To increase reading comprehension skills and to become a better writer, wide reading is key. I suggest current events reading—especially the sort found in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, etc. These articles are usually rich in vocabulary words and in idiomatic expressions, and in general are great short passage reading practice. Aim to read one article a day, or an entire quality magazine a week.
Keep a running list of vocabulary words you see in your reading but don’t know. Even if you think you know a word, remember that if you can’t quickly define it (with a short definition, perhaps just one synonym), then you don’t really know it.
I suggest making your own vocabulary flashcards. Write the word on one side of an index card and write a very brief definition on the other side. Keep definitions brief (I typically choose an apt synonym) so that they are easier to remember. Whenever possible, choose a definition that rhymes with or has same starting letters as the vocabulary word. This also helps with retention (it’s a mnemonic device, of sorts).
Store-bought flashcards are only useful in that they help you focus on certain words. I would still suggest re-writing them. Anything you want to memorize, you need to write down!
Increasing your vocabulary will help you with both reading and with writing scores.
After reading, make it a habit to always ask two questions:
What was the PURPOSE of what I just read? (i.e., why was it written; to whom was it written—who is the intended audience? Answering that question helps you understand what the author is trying to argue, and how the author hopes to persuade his/her reader).
What was the TONE of what I just read? Tone is author’s attitude. At least try to figure out if the tone is positive or negative. Is the author critical of an idea or topic, or positive about it? Words used in the piece you read (note whether there are many negative vocabulary words, or many positive ones, and make it a habit to circle vocabulary words as you read) will give you a clue about the tone.
The reason why it’s important to stop for a minute and figure out Purpose and Tone is because critical reading questions are usually focused on these specific issues--particularly on standardized tests. Training yourself to anticipate these questions is more than half the battle when it comes to scoring well on reading tests.
Understanding THEME is also very important. A theme is any big idea you are left thinking about after reading. Start making it a habit to try to articulate themes (points, big messages) in the pieces you read.
As you read, keep the reading active (not passive) by holding a pen or pencil in your hand. Take notes. Keep busy. Holding a pen and taking notes keeps you focused, and as you do this, you will start to anticipate questions and can mark passages accordingly—at least on paper tests. Even if you are reading online, keep a notebook by your side and take notes!
For writing sections of tests
Top-scoring writing generally has a few traits in common:
Varied sentence structure (syntax). This primarily means NOT starting more than one sentence in the same way. Make it a habit to check your work and ensure that you are varying sentence beginnings. Syntactical variation also means mixing long and short sentences—and, in particular, not having too many very long (run-on) sentences and not having too many short, choppy sentences. The way to figure out what your habit is (run-on or choppy) is to start reading your work aloud, or at least sub-vocalizing when you check your work. If you can’t say a sentence without taking a breath, it’s too long.
Another trick that helps get a top score is to begin a sentence in an unusual, sophisticated way, such as this: “Embittered by his humiliating defeat, John made sure he did not lose again.” Most other writers (especially young students) would not write this sort of sentence, so you will look good if you do. (*Wide reading will also help familiarize you with more sophisticated sentence structure.)
Remember, that FIRST IMPRESSIONS are key when it comes to earning a good writing score. This means that your first sentence should really grab attention. (I typically leave a blank space in my timed essays so I can go back and add a great opening line…which usually does not occur to me until after I am all warmed up and have written the rest of the essay).
FINAL IMPRESSIONS (last lines) are also critical. You always want to end with a memorable final thought. I find that rhetorical questions work well as last lines, as do strong statements or quotes.
When it comes to GRAMMAR on standardized tests:
The most commonly tested issues are subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement, misplaced modifiers or dangling participles, lack of parallelism, and verb tense consistency, as well as commonly confused words (homophones) and irregular verbs.
Oftentimes, when it comes to grammar questions, we can “hear” the error. We do not necessarily need to be able to name what the issue is; a wide reader will just know it’s wrong. That said, anticipating the sorts of issues tested can also help you prepare. More on this later...
Some good Web sites for self-study are:
Pronoun agreement quiz
Subject-verb agreement quiz
Critical reading checklist/worksheet