Reading Comprehension Study Guide for the HESI Exam

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General Information

Most careers require a firm grasp of reading and writing. In nursing, having above-average reading comprehension skills is paramount to your success. If you cannot read a chart, or worse yet, read a chart and immediately understand everything that is written, you could be endangering the lives of your patients. Nurses need to read and read at a high level in order to function in a professional manner.

The Reading Comprehension section of the HESI exam asks you to read a short scientific paragraph and answer multiple questions about its content. Here are some key concepts you should familiarize yourself with to do well on this portion of the exam:

Main Idea

The main idea of a paragraph is the essence of a paragraph. If you were to summarize a passage in a single sentence or idea, you would find that passage’s main idea. To locate the main idea, read the entire passage and pay close attention to the last few sentences. Typically, the main idea is summarized at the close of the first paragraph, or at the close of a paragraph.

Supporting Details

Supporting details exist to support the main idea. In a paragraph format, these details come after the topic sentence―the first sentence in a paragraph, usually―and before the final sentence. Supporting details serve as pillars to “hold up” the main idea of a passage or paragraph, and could also be identified as proof or evidence of an idea.

Author’s Purpose

Author’s purpose can be difficult to figure out. It differs from a main idea, in that it is the driving force behind the main idea rather than the primary focus itself. An author’s purpose may be found by asking the questions “why” and “how.” Why is the author composing this piece? How is the author going about it?

Discovering why the work is being written and how it is doing so will identify the purpose of the piece; for instance, you might find an author is writing a piece to inform his audience using persuasive language. This answers the why (to inform) and how (persuade). From there, you can determine that the author’s purpose is to sway the audience to a certain way of thinking.

Tone of the Piece

The tone of a piece is the attitude with which the piece is treated. “Tone” encompasses a wide range of descriptors, ranging from broad (formal and informal) to incredibly detailed (condescending). Tone is extremely important in deciphering the why and how of a piece because it lends insight into the author’s frame of mind.

Taking a work at face value, for instance, might not enable you to recognize an author’s ironic tone, and, consequently, the work may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. To determine tone, ask yourself how the piece is being treated. What kind of language is being used? Is it funny, serious, or dramatic? What is the topic of the piece? Each of these questions, working together, will reveal the tone of a work.

Drawing Conclusions and Making Inferences

Drawing conclusions and making inferences are two interwoven ways to come to an understanding of a piece. Drawing conclusions involves looking at the facts, interpreting their purpose and meaning, and coming to a realization using those facts. Making inferences is similar, but rather than coming to a conclusion, facts are used to determine other facts that will eventually lead to a conclusion.

To draw a conclusion, look at the presented facts (and inferences), and determine what the author is saying using these facts. To make an inference, look at the facts presented, and determine what other facts might be realized in conjunction with the existing ones. For instance, if evidence is presented that a leather shoe is damaged, and the owner of the shoes was near a lake, you can infer that the shoes were damaged by water.

Fact vs. Opinion

Fact is immutable, while opinion is entirely subjective. Facts are derived from tangible evidence (using sight, taste, touch, etc.) and are frequently regarded as universal truths. Opinions, however, are not presented with evidence but are presented as feelings and interpretations from one individual or a group of individuals.

When trying to determine whether something is a fact or an opinion, seek out supporting details. If something has numerous evidential supporting details, it is likely to be a fact. If something is supported largely with arguments or appeals to emotion, it is likely to be an opinion.

Compare and Contrast

Comparing and contrasting, while similar, are two very different actions. Comparing is the act of taking two or more things and working to identify similarities between those things. If you were to compare a cat and a dog, for instance, you might note that both are domesticated animals, both possess coats of fur, and both possess tails.

Contrasting involves looking at two or more items and working to identify their differences. Again using a cat and a dog, you might note differences in temperaments, in size, and in the basic structure of ears. Comparing is finding similarities while contrasting is identifying differences.

There are certain words that can help clue you in as to whether an author is trying to compare or contrast. Words such as “and,” “also,” and “too” indicate comparison, whereas words such as “but,” “however,” “although,” and “nevertheless” indicate differences.

Context Clues

Context clue is a term used to describe portions of a passage that lend insight into an idea or a word. Using context clues to find the meaning of a word involves looking at the sentences and phrases surrounding the word in question, and determining what meaning best fits the word based on what is being said in the passage.

Using context clues to determine the meaning of an idea is similar; search the sentences and phrases surrounding the idea, and use those excerpts to determine the meaning or purpose of an idea.


Summaries usually come at the end of paragraphs and in the conclusion of pieces. A summary is used to concisely describe the overall purpose and message of a piece. The most common iteration of summaries can be found on the back of a film case; the movie is summarized to draw interest in the story and give an idea of what the story is about.

In literature and academia, the purpose of a summary is no different; summaries are short passages used to give an idea of a work’s content and draw the interest of the audience.

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