Upper Level: Reading Comprehension Study Guide for the ISEE

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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.

Concept Areas Covered

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.

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.

Making Inferences from Text

You may be required to make inferences based on all or parts of a passage. Inferences are ideas you can logically conclude based on the information you have read, and these conclusions will require critical thinking on your part. If something is directly stated within a passage, it is not an inference. While reading a passage, take a moment to consider what the given facts could imply.


“When Jane woke, she smelled coffee and saw that her husband wasn’t in bed.”

Inference: Jane’s husband is already awake. This was never directly stated, but we can logically conclude this based on the sentence.
Not an inference: Jane’s husband isn’t in bed.(This was directly stated in the sentence, and thus it is not an inference.

While this was a very basic example, hopefully it will help you get a better idea of what inference is and how it functions. Practice making inferences by reading different kinds of texts and taking time to stop and think about what the given facts could mean.

Compare and Contrast

You may be asked to compare and contrast two ideas, elements, or characters within a passage. When comparing two things, you are finding what makes them similar, or what they have in common. When contrasting, you are doing the opposite: focusing on what makes two things different.

For example, when comparing services like Netflix and Hulu, you would consider what they have in common. Both services offer online streaming for movies and television series. Both services also require a membership with a monthly fee.

Now, we can contrast Netflix and Hulu. While they serve a similar purpose, there are some key differences to note. For example, Netflix does not show advertisements during television shows, while Hulu does. Another difference is that Hulu allows customers to stream television shows that are currently airing, while Netflix only has seasons of television shows that have already been completed.

Comparing and contrasting is one way of analyzing the text and helps you to become more familiar with the different elements in a passage. Making Venn Diagrams of two different elements within a text is a great way to practice comparing and contrasting.

Interpret Text

Interpreting text involves asking questions and using critical thinking to answer those questions. Understanding what the author is trying to make the reader believe is a great first step, as well as pinpointing the different ways in which the author makes their case.

When you read a passage, don’t simply take everything the author is saying at face value, but instead ask yourself questions about every idea. What does the author mean by that? What kind of repercussions will result from that idea? What kind of authority does the author have in this subject? Can the author’s opinions be trusted?

These questions and more will help you dissect a passage and interpret it in different ways. After all, a passage written about space travel by a NASA employee should be interpreted differently than one written by an elementary student.

Analyze Text

While interpreting text is the act of forming conclusions about a text, analyzing a text is the act of asking yourself questions about it. As with interpreting, don’t simply read a passage and take everything at face value. Ask questions not only about the content, but about the author, the genre, and the intentions for the passage. Why did the author write this? What is the author trying to accomplish? What type of passage is this? These questions and more will help any reader analyze the texts they read. Only by analyzing a passage will you be able to make your own inferences about what you have read.

Make Predictions Based on Text

You are mostly likely already making predictions about every passage that you read, whether you realize it or not. When you read the title of a passage, your past experiences and prior knowledge will usually lead you to predict what the passage is about. This is a prediction. As you continue to read and absorb new information, your predictions may change. What you thought would happen may or may not have, and you make further predictions based on that. These acts of predicting what will happen are one way of comprehending the text you read. Rather than simply being a passive reader, thinking about what will happen next keeps your mind active, engaged, and motivated.

The more you read in a passage, the more accurate your predictions may become. This is because you are receiving more clues, or evidence, about the passage. While the title alone allows you to make small predictions, evidence from the text allows you to dig deeper and make even more informed predictions. Making predictions about a text is one way to analyze it as you read.

Vocabulary: Understand Words within Text

The ISEE will sometimes ask you to find the best definition of a word in the passage. This means that more than one of the choices may technically work in the sentence, but that one of them will be the most fitting. Here’s an example:

“The ____ of the freshly baked pies filled the kitchen.”

What is the best word to fill in the blank?

A: odor
B: aroma
C: fragrance
D: fumes

Best answer: B

While all four choices relate to smell, some are not appropriate for the sentence. The idea of a freshly baked pie is positive, so you will want to eliminate any choice with a negative association. The words odor and fumes both have very negative connotations relating to bad smells or dangerous chemicals. The word fragrance has a positive connotation, but compared with the fourth choice, aroma, we can conclude that choice B is the best since fragrance is more often associated with perfume than with baked goods. Replacing the blank with each possible word choice is often a great way to see which one fits the best.

In cases when you do not already know the definition of a certain word, let the context surrounding the sentence guide you. There will often be clues that can help you deduce the meaning of a particular word. Here’s an example:

What is definition of the bold word in this sentence?

“The glacial weather made Lisa’s walk home quite miserable. She was relieved to feel the warmth of the fireplace when she opened her front door.”

The first sentence says that glacial weather makes Lisa miserable. The second sentence says that her misery was relieved by the warmth in her home. Based on these facts, we can conclude that glacial means cold, because being cold is a problem that a warm fireplace could solve.

Reviewing lists of vocabulary that may show up on the ISEE will be extremely helpful for you, and a google search should provide you with multiple lists, including this one.


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