How to Master ISEE Reading Comprehension: 8 Top Strategies

Are you wondering how to earn a high score on the ISEE’s Reading Comprehension section?

Whether reading is a strength or a struggle for you, don’t worry—we’ve got eight actionable steps you can take to noticeably improve your performance.

We’ll start by giving you a brief overview of the ISEE Reading Comprehension section, then we’ll dive into our tried and true strategies for success.

How Many Reading Comprehension Questions Are Asked on the ISEE?

The answer to this question depends on your age and grade level. There are three different levels of ISEE assessments:

  • Lower Level: Admission to Grades 5 and 6

  • Middle Level: Admission to Grades 7 and 8

  • Upper Level: Admission to Grades 9-12

    Students taking the Lower Level ISEE are given 25 minutes to answer 25 Reading Comprehension questions.

    If you take the Middle or Upper Level ISEE, you will answer 36 Reading Comprehension questions with 35 minutes allotted to complete them.

    What Does ISEE Reading Comprehension Test?

    This section measures your ability to correctly answer curriculum-based questions about several provided reading passages.

    The provided passages are brief, contemporary, and high interest. After reading each passage, you will answer questions designed to measure your ability to comprehend and analyze texts.

    All Reading Comprehension questions focus on the following six topics:

  • Determining main idea.

  • Identifying supporting details.

  • Defining vocabulary in context. At the Upper and Middle Levels, these questions typically appear in the form of “most nearly means.”

  • Identifying organizational elements such as structure, patterns, sequences, and relationships. Upper and Middle Level students may also be asked to identify major text features of various literary genres.

  • Understanding mood, tone, point of view, and figurative language such as 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.

  • Making inferences (drawing conclusions from content that is not explicitly stated in the passage).
  • Successfully answering these questions requires the ability to read, understand, and think analytically about a passage.

    What Strategies Can I Use to Be Successful on ISEE Reading Comprehension?

    Now that you have a basic understanding of the Reading Comprehension section, let’s talk about how you can successfully master it. Here are our top eight tips to help you conquer this question type.

    1. Read more.

    Reading may not be your favorite activity, but it is the most effective way to improve your reading comprehension abilities and enhance your vocabulary.

    Set a weekly goal to read a certain amount of pages or a certain amount of minutes. Consistently meeting your weekly goal will lead to a noticeable improvement in your reading abilities.


    (Suggested Image 2: Student reading an engaging book)

    You don’t have to read a textbook or a classic novel. If you like sports, read a book or magazine related to your favorite sport. If you’re into fashion, read articles about makeup or clothing. It doesn’t really matter what you read as long as you are reading regularly.

    2. Learn literary vocabulary.

    Many of the ISEE’s Reading Comprehension questions contain literary terms such as tone, imagery, and inference. In order to be able to answer these questions, you must have basic knowledge of literary vocabulary.

    Below is a list of some of the most commonly used literary terms on the ISEE. Consider making flashcards for any unfamiliar terms in order to become comfortable with this vocabulary prior to taking the test.

  • Chronological order: Arranged in the order that it happened. Examples include a story describing events in order and a “how to” guide giving step-by-step directions from beginning to end.

  • Mood: The emotional atmosphere of a piece of writing; the way the writing makes the reader feel.

  • Tone: The writer’s attitude toward the subject he or she is writing about. Examples include admiring, angry, nostalgic, joyful, etc.

  • Irony: When what happens is the opposite of what was expected, like a fire station burning down OR when what is said is the opposite of what is meant, like sarcastically saying, “This is fun,” when you’re actually very bored.

  • Personification: Giving human qualities to non-human objects. Examples of personification include, “The sky cried,” or, “The flowers danced joyfully in the wind.”

  • Imagery: When the writer uses any of the five senses (touch, hearing, smell, sight, or taste) to describe something so vividly that it creates an image in your mind.

  • Simile: A comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as.” For example, “Her smile is like the sun,” and “He is as tall as a giraffe” are both similes.

  • Metaphor: A comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as.” “Life is a highway” is an example of a metaphor.

  • Hyperbole: An extreme exaggeration, like, “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow.”

  • Main idea: The central message or theme of a piece of writing. Main idea questions may be phrased as, “What is the primary purpose of this passage?” or, “What is this passage primarily concerned with?”

    Those questions may sound very challenging and complicated, but they’re really just asking you about the main idea.

  • Inference: Drawing a conclusion based on information that is not explicitly or directly stated in the text. For example, if the author says, “Tears ran down Julia’s face,” you can infer that Julia is sad, although this is not directly stated in the passage.

    Inference questions may begin with the phrase, “This passage implies that…”

  • It’s important to know the definitions of these literary terms so that you can understand and successfully solve the ISEE’s Reading Comprehension questions.

    3. Determine which questions are the most difficult for you, then practice them often.

    In the weeks or months leading up to the ISEE, we strongly recommend working on practice test questions and/or full-length practice tests to become more familiar with test content.

    As you continue practicing Reading Comprehension questions, you will likely notice a pattern. What type(s) of questions seem to be the most difficult for you?

    Do you struggle with main idea questions, or do you find making inferences to be especially difficult? Is figurative language hard for you to recognize, or are vocabulary questions confusing?

    Pay attention to patterns in the types of Reading Comprehension questions you answer incorrectly most often.

    Once you identify your relatively weak areas, focus on practicing these specific question types. Don’t rush through your practice sessions, but take the time to think analytically about each question.

    For each missed question, spend some time thinking about the correct answer. What is the correct answer? Why? What will you do differently next time in order to be more successful with this question type?

    You can even find lessons, videos, and tutorials online that are related to the topics you find challenging. The more time you spend improving your knowledge of these topics, the more confident you’ll feel on test day.

    4. Pay attention to time management.


    One struggle for many students on the Reading Comprehension section is time, specifically the fact that there isn’t much of it. It can be challenging to read all of the passages and answer all of the questions in the given time frame.

    For this reason, it is important to eventually time yourself as you complete a practice test. We recommend doing this at least twice to get a better sense of your ability to work within the time limit.

    If you are able to read all of the passages and answer all of the questions without running out of time, then continue using this approach on the actual test.

    However, if you find yourself consistently running out of time, you may need to change your approach. There are a couple of different options to consider. You will need to experiment and determine what works best for you.

    One approach is to read all of the questions for a passage first. If a question mentions a specific line number or paragraph, circle or underline that section of the passage and write the question number next to it. You can then begin answering the questions, skimming the passage for correct answers as needed.

    Another strategy is to start by simply skimming the passage. As you skim, focus on main ideas and key details to gain a general understanding of the text. You may then begin answering questions, doing a more in-depth reading of bits of the passage as needed.

    We recommend trying all three approaches (reading the passage entirely, reading the questions first, and skimming the passage first) under timed conditions. If you score significantly higher using one strategy, this should be the method you use on the actual test.

    Be sure that whatever strategy you decide to use, you’ve practiced it enough to feel comfortable and confident using it on test day.

    Going into the test with a solid time management plan can significantly improve your performance.

    5. Mentally come up with an answer to the question before reading the choices.

    On any standardized test, some of the answer choices can be tricky. The variety of choices available can also be confusing and overwhelming.

    For this reason, it’s a good idea—whenever possible—to mentally answer each question before even looking at the answer choices. Look for the answer choice that most closely matches your original answer.

    Knowing the type of answer you are looking for before viewing the choices helps you avoid feeling overwhelmed or falling for any answers that are designed to trick or distract you.

    Even if you think you see the correct answer right away, remember to always read all answer choices before answering the question in order to verify that you are choosing the best answer.

    6. Use process of elimination.

    One of the easiest and most effective strategies to use on the Reading Comprehension section of the ISEE is process of elimination. This is when you cross out answers that are obviously wrong, increasing your chances of answering the question correctly.


    You can cross out an answer choice if:

  • It contains information about the text that is inaccurate or untrue. Sometimes an answer choice sounds like a good answer to the question, but it contains a small detail about the passage that is not accurate.

    An answer choice cannot be correct if it contains any false information about the passage. If the main character wore a blue hat in the passage, but the answer choice mentions a yellow hat, cross it out.

  • It does not answer the question being asked. Another tricky type of answer choice is a choice that contains true information about the passage but does not really address what the question is asking.

    Don’t fall for a wrong answer choice simply because you see a detail that you remember from the text. Be sure that it is also on topic and fully answers the question being asked.

  • The question is about main idea and the answer choice is too specific. For main idea questions, the correct answer must give the general idea of the passage and should not be a specific detail.

  • The answer choice is not logical or does not make sense. For example, if the author is writing about the talent and intelligence of his favorite artist, and the answer choice suggests that his tone is “critical,” you know that answer can be eliminated.
  • Once you’ve eliminated every answer choice that contains inaccurate information, is off topic, or simply doesn’t make sense, you should be left with just one or two answers to choose from.

    7. Skip especially difficult questions and come back to them later.

    Of course, you won’t always be able to eliminate many answer choices. Sometimes you may encounter a question that leaves you feeling stumped.

    When that happens, don’t panic. Simply take a deep breath, remind yourself that you aren’t expected to answer every question correctly, and move on to the next question.

    Be sure to leave some sort of mark, like a big star, next to any question that you skip. Also make sure that when you move on to the next question, you are bubbling your answer next to the correct number on your answer sheet.

    Once you’ve answered easier questions that you feel more confident about, you can return to the more difficult questions with your remaining time. Spending minutes struggling over a question that you may not answer correctly is not a valuable use of your time.

    8. Answer every question.


    There is no penalty for guessing on the ISEE, so you should answer every single question on the test, even if you must guess.

    First, answer all of the questions that you feel confident about. When you return to the more challenging questions, make sure you’ve eliminated as many incorrect answer choices as possible. Each eliminated choice increases your chances of answering correctly by 25%.

    When you’ve eliminated as many choices as you possibly can, make an educated guess by bubbling in one of the remaining answer choices.

    Even if you can’t eliminate any answer choices, randomly pick an answer. Even a random guess gives you a 25% chance of getting the correct answer, and that’s much better than 0%.


    The ISEE Reading Comprehension test doesn’t have to be too difficult or intimidating. Strategy and preparation are the keys to success.

    Spend some time reading, studying literary vocabulary, and answering practice questions. Develop a time management plan. When test day arrives, be sure to use process of elimination, return to the most challenging questions later, and answer every single question.

    By following these eight steps, you’re sure to increase your chances of mastering ISEE Reading Comprehension.

    What’s Next?

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

    Learn our top tips on how to master ISEE verbal reasoning section, including essential strategies for sentence completion questions, using passages from official ISEE tests, and the synonym section.

    Also, discover how to strategically approach each question type on the ISEE reading comprehension section so you can get all these challenging questions correct.