How to test and teach detailed comprehension

Summary: How to test how much students understand of a reading or listening text and make sure they understand more next time.

Almost all textbook and supplementary listening and reading texts include detailed comprehension questions like “What was the cat's name?”, “The man was happy with his present - True or false”, and “The man ____________ the gadget before he sent it back”. The often come after general understanding tasks and before vocabulary exercises and/ or opinion questions on the text. They are also the main part of testing reading comprehension in tests, including placement tests and well-known EFL exams like FCE and IELTS. 

Common kinds of detailed comprehension questions include:

-       Multiple choice

-       True/ False

-       Correcting statements

-       Questions to answer

-       Gapped sentences to complete

-       Matching statements to people speaking/ paragraphs/ things mentioned etc

-       Matching sentence halves

-       Yes/ No/ Not given

-       Summary writing/ Summary completion

Detailed comprehension also comes into tasks which might seem to be focussing on other things like putting sentences or paragraphs into gaps in the text, working out what reference expressions refer to, and even versions of language exercises like open cloze.

A good detailed comprehension questions stage should:

  1. Really test comprehension

  2. Focus on the most important things for students to understand

  3. Be challenging but possible for the students

  4. Include the right number of questions and take the right amount of time

  5. Tie in well with stages before and after

  6. Be done outside class if at all possible

  7. Usually be done individually (perhaps with comparing of answers after)

  8. Only be done if necessary and only if it will really teach students something useful

  9. Really improve students’ ability to do the same task again, and preferably also improve their ability to do detailed comprehension tasks and understand texts in detail more generally

  10. Be based on specific information in the text

  11. Include some variety

    1. Really testing comprehension

This is more difficult than it might seem, with many students becoming experts at answering comprehension questions without really understanding during school, TOEFL preparation classes, etc. A typical way of doing this is to use different words in the question to what is written in the text, but you’ll need to make sure that:

-       The language in the question is easier than the language in the text (because otherwise it turns into a test of comprehension of the question)

-       It really does mean the same thing (difficult as there are few pure synonyms in languages)

-       Students can’t guess that something (e.g. one of the options in multiple choice) isn’t the correct answer just because it has the same words as the text 

2.   Focusing on the most important things for students to understand

There are two kinds of things in texts which might be important, language and information. The language could be vocabulary, grammar, linking expressions, reference expressions etc that you think are worth teaching, plus with listening texts pronunciation points such as minimal pairs, intonation, and changes in pronunciation in rapid natural speech such as elision. The most important information is usually that which is necessary for the rest of the lesson, but it could also be information that could be useful to students outside the classroom like language learning tips, travel information, and cultural information that students should know when they live with a host family.

3.   Making it challenging but possible for the students

This is probably the most difficult thing to do, and maybe the thing that most impresses me about textbooks given how often I mess this up! What can really help is being conscious of what you are testing comprehension of (vocabulary, grammar, referencing, linking, cultural knowledge, paragraphing, etc) in every question and so being able to guess what things students might have difficulties with. It can help with this to actually underline the possibility difficulties in the question and text and label them on your copy of the lesson materials, e.g. underlining the word “slack” and writing next to it “positive and negative connotations”.

4.   The right number of questions and the right amount of time

You could easily spend an hour on making sure students understand everything in a text, and even focussing on language or information that might be useful might only cut it down to 25 minutes or so. It’s therefore usually a good idea to set an amount of time for this stage and number of questions that you are aiming for before trying to come up with questions. Around eight questions and five minutes (plus checking as a class and maybe in groups) is usually about right. If things which are really necessary would make it much longer than this, it is usually best just to have a second detailed comprehension stage with a different kind of task (as is common in IELTS and textbooks like Headway). 

5.   Tying in well with stages before and after

The most important aspect of this is making sure the language and information that students check their understanding of is useful for the following stages, e.g. that they need to understand who actually broke the vase and why before they start talking about who was really responsible in the discussion questions stage.

Next stages that tend to tie in well with detailed comprehension tasks include:

-       Opinion questions like “Do you agree with the writer about…?” and “Which of the arguments about… is most convincing, in your opinion?”

-       Adding information to the text, e.g. extra sentences about the topic after online research

-       Summarising, e.g. deleting unnecessary detail

-       Criticism of the text as a piece of writing, e.g. finding internal contradictions

It can sometimes be useful to explain what the next stage will be before students start the detailed comprehension stage so that students know why they are answering the questions.

It is also possible to combine detailed comprehension with other stages. For example, students could guess if the things in the detailed comprehension questions are true before reading or listening, then do this task straightaway. The general comprehension stage can be done after, or indeed not at all – especially in practice for exams where students often don’t have time to try to understand in general before starting on the detailed comprehension questions.

6.   Doing detailed comprehension questions outside class

Textbooks and CELTA-style lesson plans seem to assume that detailed comprehension questions will be done in class, but if at all possible I prefer to let them be done at home. For example, a typical reading-based lesson with one of my classes would consist of

i)             Doing speaking related to the last lesson and/ or homework

ii)            Lots of lead-in for today’s text

iii)           General comprehension tasks in class

iv)           Detailed comprehension and other similar exercises like vocabulary exercises done in their own time at home, sometimes checking their answers with the answer key at home, sometimes with the answer key in class, or sometimes as a class.

We then do discussion questions etc in the next class. The advantages of this approach are:

-       Not wasting class time on something rather boring and silent

-       All students being able to complete the task in their own time

-       Students being able to remember the content and language of the text better by coming back to it three times (in two lessons plus homework)

Exceptions to this format include:

-       Students who spend too much time on such tasks (especially in exam classes) and so need to be trained to speed up

-       Students who look up far too many words with a dictionary and so need to be taught to read more quickly without one

-       Times you want to check how students are doing such tasks, e.g. to lead onto discussion of ways of reading

-       Classes who can’t be trusted to do the homework

-       The first time you use a particular kind of task, especially a tricky to understand one like True/ False/ Not given

Although I do this more rarely, leaving detailed comprehension of listening for homework can also often be done too now that many textbooks include all recordings with the student’s book and much supplementary material used in class is available online for free. The main reason I do this less often than with readings is that checking answers as a class is a good chance to play small extracts for things like extra sounds in linked speech, something that doesn’t seem natural when students have already looked at the tapescript or listening over and over until they got all the answers right at home. In a similar way, if I want to do exercises like shadow reading afterwards, it is usually better to do detailed comprehension tasks in class.

The main advantage of setting detailed listening comprehension tasks to be done at home is that it can make students aware that they can listen to things at home and maybe go through the technical work necessary to do so, e.g. going through the effort of putting mp3 tracks from the textbook CD on their portable music players or smartphones. When I do so, I tend to ask them to play through without stopping at least twice before pausing and replaying to check trickier answers, look at the tapescript when they are fairly sure of their answers, then listening and read at the same time, before listening again to register how the things that they now understand are pronounced. I also suggest listening to previous recordings from class, sometimes reading and listening, as often as they can bear.

It is always worth discussing how the experience of doing the detailed comprehension questions was in the next class, especially as this can lead onto useful discussion of reading/ listening tactics and other useful practice at home.

Another way of using the questions outside class is with a text that is mainly for other purposes such as presenting a grammar point or prompting discussion. In those cases, I tend to get to the discussion or language analysis straight after the general comprehension task(s), letting the students go back to the text for detailed comprehension during homework if the text is also worthwhile for those purposes.

7.   Doing detailed comprehension questions individually

Perhaps because of a fear of silence in class, some teachers get students working on detailed comprehension questions together straightaway. This makes little sense to me, and you certainly wouldn’t do it in real life situations like contract negotiations, book clubs, creative writing classes and business meetings. It can be useful to get students to compare their answers in pairs or small groups before listening again or checking as a class, as this can give them a chance to consider their answers more carefully. However, I wouldn’t do this every time either, especially when the pairs are very mixed in listening or reading level and so one student will gain little from it.

With listening, it is rarely useful to get students to check in pairs before checking as a class, as they have no evidence to refer to if they don’t agree with their partner. However, it can be useful between the two times students listen to something so that weaker students get some idea of what to listen out for the second time.

8.   Only doing detailed comprehension tasks if necessary and if they will really teach students something useful

Rather than replacing bad detailed comprehension tasks, my response nowadays is often to replace them with a task where students are tested on their detailed comprehension while doing something else, e.g. preparing an argument for or against the position in the text. See below for more of these kinds of alternative tasks.

9.   Really improving students’ ability to do the same task, do detailed comprehension tasks and understand texts in detail

This can consist of helping students:

-       Learn predicting content from the photo, caption or headline before reading

-       Learn skimming and scanning skills

-       Learn guessing vocabulary from context

-       Learn to understand fast natural speech, e.g. elision

-       Learn how to pick out the more important (usually stressed) words from fast natural speech

-       Build up their vocabulary, especially that which is likely to come up in future readings such as journalese and academic vocabulary

-       Teach them about how texts are structured, e.g. the most important and usually most topical information coming first in English newspaper articles

-       Teach them how linking expressions/ signalling expressions can give them clues as to where information is and what it means

-       Teach them how to answer particular tasks, e.g. crossing out wrong options in multiple choice questions or understanding the difference between “False” and “Not given”

The last one is only really important in exam preparation classes, as your own comprehension tasks should be finely graded, and of course you shouldn’t try to trip them up and trick them! With such exam classes, the best activity is probably to get them to write tasks for each other, preferably after having given them a list of real tricks that examiners employ to help them write authentic looking questions.

The things above which are probably taught most often is reading skills like skimming, scanning and guessing vocabulary from context, either in separate tasks or by building those things into the detailed comprehension stage. However, we need to be realistic about this, taking these considerations into account:

-       Students will need to understand at least 90% of the surrounding text to be able to guess vocabulary from context, and will often also need signalling expressions like “Although many people think that…, in fact…” to help them

-       You can only scan for words which stand out from the text, e.g. long words, words with capital letters and figures. It is difficult to combine this skill with rephrasing the question so that they can’t answer it just by picking out words without understanding. This rephrasing also makes it difficult to scan in reading exams such as IELTS.

-       It is not clear how teachable skimming and scanning are, or if they need teaching in students who already have those skills in L1

-       Skimming practice needs to be tied in with discussing the structure of texts, as skimming is most usefully done by reading each paragraph until you are sure what the topic is and then switching to the next one

10. Basing it on specific information in the text

This basically means that students should be able to underline something in the reading text or listening transcript which has the answer to the detailed comprehension task in it, usually somewhere between half and two sentences. This should usually be at one specific point in the text, but can sometimes need students to combine information from two different places.

11. Including some variety

As well as mixing up the kinds of tasks which are mentioned in the introduction above (gapfill, matching tasks, etc), you can mix up:

-       If the questions are in the same order as the text or not

-       If there is one or more kinds of comprehension task

-       When the detailed comprehension stage is

To give an example of the final one, it is possible to get students guessing the answers to detailed comprehension questions first, moving straight onto reading to check. They can then do tasks testing their overall comprehension of the text afterwards.

Alternative comprehension tasks

Many of these are actually much more realistic than answering questions on a text – something we rarely experience outside the classroom. Most of these are easier with reading texts or listening transcripts than with actual recordings.

-       Spot the differences between the texts, e.g. two different stories on the same story, e.g. one written just after the news broke and one weeks, months or even years later, or one tabloid and one broadsheet, or one from two different political viewpoints

-       Write a summary

-       Write a response to the text

-       Find internal contradictions, e.g. a hyped headline and/ or introduction which isn't borne out in the rest of the article (incredibly common with modern websites)

-       Improve on the text by editing it down, correcting factual errors (e.g. in an old article or something about their town or culture), adding extra information, etc

-       Use the text as a model to produce something similar, e.g. a recording of their own anecdote on a related topic

What to do with existing comprehension tasks

Textbook detailed comprehension questions tend to be good in terms of really testing comprehension and being well graded, but typical problems include:

-       Being boring

-       Not being combined well with stages, e.g. being followed by a long vocabulary stage that means it takes ages to get to the final communication task.

-       Not much variation in task types

Detailed comprehension questions for online materials such as news lessons and locally produced self-study books often just seem to be there to use up space on the page and lesson time, with little thought put into any of the points mentioned in this article.

Should the detailed comprehension stages turn out to be inadequate in any way, the options are obviously to:

-       Scrap detailed comprehension stages

-       Scrap other stages because they that don’t tie in with the detailed comprehension stage, e.g. using the true/ false comprehension questions as the lead in and scrapping the vocabulary pre-teach and general comprehension question

-       Adapt, e.g. shorten

-       Replace

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Written by Alex Case for

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