Reading tasks: 3 pitfalls to avoid

Most of us like to use authentic, non-coursebook, hot-off-the-press texts in class from time to time. This entails not only choosing interesting, level-appropriate material, but also devising tasks that will enable students to get as much out of the text as possible. Writing good comprehension questions is trickier than meets the eye, though. Here are three pitfalls to be on the lookout for:

1. Questions that students can answer using background knowledge alone

Some students tend to operate on a minimum-effort basis. Left to their own devices, they will read as little as humanly possible – just enough to complete the task. Here’s an example of what not to do:

Read the article. Mark a-c true (T) or false (F).
a. Steve Jobs was born in the United States. ___ 

b. Once he was fired from Apple. ___

c. The iPhone has had a huge impact on the phone market. ___

Most adults and young adults know a lot about Steve Jobs, so they will probably be able to mark T or F without using the information in the text.

So, here’s the first tip: When writing comprehension questions, make sure they require students to actually read the text. If you find it hard to come up with questions that can’t be answered based on schematic knowledge alone, maybe you’ve picked the wrong text (i.e., one that’s devoid of surprising, thought-provoking facts).

2. Questions that give the answers away

Sometimes we devise questions that inadvertently reveal the correct answers. Here’s an example:

Scan the article. What do a-d refer to?

b. 5,200
c. 80mph
d. 123,000,803

[  ] The speed at which John was driving.
[  ] The number of mobile phones sold last year.
[  ] The number of crashes caused by texting last year.
[  ] The increase in the death toll.

Some students will try to choose the right answers using the information in the task itself: % = increase in… / mph = speed / 5,200 = plausible number of crashes. So, next time you write your own scanning questions, try to answer them without referring back to the text. If you can, chances are your students will do the same.

3. Questions that ignore the students’ L1

When you choose a text to use in class, no matter what reading subskills and strategies you focus on, at some point you will probably feel the need to zero in on some of the new vocabulary. Here’s a popular task type you’ve probably used before:

Read the text again. Find words and expressions that mean:

__________: extraordinarily large in size, extent, amount, power, or degree.
__________: easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally
__________: to provide what is needed for something to exist or continue.

Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. […] There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her. And then what sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. (Taken from The New Yorker)

The words are tremendously, vulnerable and sustain, which German or, say, Chinese intermediate students may be unfamiliar with. Speakers of Portuguese, however, will probably understand these words, which means that the matching activity is pointless. Also, it might create problems that were not there in the first place, since some of the definitions are more challenging than the cognates themselves (e.g.: harmed).

Keep in mind, though, that if you’re teaching these words for active use, you will need to help students with pronunciation (VULnerable, vulNERable or vulnerABLE?) and collocation (“What else can be sustained?”) as well.

Thanks for reading.

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Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

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