Opinion & Columnist

Tips on comprehension passages (Part 2)

Elliot Ziwira

Senior Writer

In our last instalment we looked at how best we can respond to comprehension passages. We outlined what the comprehension task entails. We also looked at the reasons why most candidates fail to answer comprehension questions, and introduced solutions to overcome the stated shortcomings.

This instalment, therefore, is a continuation of the solutions as part of the comprehension task.

If you missed the first part, you should visit The Herald website and look it up.


After going over the passage and responding to your own questions as to what it involves and what you would have learnt, look at the questions set and re-read the passage paragraph by paragraph. At this stage you are now paying close attention to the set questions.

Before answering any question you should determine its type. Examiners will test your understanding of both content and context, so basically they will ask you two types of questions; literal and inferential.

The literal question is straightforward and the answer will be explicit in the passage. You simply have to go to the paragraph in question and pick it out. In some cases paraphrasing will be required, but in some you have to know where to start copying and where to stop.

An inferential question, on the other hand, requires you to use the given information in the passage to arrive at an answer through reasoning.

However, determining the type of question asked will not help if it is not complemented by adherence to instructions. You may be asked to give reasons, find examples, clarify facts or give information, but without following instructions you may not answer the question as expected.

NB: A question that is well-understood is half answered.

Use the key word or phrase in the passage to help you find the answer. Suppose you are asked to go to the shops and buy a loaf of whole wheat bread, what will be your key to bringing what you have been instructed to buy?

You got it right: “Whole wheat” is the key phrase and not the word “bread”. The brand of the bread does not matter either, because it is not part of the instruction. So if you pick out the word “bread” as key, then you will not bring what is required of you.

That is how it works.

Pick the key word or phrase in the question; find the word or phrase in the paragraph given, or any other word or phrase which may have the same meaning. Close therein, that is where your answer will be.


If the passage is six lines long, for example, and there are three questions on it, it means on average a question is asked per two lines.

NB: You cannot use the same lines to answer two different questions.

Instructions are important, always remember that. If you are asked to give a word which means the same as a given word, you should use a word and not words. Just write the word, and if you write more than one underline your answer. If you are asked to give an example or a reason, why should you use the article “and” in your answer? Anything that comes after the word: and, will not be accepted, unless the question is divided into two parts.

You should also learn to answer questions adequately and avoid using more than enough information. If somebody asks you: “Where were you on Sunday?” and you say, “At church praying,” you are not only failing to answer the question, but you are also giving unasked for information.

In the first instance, the question is not specific on time, since at one time you were at home, left for church and went back home, so saying you were at church partly answers the question. You were also not asked what you were doing.

Be guided by the number of marks given in brackets to determine the length of your answer. Always answer questions directly and avoid repeating them in your answers.

When answering questions that require you to use your own words, do just that; use your own words? If the question is worth two marks, it means there are two key words in the passage that you have to replace and by so doing you will be answering the question fully. If you are asked to give a phrase of five consecutive words, the words have to come one after the other, as a phrase.

A shallow vocabulary base will sometimes impede your understanding of passages. This may also affect your responses to the last question on comprehension in Section A, which requires that you replace given words with other words or phrases with the same meanings.

This should not worry you much as a word does not really make sense on its own. Its meaning is enhanced by the community of words, or context that it is used in, which means you can work out the meaning of any new word using the other words surrounding it.

It’s all about the meaning of the sentence and not meanings of single words, so using elimination and substitution you can determine the right word to use as long as the sentence maintains its meaning.


A word may have several meanings, but only one meaning may be required for a particular context. You can easily work it out. You also should avoid using the negative word: not, in your answers. Instead of saying: not happy, you should say: unhappy.