The ASVAB subtest called Paragraph Comprehension is designed to find out how well you obtain information from written material. Basically, it measures your reading comprehension skills. Paragraph Comprehension is especially important because it is part of the AFQT, the primary score for entering the military. To get in and get good job and training opportunities, you need to score well on this test. Just think about it: During your basic and specialized training, you will need to understand written material provided to you by your instructors. You will need to read and understand manuals that relate to your job. The military, regardless of branch, needs you to have a good understanding of everything you read.

Each item on the Paragraph Comprehension test consists of a paragraph or paragraphs followed by multiple-choice questions. You will need to read the paragraphs in order to answer the questions. The paragraphs will cover a wide variety of topics. Note, however, that you won't need to know anything about each topic other than what is in the paragraph. The paragraph will contain everything you need to know to answer the questions.

If you do the math, you will see that on the paper-and-pencil ASVAB, you have only 52 seconds to answer each item, including reading the passage. That means that you will need a test-taking strategy that allows you to approach the test both quickly and accurately. This chapter gives you some practical advice on how to approach the test, what kinds of questions to expect, and how to prepare yourself to get your best score on the ASVAB Paragraph Comprehension test.

Build Your Reading Comprehension Skills

Start your preparation for the ASVAB Paragraph Comprehension test by learning what you can do to build your reading comprehension skills. Here are some suggestions.

Read

The best way to improve your reading comprehension skills is to read, read, read. The more you read and practice your reading comprehension skills, the better off you will be on the test. The following list suggests a variety of materials that you should be reading.

What to Read

  • Books on subjects you like. Whatever topic interests you, there are books about it—and reading those books will help you. If you are a sports fan, read books about great teams and famous games. If you love science fiction, read this year's most popular science fiction stories. If you are a history buff, read about the famous people and events of the past that made our world what it is today. Read autobiographies, books on politics, health books, science books, books on bicycling, nutrition, ice skating, organizing your life, and more. The list is endless. You don't need to buy these books; use your local library. The library is also a great place to read because it is quiet and you won't get distracted.
  • School books. If you are in school, devour those textbooks. Focus on paragraph headings, see how the information is organized, and highlight critical statements and facts. Reading the textbook will not only expand your knowledge base for the other ASVAB tests, but also improve your vocabulary and your ability to understand what you are reading.
  • Newspapers. Daily newspapers, especially those from a large town or city, offer plenty of reading opportunity on a variety of subjects.
  • The Internet. Be selective about what you read on the Internet. Look for more lengthy passages, such as articles from a newspaper or extracts from a book. Avoid Internet sites where information is short, choppy, and abbreviated. That kind of reading will probably not help your reading comprehension skills. Reading Internet material can be helpful if you select the right stuff.

Learn New Words

The better your vocabulary, the easier it will be to understand what you are reading. The previous chapter of this book explained how to improve your vocabulary for the ASVAB Word Knowledge test. Following those suggestions will help you on the Paragraph Comprehension test as well. (You may wish to go back to the earlier chapter and review.)

How to Learn Words

  • Develop a word list. As you are reading, identify words that you don't know or don't know very well. Based on the sentence or paragraph that contains the word, try to guess its meaning. Look up the meaning in a dictionary to be sure that you are correct. The previous chapter of this book gave you a word list chart for recording these words and their definitions. Use it to help your vocabulary grow.
  • Use context clues. The context of a word is the other words and sentences that surround it. Often you can determine the meaning of a word from its context. One way to determine the meaning is to see how the word is used in the sentence.
  • Use prefixes, suffixes, and roots. These word parts can help you decode a word's meaning. The Word Knowledge chapter gives you a whole laundry list of common prefixes, suffixes, and roots.

Learn How to Answer Each Question Type

There are four different types of Paragraph Comprehension questions. Each type asks you something different about the paragraph you read. Here is a list of the question types, along with tips for answering each type.

Type 1: Words in Context Questions

Some Paragraph Comprehension questions will ask you to determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word in the paragraph by looking at the context in which that word appears.

Example

Space flight is a somewhat common experience these days. Nowadays the International Space Station generally is the home of several astronauts from the United States and Russia. Astronauts generally spend several months in a weightless condition. They sleep, eat, and work without the effects of gravity. One of the effects of lengthy space travel is the atrophy of major muscle groups and the stress of travel on the heart and lungs. When these space travelers return to Earth, it takes several days for them to adjust back to gravity and to walk normally.

    In this instance the word atrophy means
  1. strengthening.
  2. defining.
  3. weakening.
  4. breaking.

If the correct meaning was "strengthening" (choice A), then it probably wouldn't take several days for the space travelers to adjust back to gravity. If choice D, "breaking," was the correct answer, then the space travelers would probably not adjust at all, as their muscles would be in very poor shape. Muscles that are "defining," choice B, would result from exercise performed against gravity, not in a weightless environment. Choice C, "weakening," is the correct answer, because when muscles do not have a chance to work out, they get weaker.

Type 2: Main Idea Questions

Another kind of Paragraph Comprehension question asks about the main idea of the paragraph. In this kind of question, you may be asked to identify the main idea, to choose the best title for the paragraph (which is simply another way of stating the main idea), to identify the theme of the paragraph, or to identify the author's purpose in writing the paragraph.

Example

Bologna, Italy, is a city with 26 miles of covered walkways dating from the 1200s. The atmosphere of this beautiful city and its residents envelope you like a warm hug. In the center piazza of the city are two leaning towers, forming the most notable landmarks. Around the corner is the famous Roxy coffee bar, a hangout for many of the young university students who are studying medicine and political science. The nearby open marketplace bustles with color and excitement. Listening closely, you can hear many languages spoken by the tourists who visit each year.

In the paragraph above, which of the following best states the main idea of the passage?

  1. Bologna is an old city.
  2. University students love Bologna.
  3. Bologna is an interesting place to visit.
  4. Bologna has two leaning towers.

Clearly, choice C is the best and correct answer. The main idea is that Bologna is an interesting and vibrant city that attracts visitors from many places.

The other answers may be true, but they do not sum up the gist of the entire passage.

Often in a paragraph there will be one sentence that sums up the main idea of the paragraph as a whole. The question may ask you to choose which sentence that is. A sentence that sums up the main idea of a paragraph is called the topic sentence. In the following example, the sentences are numbered. As you read, try to pick out the topic sentence.

Example

(1) It was 6 p.m. on a cloudy, frigid day in the forest. (2) It had been sleeting the entire afternoon. (3) Simone was worried because her son hadn't returned home, as he usually did by this time. (4) Todd was always punctual, but tonight was different. (5) Todd had a basketball game after school, and a friend was supposed to drive him home. (6) Simone waited by the window in hopes of seeing Todd's smiling face as he came up the stairs.

Which of the following sentences best reflects he main idea of the paragraph?

  1. 1
  2. 3
  3. 4
  4. 5

The best and correct answer is choice B. In most paragraphs, the topic sentence is the first sentence. But in this case, as you might have noticed, it is not. Of the six sentences, sentence 3 best conveys the meaning of the entire paragraph. It tells you that for some reason, Todd was supposed to be home and wasn't, and that Simone was worried. Sentence 3 is the topic sentence. Sentences 1 and 2 just give an indication of the setting. Sentences 4 and 5 tell us that Todd was usually on time and that this day he had a basketball game. These sentences don't reflect the basic idea of the paragraph: that Simone was worried and why she was worried. Sentence 6 conveys no sense that there was any kind of problem or reason for worry, only that Simone was looking out the window hoping to see Todd.

"Best Title" Questions   Another kind of main idea question will ask you to choose the best title for the paragraph. The best title is the one that best expresses the main idea of the paragraph as a whole. Here is an example.

Example

Visiting New York City and taking in a Broadway musical has always been a dream of Kevin's, but he knew a visit to the big city would be very expensive. He wanted to plan a short vacation to the city over a holiday weekend. Could he visit the city on a limited budget? Searching the Internet, he found opportunities for reduced-price hotels, half-price Broadway play tickets, and a special on train transportation. He was ecstatic as he started to pack his bags.

For the paragraph above, which of the following is the best title?

  1. New York—An Expensive City
  2. Kevin's Budget
  3. Finding Cheap Tickets
  4. Kevin Goes to the Big City

Of the options, choice D is the best and correct answer. You don't know about Kevin's actual budget, so choice B is not correct. You do know that New York City is expensive to visit, but that is not the major point of the paragraph. Finding cheap tickets is part of the process, but it is not by any means the major thrust of the paragraph. Kevin's dream and all its parts is the most important theme of the paragraph.

Note that there are a number of other possible good titles for this paragraph. A few include Kevin Goes to the Big City, New York City on a Budget, and Kevin's Dream Comes True. Each of these titles conveys the main idea of the paragraph and would make a possible correct answer choice.

Author's Purpose Questions   Another kind of main idea question will ask you to identify the author's purpose in writing the paragraph. Authors write for a variety of purposes: to describe, to raise issues or concerns, to move readers to action, to persuade readers to think in a particular way, to frighten, to give directions, to describe steps or procedures, to compare and contrast, or to entertain. Here is an example of this kind of question.

Example

Global warming is an increasingly serious environmental problem. It is caused by "greenhouse gases," which are created by things we do to the environment every day. But there are many little things people can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You can do your part by carpooling to save gasoline. Four people can ride to school or work in a carpool instead of each person taking a car and driving alone. Save electricity by turning off the lights, the television, and the computer when you are through with them. Save energy by taking the bus or by riding your bicycle to school or to run errands. Walk to where you want to go. Recycle your cans, bottles, plastic bags, and newspapers. If you care about the future of this planet, help protect the environment! Get with the program!

In the paragraph above, what is the author's purpose?

  1. To entertain readers
  2. To describe global warming
  3. To offer directions
  4. To move readers to action

The best answer is choice D. The purpose of the paragraph is to move you to act to protect the environment. The paragraph makes no attempt to entertain readers (choice A), nor does it really describe what global warming is (choice B). It does give suggestions for fixing global warming, but these are not really directions, so choice C is also incorrect.

Author's Attitude or Tone Questions   Another kind of main idea question will ask you to identify the author's attitude or tone. In other words, you will need to determine how the author feels toward the subject of the paragraph. Is the author angry? Discouraged? Excited? Happy? For clues to how the author feels, look at the words he or she has chosen to use. Here is an example.

Example

Shooting a cat with a BB gun or anything else is animal cruelty and is illegal. The recent incident in our neighborhood should be reported to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the local humane society, or the police. We must as a community band together to find the perpetrators, prosecute them, and get the person or persons into some serious counseling program. It's important for all of us to be watchful and to speak up about this horrific behavior. These incidents must be stopped before these individuals cause even more serious harm.

In the above paragraph, which of the following best describes the author's tone?

  1. Happy about the situation
  2. Biased in favor of cats
  3. Angry about the situation
  4. Depressed about the situation

The correct answer is choice C, "angry about the situation." The author's anger is apparent in words and phrases like "horrific," "we must as a community band together," "prosecute them," and "these incidents must be stopped," There is nothing in the paragraph to support any of the other choices.

Type 3: Specific Details Questions

The third kind of ASVAB Paragraph Comprehension question will ask you to pick out specific details in the paragraph that you have read. In these paragraphs, a lot of information is often provided. You have to find the specific item or detail that the question asks about. For this kind of question, it is very helpful to read the question before you read the paragraph. Here is an example.

Example

Dental assistants perform a variety of patient care, office, and laboratory duties. They work chairside as dentists examine and treat patients. They make patients as comfortable as possible in the dental chair, prepare them for treatment, and obtain their dental records. Assistants hand instruments and materials to dentists and keep patients' mouths dry and clear by using suction or other devices. Assistants also sterilize and disinfect instruments and equipment, prepare trays of instruments for dental procedures, and instruct patients on postoperative and general oral health care.

In the above paragraph, where is the dental assistant when the doctor is examining the patient?

  1. Right next to the dentist and the patient
  2. In the laboratory
  3. Finding dental records
  4. Sterilizing instruments

The correct answer is choice A. The detail you are looking for is found in the sentence, "They work chairside as dentists examine and treat patients." So the correct answer is "right next to the dentist and the patient." At other times, a dental assistant may be in the laboratory (choice B), finding dental records (choice C), or sterilizing instruments (choice D), but when the dentist is working with the patient, the assistant is right by the dentist's side.

Sequence of Steps Questions   One type of specific details question will ask you about the sequence (order) of steps in a process. The process may be something in nature, or it may be preparing a food item, operating a machine, making a repair, or something similar. To answer this kind of question correctly, you need to pay close attention to the order in which things happen or in which things are done. Reading the question before reading the passage is a very good strategy with this type of item. Here is an example.

Example

Making a Brownie

Preheat the oven to 350° and lightly spray the pan with cooking oil. In a saucepan, combine the butter and chopped chocolate. Set this over a low heat until melted. Stir the mixture and set aside to cool. In a mixing bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Measure the sugar into a large bowl and mix in the cooled butter-chocolate mixture. Add the eggs, vanilla, and water. Mix very well. Add the dry ingredients and mix until blended. Spoon the batter into the pan and bake for 23 to 25 minutes. Cool in the pan and cut into squares.

When should you add the eggs, vanilla, and water?

  1. After melting the chocolate
  2. Before cooling the melted butter and chocolate
  3. After spooning the batter into the pan
  4. Before adding the dry ingredients

The correct answer is choice D. There is a lot of detail in this paragraph, but the time for adding the eggs, vanilla, and water is before combining the melted butter and chocolate with the dry ingredients.

Type 4. Interpretation Questions

The fourth type of ASVAB Paragraph Comprehension question will ask you to interpret something that you read. Often an author will suggest or hint at a certain idea, but will not state it directly. It is up to you to figure out the author's meaning by "reading between the lines" and drawing your own conclusion. When you do this, you analyze the author's words, you think about what they mean, and you put your ideas together to create something new and original. This process is called making an inference. Here is an example of a question that asks you to make an inference.

Example

The dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period. Reasons for this event are still undetermined. Some scientists attribute it to a cataclysmic occurrence, such as a meteor that struck the Earth, kicking up vast quantities of dust. Another possibility is the great increase in volcanic activity that is known to have taken place at the end of the Cretaceous period. Either cause could have filled the atmosphere with enough dust and soot to block out the sunlight, producing a dramatic climate change. Recent discoveries indicate that in many places on several continents, there is a layer of iridium in geologic strata associated with the Cretaceous Period. Iridium is an element associated with lava flows.

An inference test item might look like this:

According to this passage, the dinosaurs became extinct because of which of the following conditions?

  1. Disappearance of vegetation
  2. Radiation from the sun
  3. Climate changes
  4. Volcanic activity

The best answer is choice C, climate changes. The paragraph does not come to a conclusion about which of the two events caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, but both seem to point to the fact that climate changes were the eventual cause of their disappearance. This conclusion is not stated in the passage. You needed to infer this from reading the passage.

Answering ASVAB Paragraph Comprehension Questions

Here are a few basic tips for answering ASVAB Paragraph Comprehension questions.

  1. Read the questions before reading the paragraph. This is an absolute must—no exceptions. You need to do this so that you can focus on the pertinent parts of the paragraph and ignore the remainder. Remember that you have a very limited amount of time and you need to get to the right answer as quickly as possible.
  2. Read the paragraph next. When you read the paragraph, focus on the answers to the questions and ignore all the extraneous information that might be in the paragraph. There will be a lot of fluff in the passage that has nothing to do with the questions you are being asked. Don't try to fully understand all the information that is given. Your job is to answer the question, not to be an expert on the subject at hand.
  3. In your mind, try to answer the question as you read each paragraph. Try to guess the answers in your own mind. Your answer will probably be similar to one of the answer choices.
  4. Now look at the answer choices to see which one matches the answer you reached in your mind. Pick the choice that is closest.
  5. Guess if you must. If you cannot decide which answer choice is correct, try to eliminate choices that are clearly wrong. Then guess, even if you cannot eliminate more than one or two choices. The more choices you eliminate, the better your chance of guessing correctly. There is no penalty for wrong answers on the paper-and-pencil version, so be sure to mark an answer for every question, even if you have to guess.