San Francisco. Is this accurate?

    Although it’s possible that Dorothea’s mother supported her move, there’s nothing in the passage to suggest this.

    We can eliminate Answer Choice B as well.

    Choice C says that Dorothea’s mother encouraged her to be a photographer. Is this true?

    Again, it’s possible, but there’s no information in the passage to suggest it. In fact, the passage says that after high school Dorothea made the “sudden decision” to become a photographer, with no mention of her mother or her mother’s reaction.

    We can eliminate Answer Choice C.

    Answer Choice D says that Dorothea’s mother influenced her by demonstrating self-reliance and responsibility. Is this information accurate?

    Yes! The article says Dorothea’s mother was a “role model of independence” who was hardworking, capable, and held two jobs to support Dorothea on her own.

    The correct answer is Choice D.

    Conclusion

    Keep in mind that one example of each question type is not enough to consider yourself an expert on the ISEE’s Reading Comprehension section.Continue practicing questions prior to taking the ISEE.

    Although we did not look at Lower Level examples, all of the strategies discussed here can be applied to the Lower Level ISEE as well. Plus, if you can answer these questions, you can definitely succeed on Lower Level questions!

    In general, remember to approach all questions logically, attempt to mentally answer the question before reading the choices, and use process of elimination.

    Use these strategies consistently, and you’re sure to be a Reading Comprehension master on the ISEE!

    What’s Next?

    Start practicing now by downloading an ISEE sample test. Choose from lower, middle or upper level free official ISEE tests.

    Find out more about how to master the ISEE verbal reasoning section, including essential strategies for sentence completion questions and the synonym section, using passages from official ISEE tests.

    Also, get our top 8 strategies for the ISEE reading comprehension section to help ensure a high score on this difficult section.