Assessing reading, or what?

Following on my “what is reading” post last week, here is an idea as to how to assess reading. We were instructed to design three “test items” for a given text to test “reading”, whatever we understood that to be. So I designed one multiple choice item and two others. The multiple choice item, in the instructor’s view, did not contain the “correct” answer as one of the options. Rather, apparently, I had misunderstood the sentence in the reading text “There did not seem to be a reason other than, perhaps, (…)” to mean “There was no obvious reason”. In my view I had translated the hedging “perhaps” into the hedging “obvious” and therefore I still allowed for the possibility that there was a reason.

So, reflecting on that difference, I came up with another way of testing reading comprehension, suitable, of course, only for classroom assessment: Learners are asked to design two or three multiple choice questions with one key and two distractors; they then “pilot” these on two or three fellow students. If these are able to answer the questions correctly, there is a good chance that both students have understood the reading text; if not, they will have to negotiate the meaning of the question/answers and possibly of the original text, and hopefully learning takes place. Of course, this tests more than one learner, and more than one construct. But it provides a basis for negotiating the meaning of a text, for trying together to extract details, with learner involvement.

One of my own items was “Write a title for the text, summarising the main point (no more than 10 words).” This also tests more than one construct, since it tests reading and writing, and depending on my scoring system, it also tests grammar/spelling. Is it valid to ask such an open question? Or would it be better to provide a few titles to have the students choose from? I think it depends on the context. If we really have to separate the constructs as clearly as possible, the “closed” version would be better. However, in most contexts, especially in classroom assessment, I think my question would be appropriate since it does not ask for a great deal of writing; there are no marks given for the writing being correct; and a choice of possible titles again tests a different construct (choosing) from what I intended (extracting the main point without external clues).

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One thought on “Assessing reading, or what?

  1. I have since used this approach in two ways:

    In my German classes (low-stakes evening classes), I gave my Beginners students very short texts and asked them to write questions about the texts for other students to answer. This was highly motivating for the students, since they felt in control. Following on from this, I asked my Elementary students to design test items for the mid-course formative assessment, which again they thrived on. I then chose from those items, edited them to make them correct and to make it fair for all students, and supplemented my own items for the test with those that my students suggested.

    In my EAP classes, I suggested to a few students who were struggling with preparation for the end-of-course reading exam that they form a study group in which they all choose a text and write a few comprehension questions of the style that would appear in the exam. They could then negotiate the meaning of the text based on how the questions and the answers were phrased. We regularly met to discuss their progress and found that this process helped to read the text in a less superficial way.

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