Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Many of the commercially available reading tests often have some questions which are poorly written, so poor that it is unclear as to what the questioner is getting at. These ambiguously written questions can hardly help children to develop their ability to understand what they have read, nor can they be a useful assessment of what they understand. The problem is that asking good comprehension questions that make sense to children is really difficult – it’s an art we have to practice, and that we might not always get right. But what can we do to ensure that we provide the best questions possible in our reading lessons?
Choose Texts Carefully
Before thinking about the questions, you need to select the text carefully. If you know that you want to practise a particular reading skill then the text you choose needs to support that. For example, there would be very little point in choosing an instructional text to teach and practise inference skills. That is an extreme example, but it makes the point - make sure the text you choose supports the skills you want to teach.
Of course, sometimes you might select a text and the focus of that lesson will be simply understanding the text as a whole - in a lesson like this you wouldn't want to focus solely on teaching one particular skill, you'd want to ask the necessary questions which really ensure that children are reading for meaning.
Even the most experienced teachers run the risk of asking superficial and poorly-worded questions if they have not pre-read their text and planned out the questions they are going to ask. The tendency also is to ask low-level literal questions (retrieval) rather than any other kinds of questions which probe deeper into a text. Write down the questions you want to ask.
At this point I should point out that when I refer to writing good comprehension questions I don't necessarily mean questions that will be presented to children in written form. The questions that you write might only go as far as your planning sheet - in an actual lesson they will be questions that you pose orally. The same goes for the answers that children might give - they could be written or oral.
Use SATs Question Stems
One thing I would have to say in favour of the SATs is that at least they are well written and to a proficient reader the answers, however difficult, are not ambiguous. Sometimes perhaps the mark schemes are a little narrow, and children don’t get marks when they clearly have shown understanding, but that is not to do with the way the questions are asked.
We can learn how to write better questions by studying the KS1 and KS2 tests but unfortunately not all teacher in all year groups are familiar enough with them. Several useful documents have been produced containing the question stems from the most recent tests:
AP Literacy: https://apliteracy.com/resources-2/reading/
Herts for Learning: https://blogsdothertsforlearningdotcodotuk.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/2017-reading-paper-question-stems.pdf
Primary English Education Consultancy: http://primaryenglished.co.uk/resources/
The questions in the documents above are organised into the different content domains – for an easy way to remember these content domains, please see my blog on the Reading Roles.
Use Different Response Formats
Many comprehension activities set by teachers are in the simple form of a written question. A quick flick through a test will provide plenty of other ideas for how to present questions:
Multiple Choice (tick or circle)
Ordering Events by Numbering
True or False
Some examples (the colours and symbols here relate to the Reading Roles):
It is well worth creating a word document that contains some pre-made questions like this to copy and paste each time you create a reading comprehension activity. I have downloadable and editable examples available in my resources section:
Although not featured recently in tests, not in their strictest form anyway, cloze tasks are a good way to test reading comprehension. When creating a cloze procedure it is best to remove words that are crucial to the meaning of the original text that children read. Cloze procedures can also include a multiple choice element if the line for the missing word is followed by a choice of several words for children to choose from.
In their book Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension, Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain and Carsten Elbro recommend true/false, multiple choice and cloze task questioning formats, but point out that the different formats lend themselves better to different question types. For example, true/false judgements are better for retrieval questions, whereas a multiple choice question might help children to recognise an inference that can be made from what they have read.
Research shows that presenting questions in a true/false format is also good for children for whom English is an additional language. Click here to read more on this.
Focus on a Particular Skill
The temptation is to just ask the first questions that come into one’s head when reading the text intended for the reading lesson. This is fine for a summative assessment (that mixture of question types and skills is how the SATs are presented) and for understanding a text, but isn’t great for teaching children specific comprehension skills. If children are only ever presented with a scattering of questions across the content domains there is little opportunity for deliberate teaching and practice of particular skills such as inferring, summarising or predicting.
Most lessons should focus on one skill; sometimes a whole sequence of lessons will be focused on the teaching and practise of one skill. I have written more about how to break down the different kinds of inference so that they can be focused on in lessons: Questions To Ask When Teaching Inference-Making
There are several ways to do this so that you support children. I have written a lot about scaffolding inference by first asking vocabulary and retrieval questions, but there are other scaffolding structures, too.
Here's an example of scaffolding inference:
Before being able to make plausible predictions children might first need to answer relevant questions about vocabulary, they will then need to be able to retrieve information and make inferences based on them – prediction is a form of inference.
In order for children to answer questions about author’s purpose they might need to first answer well-crafted questions about vocabulary, retrieval and/or inference.
Similarly, in order to summarise information children may need to go through the process of answering relevant questions about vocabulary, retrieval, inference, author’s purpose before they can give an accurate summary of a text.
When writing sequences of questions like this it is a good idea to start with the final question you want children to answer, and to work backwards from there – the children should be able to draw on all the information they have given in previous questions to answer the final question.
To read more about potential scaffolding structures click here: http://www.thatboycanteach.co.uk/2017/12/scaffolding-structures-for-reading.html
Give Relevant Information
Don’t leave children searching forever for the place in the text where they might find their answer. Give them pointers such as:
Look at this sentence:
Look at the paragraph beginning
At the top of page it says…
Even the tests provide this sort of information. Children cannot demonstrate their comprehension skills any better without this information, although by giving no such clues children may practise their scanning skills.
Checking Your Questions
Once you have written your questions it is a good idea to either get another teacher to have a look through them, or to return to them later and read them with fresh eyes: Do they make sense? Is it clear what the answers should be? Do they need re-wording? Ask yourself these kinds of questions and edit accordingly - you don't want children to be turned off answering the questions due to a lack of clarity.
As Oakhill et al point out in 'Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension', it is important to check that the questions you have written actually check comprehension of the text. They outline how some questions could be answered using prior knowledge solely, without reference to the text at all.
Pie Corbett made a few salient points to me on this issue which I'll use to conclude:
"You have to be able to find a text worth reading then design questions (or focuses) that challenge and begin to deepen thinking. It is worth thinking about questions that are worth asking and ones that are not worth asking."