Sunday, 7 December 2014

Comprehensive comprehension questions

I have always had a sense of cynicism about comprehension tasks. I suppose it stems from my mistrust of textbooks. My PGCE course subtlety trained me to start from scratch every lesson. Therefore, textbooks always seemed like cheating, when they are far from it.  Likewise, comprehension tasks had always nestled in the forbidden zone of my teaching toolbox, due to their close association with text books. I might have occasionally used them in a moment of weakness, but I had always insisted that students wrote longer, lengthier pieces of responses to a task. Respond to this question. Find an example of this.

Recently, I have been playing around with comprehension tasks and… have started to really appreciate their usefulness. I take my hat off to you, if you have constantly used them as the foundation of your teaching. My previous wariness has been caused by a fear that I am practically guiding students too much in their analysis. At times, I have thought that if I gave students a comprehension task it was like me writing the whole thing for them. I always thought it as akin to an Art teacher giving a student a colour in by numbers sheet or a Music teacher giving a student a karaoke DVD.

I have been preparing some classes for the GCSE English AQA paper. On the higher paper, the questions are like mini-essays. Getting students to find the right style and approach to each question is difficult. Less able students often struggle with the vast nature of the task. The vagueness of the question doesn’t really help students to write precisely too. In fact, you need a number of different thought processes in your writing at once. One single question doesn’t help you.

Take question 2: Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text.

Students read this question and often zoom in the word ‘effective’. The following answer becomes an experiment of how many times the word ‘effective’ can be used in a short space of paper so that the word loses all sense of its meaning. Unfortunately, the question needs more from students – some of it not even hinted at in the question. The most able of students do this without any fear, but the less able struggle. Enter the comprehension task.

1.     List three emotions the reader feels when reading the headline and subheading. (3 marks)

2.     Pick two words from the headline that the writer has chosen to interest the reader. (2 marks)

3.     Give a reason as to why the writer chose one of those words. (2 marks)

4.     Find three quotes in the text that show that the Tyrannosaurus is fearsome or something to be feared. (3 marks) 

5.      Explain why the writer chose that picture to go with the headline. (5 marks)


Start your writing with the sentence: The writer selected the picture to show…

6.     What do the following things in the picture show / suggest / symbolise?  (6 marks)

a.     The people

b.     Teeth

c.      Bones

Use the phrase: The ----- suggests that …

7.     Explain why the writer did not use a cartoon dinosaur for the main picture. (2 marks)

8.     Pick a quote from the article that best sums up the picture. (2 marks)

9.     Explain why the quote from question 8 links to the picture. (2 marks)

10.                        What words best describe the tone of the article? Pick three words to describe the tone. (3 words)

11.                        Describe what the reader is supposed to feel / think during these three points.  (6 marks)

a.     When they see the headline and the picture

b.     When they read the text

c.      After they have read the whole text

This example refers to the exam paper about Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The great thing, for me, about using this with students is that I can see what aspect of the question they struggle with most. In fact, they can see where they struggle the most, because each question links to a different part they have to include in the final ‘big’ question. Usually, I give them the exam question and watch them get it wrong. Or, I give them a great example and show them what it should look like. Both are difficult for students.  

I used the above with a class recently and I found it very interesting. All the class got to question ten and then they struggled or stopped. Why? Well, they had found the idea of a newspaper having a tone difficult. Then one student piped up: What words can I use to describe the tone of a newspaper? I usually have to look at the carnage the whole class produces before deciding on what to teach out of the long list of things they all got wrong. It is like Pandora’s Box: once you start the task you are working to constantly fix everything.  This approach to the question helped me from the start to pinpoint the weaknesses and strengths. Plus, I didn’t need a silly APP grid to spot that they had issues with offering suggestions about the lack of cartoon or how the struggled to see the symbolism of people in the picture.

The next task with these comprehension questions is to turn the comprehension answers into a full exam response to the question. Students are going to turn that into a piece of writing. They have the components and now their skill is to weave them together. Or, look at how other students have weaved things together.  The comprehension task is part of the planning which necessary for students to have the meat on the bones in their writing. I am planning on using this ‘comprehension then write’ approach for essay writing on a novel. Too many times we plan the majority of writing for students. I am all too guilty of saying the following: Of course, you can plan it whatever way you want, but, if it was me I’d plan it this way. It is to be hoped that this approach allows me to direct the thinking without actually providing the content.

What is the defining moment in the novel?

What lead up to the moment?

How has the writer presented the moment in a dramatic way?

What does the writer want us to think as a result of these consequences?

At a recent conference, someone asked me about getting students to think for themselves.  All too often I have used collective planning for writing. I have shared ideas. Students have shared their own ideas. Then, students have been able to plagiarise the ideas. In fact, I think there are large swathes of students that plagiarise their way through school, because things are handed to them on a plate. And, maybe, I have been part of that problem. I am certainly going to use comprehension tasks to build original ideas and thought. If students know that they have to comprehend first, then write second, they might just build into independent thinkers. If they don’t get a point, then the questions point that out to me and I can direct my teaching.

Things to think about with comprehension questions:

·         Start with a find question first to engage students. It is usually easy and it gets the students to read the text.

·         Pepper the list of comprehension questions with several find question throughout. It provides students with several questions they can do and it avoids the usually thing of questions getting harder and harder.

·         Manipulate the question so that there isn’t a clear gradient. Think about how students will approach things. If they know things get harder, they will probably stop completely when they get to a hard question. However, the opposite is the case with very able classes. It becomes a challenge to them.

·         Start with precise question and move to general questions, so you move from concrete thinking to abstract thinking.

·         Reflect the complexity of the question in the marking and not in the position of the question in the list.

·         Allow for a general mop up question. An opportunity that allows a students to point out something else they might have found and you haven’t thought of: What else is interesting about the extract?

·         Provide opportunities for students to offer opinions.  

·         For less able students, offer example sentences or phrases to help develop their explanation.

·         For less able students, write how many sentences needed for the answer.

·         For less able students, use a PowerPoint slide for each question and help students to time their thinking and writing time.

Oh, and on a final note. Look at the answers students provide. The following is a question I used for some revision of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. To ensure students revise the book at home, the class are having a weekly reading test. A quick comprehension task based on the weekly reading at home of five chapters.

What is the first item found in the tree by the children?

Answer: two pieces of chewing gum

Incorrect answers: a toy, a marble

I have always stressed to students that they must examine the writer’s choices, but that one comprehension question has allowed me to explore the writer’s choices with the class. Two pieces of gum highlights how Boo wants to be friends with both of them. The gum relates to the mouth and it can stop people from talking. Gum is often disliked by parents so it is slightly rebellious. Look at the other items suggested by the class. Why didn’t Harper Lee select those items? They are all items that a child can play with on their own.

Talking of Harper Lee, I must plan a lesson for tomorrow.  

Thanks for reading,


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