Page 1 Reading Comprehension Study Guide for the ISEE

How to Prepare for the ISEE Reading Comprehension Test

General Information

The six reading passages in this section of the ISEE range between 300 and 600 words. Understanding them involves a combination of skills you’ve been taught during your years in school. Finding the correct answer to some questions merely requires you to understand what is specifically stated in a passage. For other items, you will need to take what is stated and do further thinking about it. Here are some of the types of things you need to know and be able to do.

Terms to Know

Each of the six questions following a passage on this test may assess your ability to deal with one or more of these concepts:

Main Idea

The main idea of a passage is basically the purpose for writing the passage. It is the focal point of the entire piece. The main idea is the common thread that runs throughout the passage, and it is usually supported or explained by the supporting ideas. If you could summarize a passage in one sentence, that sentence would be the main idea.

Point of View

The point of view is the lens through which a story is told. The author chooses which point of view to write from, and each point of view has different merits.

First-person point of view is when one character narrates the story using words like I and me. We get to hear that character’s thoughts and see the world through his or her eyes. Some authors will write in first-person through the eyes of multiple characters, often changing the narrator per chapter. The great thing about first-person point of view is being able to know what the character is truly thinking and feeling. Unfortunately, this cuts the reader off from the thoughts of other characters, so they must make inferences based on other clues. Hearing the story from one perspective can also cut the reader off from any detail that that single character is unaware of.

Second-person point of view is when the author speaks directly to the reader, using words like you and we’. While this point of view is very rare in literature, it is often used in genres like instructional pieces and persuasive essays.

Third-person point of view is when the reader is like a guest looking at the story from the outside. There are two subtypes of third-person: third-person omniscient, when the thoughts of all the characters are open to the reader, and third-person limited, when the thoughts of only one character are written for the reader. This should not be confused with first-person, where the character is the one explaining their feelings, because in third-person limited there is a narrator explaining the character’s feelings.


First-person: “I walked to the grocery store on Tuesday.”

Second-person: “You should walk to the store on Tuesday.”

Third-person omniscient: “Sarah wanted to walk to the store on Tuesday, but Jane was hoping to avoid the trip to the store.”

Third-person limited: “Sarah wondered if Jane wanted to go to the store on Tuesday.”

Mood and Tone

The mood and tone of a passage are understood based on the word choices by the author. While the two are often confused, they are two distinct things. Mood is how the reader feels while reading the passage, whereas tone is how the author feels about something in the passage.

Both the mood and the tone can be inferred from the descriptive words an author chooses. Two stories can have identical characters, actions, and settings, but using different descriptors will change the mood and tone.


“The looming farmhouse stood out against the black night.”
“The grand farmhouse stood out against the starry night.”

There is a farmhouse present at night in both passages, but the descriptive words change the mood of the situation. The words looming and black have negative connotations, whereas grand and starry are positive.

“Sarah saw a ferocious lion.” “Sarah saw a friendly lion.”

Sarah saw a lion in both sentences, but the use of ferocious or friendly makes the author’s tone clear.

Supporting Ideas

Supporting ideas are presented throughout a passage in order to support, prove, or explain the main idea. Some supporting ideas will be directly stated, while others may be inferred.

If you are unsure whether an idea is the main idea or a supporting idea, remember that the main idea will be supported by all the lesser ideas. It will be a common thread throughout the passage, while the supporting ideas are usually brought up once each.

Literary Genres

You may be asked to identify the genre, or type, of a reading passage. There are many different genres, but the most common ones that you should be familiar with include:

narrative passages, which narrate or tell a story. These can be written in a variety of points of view. This genre can be fiction (imaginary) or nonfiction (true events). A novel is an example of the narrative genre.

informational passages, which serve to give information on a particular subject in an objective way. These passages are written from the perspective of someone who is knowledgeable about the chosen topic and written for a reader who is not knowledgeable about it. This is a nonfiction genre. These passages do not argue for a specific viewpoint. A newspaper article describing a town’s Christmas event would be considered informational.

instructional passages, which are written to teach the reader how to accomplish something. These passages are usually more formal or business-like, and they are nonfiction. A manual that explains how to put together a piece of furniture would be classified as an instructional piece.

persuasive passages, in which the author argues a certain point and attempts to convince the reader of that point. Persuasive passages are often attempting to force the reader to take some kind of action. An advertisement that tells readers why a certain brand of ice cream is the best falls under the persuasive genre. This genre is nonfiction.

passages that analyze. These passages can examine multiple sides of a debate or argument, or they can give the pros and cons of a certain idea. The reader is then able to make their own conclusions based on the insights drawn from the facts. Analytical passages do not attempt to sway the reader one way or the other, but they differ from informational passages because rather than simply stating the facts, they draw insight from the facts. A research paper that studies the effects of caffeine in teenagers would be considered an analysis. This genre is nonfiction.

passages that entertain or amuse the reader. These are often told in narrative form, but their main objective is to please the reader by making them laugh or drawing their interest. This genre can be either fiction or nonfiction. A funny story about a talking dog would be fiction entertainment, while an amusing passage about the author’s most embarrassing moment would be nonfiction entertainment.

There are many subgenres and it would be impossible to list them all. Extensive lists of genre types can be found online, and these will be helpful in becoming familiar with more genres than those listed above.

Passage Structure

The structure of a passage basically means how the ideas are arranged in a passage. The most common ways of structuring a written work are as follows:

Chronological: These passages discuss ideas in order of time or occurrence. Usually, whatever happened first is discussed first, and whatever happened last is discussed last.

Cause and effect: These passages talk about the results of something, followed by the effects these results have on the world around them.

Compare and contrast: Two different things or ideas are discussed, giving special importance on the things that make them similar and different.

Importance: These passages list ideas or items in order of importance, usually (but not always) reserving the most important or impactful idea for last.

Problem and solution: In these passages, a problem or issue is first discussed, followed by a solution or several possible solutions to the problem.

These are only the most common ways of structuring a passage. Complete lists can be found online.

Sequence in a Passage

Within the previously listed structure types, you’ll notice that there are options for the order in which the information is presented. Considering the sequence in which the author presents information can give you insight for use in answering questions about the passage.

In a narrative passage, the structure is typically chronological. However, the author may vary this by using a small part of a later event to “hook” the reader, before telling the story from the beginning. This strategy is commonly used in high-suspense tales. The author starts with a point of high crisis and teases the reader into reading further. Knowing this strategy can help you identify the main or secondary conflict in a passage.

Persuasive and argumentative passages can also use sequence to strengthen the effect on the reader. Some authors choose to list the least important or significant point first and build to the one with greatest impact. Others may begin with the most conclusive evidence, hoping to win the reader’s allegiance early on, and then add additional points to strengthen the argument further.

When you are asked to identify the author’s “main” argument or the author’s most convincing point, studying the sequence of the passage can help. Also, look for words within this sequence that might tell you the author’s strategy. Words like also and additionally would indicate a succession of lesser points. Conversely, terms such as moreover and phrases such as even more significant… tell you that the author is building toward the most conclusive evidence.

Figurative Language

Figurative language includes literary devices that are used to clarify or enhance meaning. Here are some of the most common ones:


A simile is a comparison using the words like or as. The two things that are compared are usually of a different kind, and this helps to emphasize a point.


“He is as sly as a fox.” “The bad news left me frozen like a statue.”


A metaphor is comparing two things that are not actually alike, but the comparison highlights the similarities. In a metaphor, a situation is usually being compared to an actual thing.


“When I pointed at the destroyed couch, my dog oozed with guilt.”
In this case, the dog isn’t actually oozing, but this highlights how guilty the dog looked.

“After a long day of work, I quickly fell into the solace of sleep.”
The author isn’t actually falling anywhere, but this shows how quickly she went to sleep.


A hyperbole is an excessive exaggeration in order to make point. These exaggerations can be obvious and comical.


“I called the cable company a million times before they finally picked up!”
We know the author couldn’t actually make a million phone calls, but the exaggeration displays how long it took to get in touch with the cable company.


Imagery means using words that better complete the picture of what is happening in the text. These words can incorporate the five senses, causing the reader to mentally see, hear, smell, feel, or taste the subjects of discussion. The use of imagery makes any written work, be it a poem, a story, a song, or even an informational passage, more relatable and interesting to the reader.


“The rain glistened and shone off of the car’s windshield.”
Glistened and shone are visual images, allowing the reader to mentally picture the situation.

“The owl screeched in the night, its cries echoing through the trees.”
Screeched and echoing create an auditory image that the reader can imagine hearing.

“She inhaled the fragrant flowers before placing them in a vase.”
Inhaled and fragrant play on the reader’s sense of smell.

“The coarse and grimy sand stuck between my toes after a day on the beach.”
Coarse and grimy help the readers to imagine what their toes would feel like if they were in the author’s position.

“The warm, salty popcorn was covered in delicious butter.”
These words awaken the reader’s sense of taste and help to paint a better picture, or image, of the snack.


Irony can be two different things. First, it can be the use of words when the intended meaning is different than what the words actually mean. An example of this is:

“After failing my test, receiving a speeding ticket, and overdrawing my bank account, I sat on the couch and exclaimed: ‘Wow, what a wonderful afternoon.’ ” In this case, the words “what a wonderful afternoon” actually mean that the day was good, but the speaker’s intended meaning was that the day was dreadful.

The other type of irony is when a situation unfolds in a way that is opposite of what was expected. An example of this would be yelling at a friend for breaking your phone, while simultaneously sitting on his phone by accident and breaking it.


Personification is giving human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects, or ideas.


“The rain smacked painfully onto my face.”
Rain is inanimate and can’t actually smack a person.

“The dogs danced for joy when they saw the treat in my hand.”
Animals don’t really dance, but this characteristic helps describe their movements.

“When I’m enjoying myself, time seems to fly by.”
Time is an idea and can’t really fly.