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Reading Comprehension (2)

A lot of schools will use multiple choice questions for their comprehension questions. The use of multiple choice means that those children who really have no idea can get better marks, but of course the better children also have more opportunity to score highly so it really has no impact. In theory, children who speak English as a second language will be able to score higher marks on a multiple choice paper but the main reason that a school will use this style of exam is that it is a lot quicker and easier to mark!

So, what should you be looking to focus on? There are many different elements to comprehension questions - the traditional recall of facts, the more open-ended style but which will then have a defined answer, the grammar and spelling questions... The problem is, there are a lot of different things which cannot be quickly taught.

In our example questions I'll try to focus on a variety of potential pitfalls but there is no substitute for reading at a high level and checking words with a dictionary or an adult. Don't push your child to read things that they don't enjoy as it'll be counterproductive, but take them to the library or a good bookshop where they can look at what's available and come up with something that keeps both parties happy.

Even with older children I realise that a lot of words are going 'under the radar' and we need to check that everything is being understood. When I teach from a comprehension I will always ask to hear the piece read aloud. It makes sense as you can immediately pick up on words which are not known and it's easier to spot when a section of the text is being read in a banal way when it's actually exciting, thus showing a lack of understanding. Secondly, I'll ask a child which words they didn't understand and ensure that I give a good use of that in a sentence rather than just a synonym, as often they don't know the synonym or will not know the subtle differences in meaning. You can then go through words that you feel were tricky but haven't been picked out by your child; praise them if they explain them well, help them if they didn't know but don't be critical about their not having asked about particular words.

For the following questions we will be referring to a passage from 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain. The story is written and set in the nineteenth century, in the USA. The main character, the narrator, is a boy called Huckleberry. He lives with Widow Douglas, who has been teaching him about Moses.

Question 1

Mark Twain does not write in standard English. Why do you think this is?

a) He wants to make his book sound like it's set a long time ago.

b) He might not know how to spell accurately.

c) He wants to show how Huckleberry really sounded.

d) He might not have had English as a first language.

There are, of course, some very improbable answers and a couple of more reasonable ones. The first task is to wheedle out the silly ones and try to run the others through your head until one 'sticks'. Answer (a) is not unreasonable but the language is not just of its time, it's very much of its place. The language is not just old-fashioned but is typical of the American south. Although it isn't necessarily good to use the rubric (the information that precedes the passage) to answer a question, in this case we can see that the book was written in the nineteenth century. It would be silly to suggest that the aim was to make it sound like it was set in the past when it was written at the time it is set.

Answer (b) is almost certainly wrong as an editor should have corrected any errors while answer (d) is wrong for similar reasons. Poor English is not a choice for an answer in a comprehension; I've often known children say that the piece was 'wrong' in some way; it has always been a case of the child not understanding the context or the words.

The correct answer is (c) as the narrator is a boy from a poor background in nineteenth century America. He sounds a certain way and Twain is trying to reflect this.

Question 2

Correct 'warn't' (line 22) so that it is in modern, standard English.

a) weren't

b) we are not

c) was'nt

d) want

e) wasn't

The critical point here is to find the word and read it in context. Given that all the answers are technically correct words or phrases, we must know Huckleberry's meaning for it. Looking at the line again, it is clear that some of the suggested answers would make no sense.

'I warn't particular' points to the corruption of the word 'weren't' and to a degree, that's right. However, it doesn't mean that it's the right answer. Depending which part of the country you're in, you will hear people using such expressions as 'I were' or 'we was' rather a lot. It's one of the hardest points to teach in certain areas as almost every adult seems to say it wrongly, despite tending to know it's not right.

If we substitute the possible answers in the original sentence, we get:

a) I weren't particular

b) I were not particular

c) I was'nt particular

d) I want particular

e) I wasn't particular

Hopefully, written out like this, your child will pick the correct one. If not, here are the reasons the others are wrong and you can hopefully convince them to get it right!

Firstly, 'were' - and, by extension, 'weren't' - is a verb which goes almost exclusively with plurals. It can be used as a subjunctive with expressions such as 'If I were to say...' (see the example in the English workthroughs) but essentially it sticks with plural subjects. 'Were not' is the full version of this and is identical in all ways with the exception of being a more formal way of putting it. Both must be wrong as the subject of the sentence is 'I', which is singular.

Answer d) sounds closest to the original but makes no sense. This leaves 'was'nt' and 'wasn't'; the position of the apostrophe is the only difference between the two and, if (s)he knows about apostrophes, your child will spot that the latter - answer e) - is the correct form and the only acceptable answer.

Question 3

Which phrase is the closest to explaining how Miss Watson treats Huckleberry?

a) Like he was no use to anybody

b) With kindness and consideration

c) Harshly and aggressively

d) Firmly and critically

e) Thoughtfully and respectfully

The initial question your child should be asking is which of the interactions in the piece we should be looking at. As there is no line reference, we need to explore the whole piece; clearly the time Huckleberry spent with Miss Watson is contained in line 10 onwards so our answer must refer to this. The first answer, 'Like he was no use to anyone' is there to catch an unwary child as it is a direct quote from the text, albeit the wrong part of it! Disregard this as an answer as it is not from the correct lines but, moreover, it is unprovable when applied to Miss Watson's manner.

So, where do we begin when only one of the phrases appears in the text? We must look at the piece as a whole and try to work out what Miss Watson is like. We then have to decide which of the phrases fits this description best.

Miss Watson works Huckleberry 'middling hard'. This suggests that she is firm but not unfair in the way she treats him; she keeps going for an hour until her sister tells her to ease up so she is certainly a hard taskmaster. She rectifies any small thing that he does but in a way which can be seen as fair. Huckleberry doesn't seem to mind this as she is teaching him rather than being unkind but he is clearly tired and wanting to be somewhere else. When he makes reference to wishing to be in 'the other place' she changes her tone and, having been quite calm, she loses control.

So, clearly the answer is not going to be 'with kindness and consideration' nor is it 'thoughtfully and respectfully' as she is neither kind nor respectful of Huckleberry. However, she is not aggressive in her tone (at least until, after an hour, Huckleberry speaks out) and neither is she treating him as if he were worthless. The answer must be d) Firmly and critically. Miss Watson is critical of every little thing Huckleberry does and is firmly keeping him under control but without aggressively mistreating him.

Question 4

Give an alternative word for 'particular' (line 22)

a) specific

b) fussy

c) particle

d) clever

e) restless

This question allows a salutary lesson to be taught. Try it without the line reference and see what you would say. Now try it with the line reference - does your answer change? Many children, especially those who are prone to rushing, will simply find the first word that could mean the same as the one being tested. They won't take notice of the line number and will therefore miss out on the context. It is the sentence that makes the word have meaning. If you look in a dictionary there are surprisingly high numbers of words with multiple meanings; the words your child will be tested on will either be high-level vocabulary words (e.g. superimpose, calibrated) or words which have multiple meanings, such as 'particular'.

The first - and best - technique is to read the sentence and replace the tested word with one of the alternatives. This must fit in with the whole story as subtleties of meaning will affect the validity of an answer. Let's try this with the example:

a) All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't specific.

b) All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't fussy.

c) All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't particle.

d) All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't clever.

e) All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn't restless.

Hopefully, answer c) will immediately look wrong. The reason it is there is to trick careless people into associating something with similar spelling with the tested word. Rarely, if ever, will the answer share a same root; in this case, the meaning is not even close to 'particular'.

Answer a) is a fair one; 'particular' and 'specific' CAN mean the same thing and it's not the worst sentence I've ever seen created. However, if you take out the non-standard English you are still left with something clumsy and the meaning really isn't the same as 'particular' in the context Twain meant it. 'Particular' describes Huckleberry's state of mind whereas 'specific' hints at a slightly different meaning.

Answer d) is there to make a careless reader think that they're correct factually, so must be correct in the question. Huckleberry was struggling with academic work so may not have been clever; this is irrelevant when you read the rest of the sentence. Context is everything.

Answer e) is designed to catch out children who want to show a strong vocabulary and understanding of character, but who don't read accurately. The sentence is all about Huckleberry's restlessness and it is a good word to use; however, the sentence states he 'warn't particular', i.e. wasn't 'restless' and therefore it's the opposite of the truth.

This leaves answer b) and it is correct as Huckleberry wasn't fussy about where he went, as long as it was somewhere else!

Question 5

Why does Huckleberry use double negatives throughout the piece?

a) He wants to express his point twice

b) He is being very negative

c) Uneducated boys spoke like that

d) He is trying to confuse the old ladies

e) He is being disrespectful

The question requires an understanding of the term 'double negative' which may not have been mentioned in class. It is something which a child may have heard reference to but there is nothing in the grammar curriculum which specifies the naming of this.

Assuming that your child has not come across it before, let's work on techniques to help them make a wise guess at the question. Firstly, try to break down the term 'double negative'; 'negative' suggests 'no' or 'not' and 'double' means that it happens twice. Even having never heard the expression before it should be fair to expect a basic approach to shed some light on it. 'No not' would be a sensible suggestion as to an example of a double negative although we may be asking a bit much to get a child to understand this.

Secondly, assuming the child has no better way in to the question, we must encourage them to get rid of the obviously wrong answers. Regardless of the meaning of the phrase, we can still remove answers that give false information. Huckleberry is, at no stage, trying to confuse the old ladies and neither is he being particularly disrespectful throughout the piece. The wording of the question is important - Huckleberry IS disrespectful when he says he wishes he was anywhere but sitting there with Mrs Watson but he says he means no harm by it and it is the only instance of such behaviour.

Finally, we must work through the other answers. Is Huckleberry always trying to be negative? Is he trying to be particularly so? I can't find any evidence to back that one up from the text; neither can I find many examples of Huckleberry trying to make a point twice. While the latter point is not easily dismissed, it makes more sense to say that 'uneducated boys spoke like that' as Huckleberry is uneducated and speaks in a way which is quite different to what we expect today.

His style of speech certainly stands out and, if you know that 'wouldn't do no good' is a prime example of a 'double negative', you would conclude that the answer had to be c).

Question 6

Why does the widow stop Miss Watson from teaching Huckleberry so much?

a) She wants him to go for a smoke

b) She wants to teach Huckleberry about the Bible

c) Miss Watson is making him work too hard

d) She thinks Huckleberry is too ignorant to learn more

e) She thinks Huckleberry is being disrespectful

As usual, we must encourage your child to dismiss things which are obviously incorrect, dismiss the ones for which there is little or no evidence and finally make an educated guess from the remaining options.

The point at which the widow intervenes is after Huckleberry has spent an hour doing his spellings with Miss Watson. By this point there is no suggestion that he has been fidgety nor has he complained about the work; he then goes on to do a further hour during which time he does get more distracted and unhappy. Knowing this helps to make sense of the question.

So which answers are blatantly wrong? At no point does Twain suggest that the widow wants Huckleberry to smoke - in fact, she thinks the opposite so answer a) is not right. Although she has been teaching about the Bible, the fact that Miss Watson, rather than the widow, continues for the next hour shows that answer b) holds no water. Finally, answer e) is clearly wrong as the only reference to Huckleberry fidgeting and answering back comes after the widow's intervention so this must also be wrong.

The only two reasonable answers are c) and d) so we need to apply common sense to decide which is correct. Is there any evidence that the widow deems Huckleberry to be ignorant? Uneducated, yes - but not ignorant. She also lets her sister continue with the lesson so there seems no clear evidence to back it up. However, answer c) makes sense in context as Twain refers to the widow telling Miss Watson to 'ease up' rather than stop. She doesn't tell her to make the lessons easier, just to be less demanding.

Questions are frequently not clear-cut but demand common sense to be applied. While answer d) is not totally wrong, answer c) makes a lot more sense and is backed up by more evidence from the text.

Question 7

How would you describe Huckleberry's attitude towards arguing with Miss Watson?

a) He is keen to avoid conflict with Miss Watson

b) He wants to make his point vociferously

c) He disagrees with Miss Watson and tells her so

d) He tries to make her angry

e) He thinks he should argue his case at every opportunity

Let's look at the section which will help us answer the question:

It is hopefully clear to your child that the argument is not really happening in the way that it might at first seem. Huckleberry is not putting the thoughts in his heads into words; he only states that he wishes he could be somewhere else and Miss Watson continues to make her points.

Now let's explore the possible answers and dismiss the obviously incorrect ones. In my experience, children are unlikely to know the meaning of both 'vociferously' and 'conflict' so these will be tough to explain. However, if you read the passage carefully you should know that Huckleberry is not trying to make Miss Watson angry ('but I didn't mean no harm') so answer d) is wrong.

As for the remaining answers, he disagrees with Miss Watson but doesn't tell her so - 'But I never said so' - therefore we can dismiss answers c) and e). He doesn't take every opportunity to argue, in fact he doesn't once raise a point against the arguments being put forward.

Clearly, to us as adults, answer a) is correct. However, with no certainty as to the meanings of 'conflict' and 'vociferously', your child may not be so certain. We can help them by reminding them that the long words often have roots in small words with easy meanings. 'Vociferously' has a similar start to 'vocal', 'voice' and 'vocabulary', all of which your child should know. Hopefully they can then link them to 'vociferously' (remember 'ously' is a common ending for an adverb) and good word-work will lead them to think it means 'in a spoken way'. If they can reach this stage they can discard the answer as it is incorrect - Huckleberry is quiet and says little to upset Miss Watson. Similarly, Huckleberry wants to avoid upsetting her and this could tie in with answer a) as it refers to avoidance.

Question 8

In Huckleberry's eyes, which word describes the widow's use of snuff?

a) Inconsequential

b) Sinful

c) Hypocritical

d) Alright

e) Dangerous

The vocabulary question is often the most difficult question on the paper. If you don't entirely understand the context of the question and the words in the answers are new to you, there really isn't much that we can do. However, there are still some helpful tips.

Let's look at the sentence which shows Huckleberry's reaction to the widow's use of snuff:

And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.

This is a very difficult sentence for most children to understand as they will not spot the irony and double-standards. If you are running through it with them, don't be surprised if they read it as Huckleberry is entirely accepting of the widow taking snuff. He says 'that was alright' and the likely answer for most children to pick is d).

As ever, the more a child reads, the more they will pick up irony and other advanced linguistic techniques. When you hear an example of something like this, point it out. Someone says something ironically, tell them it has been said in such a way. Ask them whether they can explain about it. Constant input in context and not as a separate lesson works wonders.

The usual advice about dismissing silly answers here is not helpful; the key is finding a way to stop your child writing the obvious answer which is clearly wrong. While 'sinful' and 'dangerous' are completely wrong, and 'inconsequential' and 'hypocritical' are likely to be new words, the fact is that most children will simply go for 'alright' and move on.

Explain hypocrisy to your child when you see it in text or hear it. Again, doing so at the time is much more likely to stick than dealing with it out of context. Once it is securely in there, you have a chance of them spotting it in a comprehension piece.

Finally, warn your child that if the answer is glaringly obvious there may be a catch. The first question is often straightforward but later ones will usually have a twist in them.

Question 9

Read lines 3 and 13 again. What do they tell us about the widow and how she treats Huckleberry?

a) She is cruel

b) She wants to teach Huckleberry about the Bible

c) She is inconsiderate

d) She doesn't like Huckleberry very much

e) She is trying not to be too harsh

Instantly I would say that we must highlight the two lines in question. Disregard the remainder of the text as it will only hinder us.

Line 3: ...wasn't clean and I must try to not do it any more. That is just ...

Line 13: for about an hour, and then the widow made her ease up. I ...

The answers we are after have to be taken from these lines so let's analyse them with the possible answers in mind. Is anything obvious from the text? I would hope that a child of ten or eleven would be able to pick up on the fact that the widow is intervening to make Huckleberry's life easier in line 13. However, they might miss the subtle 'try to' in line 3 which suggests a softer attitude than we may expect. A harsher way of saying it would be '... I must not do it any more.'

The least possible answers are a) and b). She is stopping Huckleberry from doing something he enjoys but in a fairly soft way; in line 13 she is making his life easier so she is not being cruel. There is no reference to the Bible stories in either line so that is wrong.

There is no evidence that the widow dislikes Huckleberry; she is trying to help him in both instances, even if she is not being outwardly kind. The remaining wrong answer - 'inconsiderate' - is not easy to dismiss unless you know its meaning. Encourage your child to break down the word and, hopefully knowing 'in-' means the opposite, they can have a guess at the meaning. She certainly considers Huckleberry, particularly in line 13, so the right answer has to be e), 'she is trying not to be too harsh'. She is telling her sister to lighten the load and is asking Huckleberry not to smoke rather than demanding it.

Question 10

Read line 24 carefully. Retaining the same meaning, the semi colon could best be replaced by which conjunction?

a) and

b) however

c) yet

d) therefore

e) because

This is a tricky question which is not easy to explain; it is predominantly down to whether your child has a good grasp of English. Native speakers and those who read extensively will automatically have an advantage.

Firstly we must look at the sentence that contains the semi-colon:

Although the sentence spans two lines, we've been asked to substitute a word between 'world' and 'she' as that is the only one on line 24.

Read through the sentence five times, replacing the pause after 'world' with each possible answer in turn. Which sound right? Secondly, consider the meaning. I teach conjunctions regularly and a lot of children use them regardless of meaning when they start off and it isn't easy to explain their exact meaning as they are abstract terms. Try to come up with simple sentences to demonstrate how they are used and help your child understand the theory before getting them to use them independently. None of the conjunctions in the answers are that tough though, so hopefully your child will spot which are reasonable and which make no sense.

Miss Watson will not say 'hell'. She is going to live well so as to go to heaven. Does the former lead to the latter? Not directly, so 'therefore' and 'because' are wrong. 'Yet' and 'however' suggest a contradiction between the two statements but there is none. They are complementary statements so the best answer is 'and'.

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