How to Improve Your Reading Comprehension Skills for the ASVAB

By Rod Powers

Reading comprehension practice is a must if you plan on taking the ASVAB. Some people read and comprehend better than others, but one thing is for certain: You’re not born with the ability to read. It’s something you learn. Like almost anything that is learned, you can use proven techniques to help you do it better:

  • Read more and watch TV less.

  • Practice skimming and scanning.

  • Learn to identify the main ideas and the all-important subpoints.

  • Work on the meanings of strange or difficult words.

  • Practice paraphrasing.

  • Reflect on what you’ve read.

Take the time to read

Joseph Addison once noted that “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Anything gets better with practice. If you don’t read well, the chances are good that you don’t read much. You don’t need a $4-million government-funded study to know that people who read a lot are more likely to be better readers than people who don’t.

If you learn to read for fun, you’ll automatically read more, and your reading skills will improve immeasurably after a relatively short time. How do you learn to read for fun? Choose reading material about a topic you’re interested in.

You don’t have to pick up A Tale of Two Cities or War and Peace. You can start with the newspaper, a biography of a person you admire, or magazines you find at the library.

Skimming and scanning

Different situations call for different styles of reading. The technique you choose depends on your purpose for reading. For example, you may be reading for enjoyment, to find information, or to complete a task. If you’re reading for enjoyment, you usually read and savor every word. However, in other situations, you may not want to read every single word.


You can skim to quickly identify the main ideas of a text. For example, most people don’t read a newspaper word for word. Instead, they skim through the text to see whether they want to read an article in more depth. Most people skim three to four times faster than normal reading. Skimming is especially useful if you have lots of material to read in a limited amount of time.

Here are some points to keep in mind when you practice skimming:

  • If the article or passage has a title, read it. It’s often the shortest possible summary of the content.

  • Read the first sentence or paragraph. This introductory text often consists of the main point(s).

  • If the text has subheadings, read each one, looking for relationships among them.

  • Look for clue words that answer who, what, where, how, why, and when.

  • Pay attention to qualifying adjectives, such as best, worst, most, and so on.

  • Look for typographical clues such as boldface, italics, underlining, or asterisks.


Scanning involves moving your eyes quickly down the page seeking specific words and phrases. When you scan, you must be willing to skip over several lines of text without actually reading and understanding them.

Scanning is a useful technique when you’re looking for keywords or specific ideas. For example, when you look up a word in the dictionary, you probably use the scanning technique. In most cases, you know what you’re looking for, so you concentrate on finding a particular answer.

When scanning a document:

  • Keep in mind what you’re scanning for. If you keep a picture in your mind, the information is more likely to jump out at you from among all the other printed words.

  • Anticipate what form the information is likely to appear in. Will it be numbers? Proper nouns?

  • Let your eyes run over several lines of print at a time.

  • When you find the information you’re looking for, read the entire sentence.

Look for the main ideas and subpoints

Reading wouldn’t have much purpose if you just let your eyes wander over the words without walking away with some sense of what the author is talking about. The author’s ideas are included in the main point and subpoints of the writing. You need to practice extracting this information from your reading material.

Build your vocabulary

It’s hard to understand what you’re reading if you don’t understand the individual words. Effective reading comprehension involves developing a solid vocabulary. The two skills go hand in hand.

When practicing reading, try not to look up new words in a dictionary right away. Stopping to look up words often impairs your concentration and lessens your ability to comprehend what you’ve read.

Instead, start by trying to puzzle out the meaning of a new word by looking at the context in which the word is used in the sentence or phrase. For example, take the following passage:

It had been three days since the shipwreck, and Tammy was unable to find food or much drinkable water. At that point, she would have done anything to get off that wretched island.

You can derive several important clues about the meaning of the word wretched based on its context in the passage. Obviously, Tammy isn’t having a very good time, nor does she find the island to be a pleasant environment. Therefore, you can surmise that wretched has something to do with unpleasantness.


Putting the text in your own words can help you understand what the writer is talking about.

You probably won’t have time on the Paragraph Comprehension subtest to rewrite passages on your scratch paper. But by practicing the technique while you hone your reading comprehension skills, you’ll develop the ability to paraphrase in your mind.

Remember by reflecting

Reflecting simply means thinking about what you’ve read. If you take a few minutes to think about it, you’re more likely to remember it. Did you enjoy the passage or article? Did you find it interesting? Do you agree or disagree with the author’s views?