Literacy tips

Verbal reasoning tips

Learn the right steps

There is a knack to approaching these passage-based questions. It’s bit like learning a dance routine. Just as learning to tango involves following a sequence of steps, applying certain steps to each question can improve your verbal reasoning test scores.

Step 1 – Skim read the passage to get a rough idea of its content.

Step 2 – Skim read the questions to get a rough idea of the level of difficulty and the sorts of things that you are going to be asked.

Steps 1 and 2 will prepare you for the level of complexity and the time that you need to spend answering the questions.

Step 3 Read the passage again!

Go through the passage again but read it more carefully this time. Do not spend time trying to memorise the details. Instead, think in broad terms about the different areas that the passage is covering. Try to make mental notes about where the specific pieces of information relating to each area are located in the passage.

Step 4 Try to get a broad sense of what you are going to be asked in each question and to know where this information was covered within the passage. Ask yourself: Am I in a suitable position to answer the questions? For more complex passages the answer to this will be no. Read the passage a third time. Try to identify the pieces of information in the passage that seem particularly important. Ask yourself the following broad questions as you read through:

  1. The introductory statement – What point(s) is/are being made here?
  2. The main body of the text – What does this explore/detail?
  3. The final statement(s) – What details are provided here?
  4. If there is a summary at the end of the passage, what point, if any, is it making?

Step 5 Ask yourself again: Do I have a sufficient understanding to answer the set of questions? If the answer is yes, then you are ready to carefully read the first question. You may only need to read the passage in full twice if you already know where to find the relevant information. Remember that the passage will always be there for reference so you don’t need to memorise it.

Don’t worry if the subject matter in the passage is unfamiliar to you. Many of the passages you read will be about areas in which you have no interest or background knowledge. Nor do you need to apply any outside knowledge of the subject. Remember that your answer must be based solely on the information presented in the passage. Don’t let your answer be clouded by any background knowledge that you may bring to bear on the question. A reading comprehension task requires you to extract the relevant information to answer each question. Each question will relate to a particular part, or parts, of the passage. You will need to ferret out smaller pieces of information contained somewhere within the passage to answer the question correctly.

Verbal Reasoning tip – Key words

Watch out for certain key words and phrases in either the passage or question (or both!). These key words often act as the link between different pieces of information. In many cases they qualify the information that has been given. When you come across key words in passages and questions you need to focus on their precise meanings. You are being tested on reinterpreting the passage so ask yourself: do exactly the same emphasis in both the passage and question?

Contrast words – Verbal Reasoning tip

Contrast words and phrases (e.g. however, although, but, alternatively, whereas, despite, rather, unless, instead, while, nevertheless, on the other hand, on the contrary, yet, at the same time, conversely) are used to highlight differences. Contrast words make a transition between two clauses, or parts of a sentence, and emphasise a contrast in ideas or information.

Verbal Reasoning tips example: Spain has always been a popular tourist destination, however it now faces competition from cheaper resorts in other countries.

You need to pay careful attention to the information that follows the contrast word as it is often the key to answering the question.

Is the answer to the following statement True, False, or Cannot tell: Spain is unrivalled as a tourist destination. The answer is False. The sentence says that Spain has always been popular, but goes on to say that it now faces competition.

Propositions Verbal Reasoning tip

There are certain words and phrases that you need to treat as propositions. Don’t be misled into thinking that they are facts. These include the following: claims, suggests, advocates, recommends, advises, offers, proposes, believe and considers. Treat these words with caution as they indicate a subjective statement based on one person’s opinions rather than absolute evidence.

Verbal Reasoning example: The author claims that his book will improve your verbal reasoning test performance.

Is the answer to the following statement True, False, or Cannot tell: This book will improve your verbal reasoning test performance. Yes, there is a very good chance that this book will improve your performance if used properly, but this is not a fact so the answer has to be Cannot tell.

Comparisons – Verbal Reasoning tip

Be on the look-out for comparative adjectives. These are words that compare two or more things. At the simplest level, these are superlatives such as most, highest, biggest and least. But there are other words for making comparisons, e.g. more, lower and less.

Verbal Reasoning tips example: There is less unemployment in the UK today than at any other point in the past decade.

If asked whether the following statement is True or False – Unemployment rates are currently lower than they were five years ago – the answer would be True. If there is less unemployment today than at any point over the past ten years, then it follows that unemployment rates are lower than they were five years ago.

Absolutes and generalisations – 

Verbal Reasoning tip

Adverbs such as never or always compare how frequently something occurs. Be alert for any words that imply something absolute, such as no, never, none, always, every, entire, unique, sole, all, maximum, minimum and only. Don’t confuse them with generalisations, such as many, almost always, some, nearly, usually, seldom, regularly, generally, frequently, typically, ordinarily, as a rule, commonly, and sometimes. These generalisations create something of a grey area where a fact only applies some of the time. This is an important distinction. Just because something usually happens does not mean you can assume it always happens. It is important to recognise these words and interpret them accurately. Some words are relatively low generalisations, such as ‘a few’, ‘a little’, and ‘only some’. Similarly, ‘unlikely’ and ‘infrequent’ tell you that there is still a slight chance, which is not the same as ‘impossible’.

Verbal Reasoning tips example: UK Most educators agree that excessive television viewing usually damages a child’s concentration.

If faced with the statement: Excessive television always damages a child’s concentration you might be tempted to answer True. The answer is in fact False – because the word usually tells you that this is a high possibility, not a guaranteed effect.

So, to summarise: don’t assume that usually means the same as always. In the world of verbal reasoning tests such words are miles apart!

Verbal Reasoning tip – Cause and effect

After doing lots of practice tests you will come to recognise cause and effect words and phrases. These include: since, because, for, so, consequently, as a result, thus, therefore, due to and hence. It is a good idea to focus on these as often a question will ask you to interpret how these words have been used to link different aspects of an issue or argument together. There are subtle differences between these words and phrases, as some signal stronger causal relationships than others. A word like because indicates a direct causal link. The word so also joins facts together but does not necessarily mean that it was the first fact that led to the second.

Verbal Reasoning tips examples

1) As a result of oversubscription, Adam did not get a place on the philosophy course.

2) The philosophy course was oversubscribed so Adam enrolled in a different class.

What is the answer if you are asked: Did Adam get a place on the philosophy course? In the first sentence, you know that he did not. The second sentence is more ambiguous. Perhaps Adam got a place, but opted out of the overcrowded course.

Be careful not to mix up causal words with words such as then, next, after and later. These words indicate a chronological sequence rather than a causal effect. For example, then does not imply that one thing caused another to happen, only that it happened after.

Verbal Reasoning tip – Speculation

Look out for words or phrases indicating speculation, such as perhaps, probably, possibly and maybe. Words such as may, might and can also point to the possibility of something happening. You need to tread carefully with such phrases – they do not mean the suggested outcome is guaranteed, only that it is a possibility.

If you are told – The team is almost certain to win the championship – you should not interpret this as meaning that the team will definitely win. It is just speculation, even if there are good reasons for making that prediction.


Verbal Reasoning tips example: Conglomerate Plc announced redundancies in its accounts team, as well as job losses in its logistics and human resources departments.

You may be asked to say whether the following statement is True or False: Conglomerate Plc made redundancies in three parts of its business. The answer would be True because the statement mentions job losses in accounts, logistics and human resources.