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Multiple Choice Tests


Amorey Gethin




Multiple choice - Reading Comprehension tests

Reading Comprehension - General technique

Reading Comprehension - Answering the questions

Reading Comprehension - Practising

Multiple choice - Filling in blanks to complete sentences

Filling in blanks - Technique

Filling in blanks - Answering the questions The answers to the four questions above are as follows:

Multiple choice - Listening Comprehension




Multiple choice - Reading Comprehension tests


Most language examinations these days have multiple choice tests. Multiple choice tests have fundamental defects. But they are a fact of modern exam life and have to be faced.

Multiple choice tests are supposed to be objective. In reality, however, it is possible to train for them, and if you have to do them in your exam it is very important that you should have practised the right technique for them.

To test people's ability to understand a language the examiners present a passage or passages, usually about half a page to a page in length, and give an instruction more or less as follows:

After each of the following passages there are a number of questions or unfinished statements about the passage. Each one has four suggested answers or ways of finishing; choose the one you think is best. (Sometimes more than four alternatives are given.)

Below is a little piece on the American health system (shorter than what you will normally get), followed by three of the type of question you could expect to be set on it.


The standard of medicine in the United States is generally agreed to be very high. There is no shortage of well qualified specialists, and there is a lot of individual attention. Treatment is backed up by the latest in the way of medical technology. Doctors and hospitals do their utmost not to make mistakes, because if they do they risk being made to pay out enormous sums in compensation.

But the American health care system has what look like insoluble problems. There are in fact two systems side by side. One is the private system run on the basis of free competition. The other is the public system which had to be created because such a large part of the population, including many of the elderly, could not afford to pay for the absurdly expensive private treatment.

The public system is vast. A huge proportion - more than 10 per cent - of the United States federal budget goes on it. Yet there are still very large numbers of Americans who are not covered even by this service. The government tries to keep expenditure down and so sets limits to the income of people using the system. Millions of the unemployed are another important group that is excluded.


1 What is the state of the health system in America? It is

A unsatisfactory.

B satisfactory.

C too risky.

D too mechanised.


2 What can patients expect with regard to treatment in the U.S.A.?

A Frequent mistakes by doctors.

B Very honest hospitals.

C Personal attention.

D Some of the most skilful nurses in the world.


3 Among those Americans who cannot get proper health care are

A some people who earn too much.

B old people.

C people with very large incomes.

D private patients.



Reading Comprehension - General technique


First, read through the whole passage fast. When you come to words and expressions you do not know, whatever you do, do not stop and start worrying about them. Reading fast will also help you to get a feeling of the story or the idea of the passage as a whole. This will stop you choosing wrong answers that are clearly completely against what the writer is trying to say. You may find it useful, in fact, to read through the passage twice.

Now, but not before, comes the problem of choosing the right answer from the four possibilities, A, B, C, or D. Three of these are wrong, of course. The examiners call these wrong ones 'distractors': they put them there to confuse you and lead your mind away in the wrong direction.

You must not allow these distractors to lead you away.

So, as you come to each question, look at only the base question (or 'stem') and not yet at the alternatives A, B, C, D. Before you look at these, look back immediately at the passage and find out what the passage says about the question. (A practical method is to cover the alternatives A, B, C, D each time with a sheet of paper, just leaving the base question showing, while you study the passage.)

When you have decided what the passage says, but only then, you can look at the alternatives A, B, C, D to discover which one fits what you have already decided is the answer.

It is always completely safe to do it this way, because if it is a good question there will only be one right answer and you will see it immediately.

To study the alternatives A, B, C, D before you look at the passage again is very dangerous in two ways. You will often be led astray by the distractors and immediately decide you like the look of one of them and so not be able to read the passage clearly with an open mind, because you are just trying to prove to yourself that your choice was right. This may in turn prevent you looking at the right part of the passage where you can find the real answer.

You must look first at the picture of reality the writer wants to show us. Looking at A, B, C, D first will often only give you the ideas of your own imagination.

One very common method, unfortunately, is the elimination method of looking at each alternative in turn and deciding whether it is impossible or not. This is a dangerous system, for the reasons I have just explained. Moreover, it is not only a bad plan to think about what the passage does not say; it also takes more time.

Always be very careful to be guided only by what the passage actually says. Never base any answer on anything you personally know or have an opinion about. If there is a piece about psychology, and you are asked how psychoanalysis developed, and one alternative suggested is that psychoanalysis was started by Freud, you must not choose that alternative if it is not stated in the passage.

When you study the passage in more detail to find out what it says about each question, you must still not worry about separate words you think you do not understand. First of all, you will find that in this sort of test the answer seldom depends on knowledge of just one word. Secondly, you should use your understanding of the situation to find out the meaning of single words. Always give yourself a picture of what is happening in the real-life situation the writer is describing.



Reading Comprehension - Answering the questions


Let us look at the three questions above.


1 What is the state of the health system in America?

This is an instructive question, because if we ignore A, B, C, D for the moment and look at the passage we find that in fact there is nothing about the health system in the first paragraph. The first paragraph is about the standard of medicine and treatment, not the health system. If you assumed that the answer to the first question must be found in the first paragraph you would almost inevitably choose the wrong answer. To find out about the health system we have to read on through the second paragraph.

There is an important double moral here. Firstly, we must always concentrate carefully on exactly what the base question actually asks about. We must act according to what the question really is, not according to what we would like it to be - and what we would like it to be can be strongly influenced if we look at A, B, C, D first!

Then we must always be ready to look at any part of the passage, perhaps even read right to the end again. The information we need may sometimes be spread out in several different places. In this way, too, we will think about what is really happening according to the passage, not just think abstractly about some individual words or sentences.

It is clear from the second paragraph that the state of the American health system is not good. Now, but not before, we can look at the alternatives A, B, C, D, and it is immediately clear that the answer must be A.

You can probably see how dangerous it might have been to look at the alternatives first: there is mention of good medicine, of risk, and of technology in the text - but they are not the answer to the base question. If you did not look back at the passage first you might have been tempted by almost any of them and possibly not even bothered to look for confirmation in the text.

It is a good idea to mark with a pencil - just a small stroke in the margin - the parts of the text that give you the answer, and then rub the marks out when you've finished each question.


2 What can patients expect with regard to treatment in the U.S.A.?

Again we look at the text before looking at A, B, C, D. We are told about the treatment in the first paragraph. The standard is high, and there are many good specialists, individual attention, and modern equipment. The doctors and hospitals are careful.

Now we can look at the alternatives. There is only one that fits what we have just found out that the passage says, and that is C.

Looking at the passage before A, B, C, D should make sure you are not tempted by D. If you had looked at the alternatives first you might have thought to yourself 'Well, it's true, isn't it? The nurses in America are very well trained and very skilful. It must be D.' But the passage itself doesn't even mention nurses.


3 Among those Americans who cannot get proper health care are

We look at the passage. We must be particularly careful here. We are looking for the people who are left outside the system. It isn't the elderly (paragraph 2), because the public part of the system was set up precisely in order to look after them, among others.

We find the people that the system does not help in paragraph 3, where it says that the income of people who use the public system must not be over a certain amount. So people who get more than that amount of money won't get government help. It also says that many unemployed people are left out.

Now we look at the alternatives. The answer is clearly A. C would of course be wrong. People with large incomes can get treatment through the private part of the system.

That raises a very important final point. When, by looking at the passage, you have come to a decision about what the answer to the base question is, stick to that decision whatever you find in the alternatives. Don't allow yourself to change your mind because of something you find among A, B, C, D. Never forget that the whole purpose of the distractors is to distract you! The only time you should even think of changing your mind is if you find something among the alternatives that immediately makes it clear that you have totally misunderstood the base question.



Reading Comprehension - Practising


If you are preparing for an exam with multiple choice questions of this kind you should obviously practise with a lot of old or practice papers. (The best practice papers are those published by or in association with the examining body itself.) You might find it both interesting and useful to try doing the tests in two different ways. First do some by looking at the alternatives offered before you look back at the passage; then do some new ones and use the method I recommend - look at the alternatives only after you have studied the passage carefully in connection with the base question. See how your success rates compare!

There is just one warning: occasionally you will be presented with a bad question -bad in the sense that the base question will not tell you clearly enough what you have to look for in the text. If you are unlucky enough to be faced with this problem, you will obviously have to look at the alternatives first in order to find out what the examiners are talking about.

Nevertheless, in cases where the base question is a bad one because it covers too many possible points, still at least start by looking at the passage first, and mark all the relevant bits of information, even if you end up by only using one of them.

If you have studied the text, noted the information you think is relevant to the base question, and then find that that information is not mentioned in any of the alternatives, don't panic. Just go back to the text and study it more carefully.



Multiple choice - Filling in blanks to complete sentences


You sometimes find this sort of test in exam papers that are called Reading Comprehension tests, although they are really tests of half active, half passive knowledge of vocabulary.

You will normally find an instruction like this:


Choose the word or phrase to fit each blank which best completes each sentence.


Here are four sample questions:


1 My landlady was very when I had my bicycle accident.

A merciful

B pitiful

C sympathetic

D hearty





2 The receptionist to ring another hotel to see if they had a room.

A offered

B suggested

C recommended

D invited





3 I assure you I have no wish to my responsibility.

A shirk

B refuse

C abandon

D disobey





4 Has there been any on the strike from the government?

A reaction

B comment

C response

D criticism



Filling in blanks - Technique


If you have not prepared well enough for this sort of test, examination technique will not, I'm afraid, help you very much. In almost all questions you will either know the right word immediately, or you will not. If you do not, then you must not waste time thinking about it. That will almost certainly not help. Just guess, mark your answer sheet, and go on to the next question.

If this sort of test is combined with other sorts of test in the same exam paper, give less time proportionately to this test than to other parts of the paper. The point is that even if it carries a lot of marks, you can do it far faster than most other tests.

But always answer every question, however uncertain you are. You will lose a mark if you leave a blank, and you will lose a mark if your answer is wrong. So put something -you have a one-in-four (maybe sometimes one-in-five or six) chance of getting it right if you close your eyes and use a pin. (This also applies in the type of comprehension test dealt with above.) You are throwing away marks every time you leave a question blank.

In a few questions, however, you will find that a preposition, an infinitive, or some other grammatical detail will tell you what the right word is, so watch for that sort of pointer.

There is, in fact, one little trick you can use when you get into difficulty. I explain this below in connection with question 3.

In the end, though, we come back to the importance of preparation for this type of test. Reading is the easiest way to learn about what is one of the most important aspects of vocabulary: what words go together with what other words, and what words are used in this or that real-life situation.


Filling in blanks - Answering the questions The answers to the four questions above are as follows:


1 C

This is a fairly typical question, where you know the answer or you don't. The remaining three questions are not typical in that I have chosen them specially to illustrate particular things you can bear in mind when you do such tests.


2 A

The infinitive 'to' with 'ring' makes 'suggested' impossible. The use of 'suggest' here would be a classic mistake of students of English. 'recommended' and 'invited' would need 'me', 'us', or some other suitable pronoun or noun.


3 A

This is an example of where you might use the trick I referred to above, if you get into difficulty. If you are not a native English-speaker you very possibly know all the words except 'shirk'. Let us say you are fairly certain that all the other three words are wrong. So choose 'shirk', even though you don't know it. You will probably be right; you obviously must' be right if you 'know' the other words are wrong! And in any case, you have nothing to lose. So, when in doubt, choose the word that is new.


4 B

'on' is the key word. 'reaction' and 'response' would need 'to' and 'criticism' would need 'of'.



Multiple choice - Listening Comprehension


Just as you need to prepare for Reading Comprehension by reading a lot, so you need to listen a lot to prepare for Listening Comprehension. As with all types of test, you must practise it too. Try to get hold of practice tests and cassettes. The questions are organized in more or less the same way as the Reading Comprehension multiple choice tests.

However, you will have to use a slightly different technique from the one I suggested for Reading Comprehension. In the Listening Comprehension test you must look at the questions first, before you hear the recording, because it is important to know what sort of things you are going to be asked about, so that you can listen out for them when you hear the tape. In this test you cannot examine the text! But still try to concentrate on the base questions, as you listen to the tape, and use them to lead you to the right alternative. Don't let your listening be guided by A, B, C, D.

As in the Reading Comprehension, don't worry about new words you do not know. As always, think about the context and the real-life situation that is being described.



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