Friday, 26 July 2013

Comprehending Reading Comprehension Tasks

My previous blogs on reading have caused some arguments about the nature of reading. I have had, primarily, English teachers arguing that you can never divorce enjoyment from reading. I have even had people supporting me by explaining how some children used functional reading first, and then succeeded to progress onto reading for pleasure later. I love reading for pleasure and enjoyment, but it isn’t always the sole purpose for reading and I feel that we mask some purposes by this need, and desire, for enjoyment. Do we read a train timetable for enjoyment? Do we read television guides mainly for enjoyment? Do we read the Yellow Pages for enjoyment? Nah, we read them to get information. That's what reading is mainly about.

Our relationship with reading texts is amazing really, when you think about it. Recently, I gave an assembly on reading and I used the characters of Biff, Chip and Kipper and explored how they have a lasting legacy. Pah, who needs the Olympics when you have ‘Biff and Chip’ books? I just have to mention them to a Year 7 and 8 class and they go all misty eyed and emotional. Show them ‘The Hungry Caterpillar’ and they blub and demand to have their childhood back. There is something magical about books and how we feel about them. They create a legacy for readers. They change the emotional state of people. They take people back in time. They do so much. I even have my own books that do that. I read ‘Meg and Mog’ books to my daughters and I unlock, as I read, the memories I had as a young child of reading this book. I am, of course, mainly talking about fiction books. They hold the magical key that takes reader on an emotional journey.

What about the other texts that got me here today? What about the non-fiction texts of my past? Well, to be honest, I can’t remember them. I can vaguely remember the French Tricolor textbook or the David Waugh Geography books, but that is because I have this bizarre brain that remembers odd bits of information and dumps the most important stuff, like my age. I can’t remember the textbooks I used in Science, RE, Welsh (yes, I was taught Welsh at school), Maths, and even English. I don’t have this lasting legacy with these texts. I don’t even have a lasting legacy with York Notes books, which I should, as they got me out of trouble when doing essays as a teenager.  I remember that I did have a lot of time spent working from a textbook, but I cannot for the life of me recall what they were called.

When I think about literacy across the curriculum and reading, I feel that we need to concentrate on functional reading more and emotional reading less. I am not talking from an English perspective here, but from a teacher perspective.

1) What will they read?

2) How will they read it?

3) How will they react to the reading?

4) How do I know they have read it?

I think that these four questions are the basic reading questions teachers must ask themselves when looking at reading in their classroom. Note: question 3 refers to the emotional aspect and it is just there for tokenism – no, not really. It is there because it might be an issue but it isn’t a major factor in every lesson. You might want to hook students into a particular topic, so you create a sense of mystery, or you might want them to be engaged, so you think of an emotion aspect or reaction that will work to engage them; however, you don’t necessarily use that as a driving force behind the learning. There are often many other questions that take priority over this one question. I think English teachers do think with this question first: I am going to book X because they will love it.

 What they will read?
This will generally relate to the content of the lesson. It could be a text book, a source, an extract or an article. 

It will probably best to identify the function of this reading. This will give the reading purpose, or direction. By relating it to knowledge, this allows students to see the ‘what’s in it for me’ aspect of reading. It could be one of the functions below.

What am I reading for? 

  • Finding information
  • Learning something new
  • Revising my knowledge
  • Developing my knowledge
  • Learning something different about it
  • Exploring how others see it

 Another thing to think about is the level of the writing here. Is the reading material suitable for the whole class? Do you want complex language and writing to stretch students? Or, do you want simple and clear writing to get the concept across quickly to make the learning fast? This is a difficult set of questions, and one that is the heart of education today. Do we simplify to allow for quick learning and progress? Or, do we make things complex to enable high levels of engagement and possibly slower rates of progress? Honestly, we need both sets of approaches, building to the complex.

There are lots of things on websites to test the reading age of a text, but I think people should be wary of this, as I think the reading age of a text is meaningless, unless you know the reading ages of all your students in your class that term. How can you possibly work out the suitability of text using this unless you have a clear picture of your audience?  Reading ages change depending on the test being used. One reading test I came across said that Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ has the reading age of a thirteen year old. An interesting notion. Some schools use this approach for texts and it might be helpful to find out if a text is too easy or too hard, but it doesn’t really help to be precise for your audience.

So, what can you use to work out the complexity and suitability of a text? Personally, I use Ros Wilson’s ‘Punctuation Pyramid’ as a rough guide. Type it into Google and you can get it very easily. It links in with the NC levels (which will soon disappear) and it helps you to guide the reading to the writing skill of a student. You know that if it has colons, semicolons and brackets, then the text is more suitable for a level 5+. It is a rough guide, but it also shows you the quality of writing expected for a 5+ student. It isn’t without its faults, I know.

Look at the sentence length. The longer the sentence, the more challenging the text. This links to the Punctuation Pyramid as they need semicolons and colons to make the sentences long in the first place.

Look at the choice of words. How complex are they? Do they use any academic language? Or, how formal is the writing? A big clue to the complexity can be the level of formality.

Look at the layout and look at amount of images compared to the amount of text. More text than pictures usually equates to more challenging texts. Some textbooks claim to be suitable for a particular reading age, but that, I think, can be misleading. A textbook could have a reading age of a sixteen year old, but it does depend on the criteria used to judge this. Did they ask one sixteen year old if they could read it? Or, did they base it on words? Sentence length? Who knows? 

In a nutshell, judge the suitability of a text on:

·         Punctuation;

·         Length of sentence;

·         Complexity of words;

·         Formality;

·         Ratio of pictures to text.
How will they read it?
This is the million dollar question. How do you get a class of students to read it? I tend to use a variety of techniques and I rotate them depending on my mood. The classroom is fraught with so many problems and issues when it comes to reading something in class. Do you read it out? Do you get them to read it in silence? Do you get them to read it out? If you just focus on one aspect, you neglect some important things. Always read something out, as a teacher, and the student doesn’t practise reading independently. Always get the students to read in silence and you fail to support them in the intonation and expression of words. Always get students to read bits out and you could stop students building the confidence to read independently. When I was at school, I remember some students talking about dreading when a certain student read, as it slowed the pace of things considerably. At the time, I thought: ‘Phew, I am glad it is not me’. Today, I am worried about that happening again.

To overcome this, I get less secure readers to read, but they read less than others, or they have some advanced warning of what they are going to read. Thankfully, I feel that students are genuinely supportive when it comes to reading. Often, you’ll have a student whispering to another how to pronounce a word.

I personally think that reading on a one-to-one basis is the most productive and effective way. My experience in English is eye-opening. Imagine how it could help in History, Science or Geography. Any confusion or misunderstanding can be cleared up at the point of reading; unlike the current situation at the moment: a student waits, if they are brave enough, for a quiet point to ask a question to clarify understanding.

 My five ways to read are:

·         Teacher reads it while the students follow

·         Students take it in turn to read it

·         Students work in small groups or pairs and read it to each other

·         Students read in silence

·         Student reads to teacher on a one-to-one basis.
How do I know they have read it?
This is where I think things get complicated. How do you know if a student has read the text? Good question. You ask them questions. But, do all the questions test the full ‘jigsaw’ of knowledge? Or, do they just test small bits of it? I am going to argue that a lot of our comprehension is based on superficial reading.

Look at text books and they are full of very simple, low-level questioning? Students have only got to find a locate information to get the answer. I have seen ample worksheets in my short teaching career and they all tend to focus on the superficial skills. Don’t get me wrong: skimming and scanning are important skills, when reading, but are they the skills that need to be tested again and again to enable high-level thinking? It amounts, a lot of the time, to copying out large chunks of information. The jigsaw piece is very small. The pieces may be from different parts of the jigsaw, but there is no or little linking, failing to think of the wider picture.

Where is Tom?

What did he do at the end?

What time did he leave?

Gosh, I have been guilty of this kind of questioning. It is easy to do and the students respond well, because it is easy. There’s nothing wrong in the occasional find and locate question, but there tends to be a lot of them; so much that the high-level questions tend to be at the end of a set of questions and students fail to do these far more challenging questions because of all the other low-level questions blocking the way. But, what do we do instead? Ah, well, I am still thinking about that one. I have a skill for spotting problems and failing to suggest easy answers or solutions. What we should be doing is raising the questioning to a higher level? We need to move from superficial reading (skimming and scanning) and move towards deep reading.

In English, we have had for years a few strategies that teachers use to promote some high-level reading. These include:

·         Questioning;

·         Predicting;

·         Visualising;

·         Inferring;

·         Empathising.

They have been doing the rounds for years and have even been used by the Government in their resources. The problem I have with these is that these aren’t necessarily going to help a Science teacher with the reading of lengthy article: draw a picture of the writer of this article.  Think about how he would feel. What do you think his wife looks like? What question would you ask him, if you were trapped on a desert island? They are meaningless in some contexts. They are great when studying a novel, but with other types of reading I think they can be pointless. So, what can we do?

I think we need to look at the tasks set and how we use the reading in particular lessons. If you look at GCSE English, I think you have a stronger framework to base our understanding of reading skills on. For those that are unfamiliar with AQA English Language GCSE, here’s a quick rundown of the exam:

Question 1:  A question looking at explaining the gist of a text.

Question 2:  A question based on exploring the reasons behind a writer’s choices.

Question 3:  A question that makes students think about the subtext of a line or word.

Question 4:  A question making connections between two things.

I have just summarised and simplified the reading section of the exam, but I think it gives people an idea of some of the ‘high-level’ skills that students are expected to demonstrate at GCSE.
1: Summarising (What are….?)

2: Reasoning / Evaluating (Which is the strongest…? Which is the weakest…? Which is the most effective…?)

3: Exploring (digging deeper or reading between the lines) (What does it mean when it says….? What is the writer’s opinion of ….?)

4: Comparing (How does this relate to …? What connects …?)

Added to this there may be these reading skills used:

·         Identifying flaws, contradictions or weaknesses in ideas

·         Identifying different levels of perspective / tone

·         Identify bias 

·         Separate facts from opinions

If I was a teacher in a subject other than English, I would use these as a basis for my questioning. Rather than focus on the previous strategies to promote high-level reading, I’d use these things. I might make my comprehension questions look something like this:

1.       What are the three main ideas for euthanasia?

2.       Based on what you have just read, which side is the most convincing? Explain how you came to this judgement.

3.       What other arguments could be given in addition to some of the arguments here against euthanasia?

4.       From you studies so far, what connections are there between Christian attitudes towards euthanasia and other things you have studied about Christian beliefs?

5.       Do you think the writer supports euthanasia? What evidence have you got to support this idea?

6.        What flaws are there in the arguments presented?

Please don’t start to think that these are real questions. These are just ideas of some possible questions. I think that questioning is where we can best develop and improve the level of reading. We don’t know what goes on in the mind during the reading process, but if we can assess the by-product of reading better, we might stand a better chance of improving their reading skills. I feel that the questioning here would get them to show more of their understanding of a text. They generally avoid copying bits out of a text and they have to concentrate on thinking more, which is, after all, what deep reading is all about.  

I am giving some INSET to staff about reading next term and a lot of the ideas here are experiments. I am looking at some new ways of addressing reading. They are not ‘tried and tested’, but they are me working through things.  I haven’t finished my exploration of reading tasks and questioning; I will hope to blog some more in the next month.  




  1. I am a head of English and I am loving reading this blog - really thought provoking and I'd love to hear how your inset goes (I'm assuming it's all staff?). Thanks for sharing. H

  2. Thank you.Yes, it is for all staff. Hope they see the benefits of rethinking comprehension questions in lessons.

    Thanks Chris

  3. Thank you for being brave enough to discuss how we teach reading - it's such a thorny issue for some! I have also found that when Literacy is in the spotlight, staff and school leaders tend to focus on writing skills as they're more 'visible' and easy to implement. Reading strategies, however, are often something we've internalised and no longer even think about and therefore are more difficult to make explicit to pupils. Then there are those of a Romantic persuasion who believe immersion and enjoyment is the only way. Like you, I believe there should be a mixture of the pragmatic and Romantic approach to reading. Reading for pleasure is obviously important for future success but if they're stuck at decoding and low - level information retrieval, how will we foster this enjoyment? There's something to be said for being so philosophical, you're no earthly good.
    I really like the idea of making the purpose of the reading explicit, as it links with the "What's in it for me?" concept and makes the next step of selecting a strategy easier for pupils who don't necessarily have the reading strategy repertoire internalised. Your list of strategies for other subjects was also thought provoking! I look forward to reading more on this topic!

  4. Thank you. I am glad somebody shares my view. ; )

  5. This is a bit like the chicken and egg situation... what come first? Learning to read or reading for pleasure. The problem is, can you read for pleasure unless you have first learnt to read? Of course you can! There are different sorts of literacies and those students who do not yet have the required skills can still get pleasure out of books without words and picture books. As a school librarian, I'm more concerned with reading for pleasure than learning how to read ... I don't care what students read ... fiction or non-fiction books, magazines, ebooks, long as they engage with reading. Does there have to be a purpose? No !!!! Random reading is quite acceptable.

  6. Thank you for your response. I do agree with you that we should just be happy with random reading. However, I think we have two different perspectives. Librarian. Teacher. You are one of the most important people for creating a love of reading. Parents, friends and teachers do add something to this mix as well. We need libraries and we need people like you to direct, guide and foster a real love for reading.

    My perspective, as a teacher, is about the fine detail and visually seeing what a student does with the reading - the by-products. I would love to spend time, and I do occasionally, reading for pleasure. In the classroom, I think teachers have to balance the function and the enjoyment of reading. Reading is naturally enjoyable,anyway, but I am worried about those that slip through the net. Those students that grow up to take pride in the fact that they have only ever read one book. Reading is such a private, personal and internal experience that we make a lot of assumptions of what a child has read. I love seeing a child engaged and devouring a book, but are they engaged in the pictures in the fact book or are they 'really' reading the text? I know, both can be seen as a type of reading.

    I find the wooliness of reading is both its strength and its weakness. Reading can be everything, but it can also be vast and incomprehensible for a weak reader. My ideas stem from getting those 'non-readers' on board. And in particular - what can we do, as teachers, to help them with the reading process so they read more? Is it solely finding the right book for the right student? If so, why don't weaker readers excel more often? One characteristic of some less able readers is their instance of reading solely one type of text.

    Thanks for the food for thought,



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