TeachingEnglish
How useful are comprehension questions?

You may well ask me “How useful is the question in this title?” After all to check what a student has understood after listening to or reading an L2 text seems plain common sense. If it were not felt to be a sensible procedure why would course book writers supply comprehension questions in large quantities?

Teachers’ comprehension questions
Comprehension questions are a part of an EFL teacher’s arsenal that few people would regard as controversial. In ordinary conversation, in L1, it is quite normal to ask a comprehension question if you are unsure about what the other person has said. You might break into what they are saying and hypothesise: “Oh, so, do you mean that……?”

So, clearly, comprehension questions are a normal part of discourse. The difference is that, in normal conversation, it is the listener who decides to ask the speaker for clarification when he fails to follow what the other is saying. In the EFL class it is an external authority (course book/teacher) that initiates the comprehension checking.

When you come to think of it this is a very bizarre procedure: How on earth does a course book writer in North Oxford know where the linguistic difficulties in a reading passage will lie for a 16 year old in Cairo? Or a university student in Bangkok or a senior citizen in Hamburg?

One might reasonably expect that the undertow of Egyptian Arabic, Thai and German might affect the three learners differently in terms of their ability to comprehend the same passage.


Student comprehension

My first suggestion is that comprehension questions are the business of the students and no one else. One good way of dealing with a reading passage in class is to ask the students to read the text twice and then write 7 questions, each one aimed at a different, named classmate. The students themselves know, better than the teacher does, which classmate is likely to be able to give them an adequate answer. Once each student has written at least four questions, ask them to move around the room asking their questions and listening to the answers.

  • This procedure is respectful of the students’ right to find out what they feel they have not yet grasped.
  • This procedure links the course book passage to real people in the room.
  • This procedure reduces the teachers’ preparation time (if she is in the habit of creating her own comprehension questions.)


Deletion, elaboration and transformation
Yet there are other deeper reasons for doubting the usefulness of the comprehension question in second language reading and listening. The comprehension question is based on the notion that a listener or reader is a sort of CD-ROM that accurately holds the entire in-coming message. This can never be the case. The normal act of listening or reading is always one of deletion, elaboration and transformation.

  • The listener/reader will defocus from details that strike them as insignificant. These details will be deleted from the listener/reader’s memory.
  • The listener/reader will elaborate the text as it hits the auditory circuits of her brain - if she is listening to a story the elaboration will often be visual and the listener will create her own ‘inner film’.
  • In some cases the listener/reader will transform the text by framing it within previous experiences.


For example, I once told a group a tale about a wall girdling a town and the theme of the story was ‘fear’. One listener perceived the whole story in the political framework of the Berlin Wall and its breaching. This person ‘heard’ a much bigger story than I think I told.

Such deletion, elaboration and transformation are a part of the normal, everyday creativity of listening and reading. When I tell a story to 25 students my auditory text is replaced by 25 new texts in the students’ minds. It seems to me very bizarre to go back in time and ask my students language questions about the now ‘dead’ Mario text. Actually I would suggest that such questions are an insult to the students’ inevitable creative elaboration of the original text.


Alternatives to comprehension checking

So what can I do after telling the class a story? I can offer the students questions that help them explore each others’ elaboration. I ask the students to go through the questions below and cross out the ones they do not relate to. Once this deletion is effected I pair them and ask them to use the questions they have retained to get an idea of their partner’s elaboration. Here is a set of such questions:

  • In which sort of country did you imagine the story?
  • What kind of pictures did you get as you listened.
  • Did you create a sort of film from the story?
  • Were you ever actually in the same space as the character in the story?
  • What feelings did you have during the telling?
  • Did you become any of the characters?
  • What, for you, is the moral of the story?
  • Did this story remind you of other stories you know?
  • Did any of the characters seem like people you know?
  • Can you think of someone in this group who may have disliked the story?
  • Would your brother/mother/daughter/father like this story? Why would they like it?
  • At which point in the story did you really start listening?
  • Which was the most vivid bit for you?
  • At which points in the story did you drift off and think of other things?


The list of questions could be much longer and more detailed, but you will notice they all focus on the students’ elaborated text and on their reactions to the text. None are about details of the original text.

“Very nice” I can hear some readers saying” but what if the students did not understand the language during the telling?”

My answer to this is that the teacher/teller needs to make sure she gets her meaning across by using mime, drawing and L1 glosses on words or phrases that may be hard for students. It is the teller’s job to ensure language comprehension as she tells, and I believe minimal, disciplined recourse to L1 is natural in this situation.


Conclusion

By the time you get to this point in your reading, the lines you have read will have undergone deletion, elaboration and transformation in your mind. As you get up to get yourself a coffee and think back over these lines, you carry in your head your own unique reading of this text. Thank God you are a normally creative reader and not a tape-recorder with the ‘Record’ button down. Do I really need to write comprehension questions on your behalf?


This article was originally published in IATEFL Voices Newsletter, Issue 204, Sept-Oct 2008.

Average: 3.8 (81 votes)

Comments

carladelia's picture
carladelia

i've attended some courses on READING SKILLS and I believe the key for a good reading class (especially for beginners) is to focus on the context. Having a good pre-reading activity also enables the student to feel more confident during the reading activity itself. Whenever students hear the word READING they imagine something dull and not very productive, so it's the teacher's role to build up his confidence and interest by getting him involved with the text.!

Excellent! 

Carla D'Elia - English Teacher

Mario Rinvolucri's picture
Mario Rinvolucri

Dear Carla,

                 You mention focusing on context. Please be more explicit. How do you actually do this and with which age group? I guess you have a number of ways of getting context explored. I guess we can learn from you.

                 You suggest that the word READING sounds dull to the students......and yet kids today do huge amounts of screen ( big and tiny) reading that was not an option for me when I was little in the 40's of the last century. There seems to be a sort of paradox here.

 Warmly yours,      Mario

carladelia's picture
carladelia

Dear Mario,

 

Thank you so much for the reply. Exploring the context really varies according to the age group you teach. For instance, when I'm working with adults, I generally brainstorm the topic, use images, infer knowledge from them. When I teach teens, I like to get the as involved as possible, so I prepare a pre-reading activity that may explore their cultural background (if Im working with a text on technology, i may actually get them to survey their classmates for gadgets they generally use and what they use them for). In a nutshell, I try to use the student's or the group's background to be able to add relevance to the reading activity.

Concerning the paradox you mentioned.. you definitely have a point in saying that. Children and teenagers read more than they actually imagine (on TV, sites and so on). It's just that many children here in Brazil think of READING as a dull and mandatory activity. I've been trying to change that by giving them fun assignments that involve lots of reading, though they imagine they are merely playing a game.

Best Regards, 

Carla D'Elia - English Teacher

Harsh Kadepurkar's picture
Harsh Kadepurkar

I find the discussion interesting and useful, particularly for teachers and teacher trainers. Yes, we have been using comprehension questions almost all over the world and it is necessary to see if they continue to be relevant and useful for students. The alternatives you have suggested are very good. I shall be happy to experiment.However, I have a few questions for discussion. 1. We need to make a difference between teaching questions and testing questions. I think that asking students to frame questions and asking them to address these questions to their classmates would go well with teaching questions. By teaching questions, I mean the questions that teachers use in their classes to find out if students have followed what the teacher is trying to teach. By testing questions, I mean the questions that teachers have to frame for a test, a class test or a formal exam. I do not know how the alternative you have suggested can work here. I mean how to go about it, its practical implementation.2. For testing questions, I have something to share with you all. A variety of questions have been tried out. For example, close ended objective type questions, open ended subjective type questions and so on. One interesting observation with all these types of questions is that they all fall into some pattern or the other and students somehow manage to find their way out. And the basic objective of testing their ability of comprehension is not achieved. What is the way out?Harsh Kadepurkar14      

Mario Rinvolucri's picture
Mario Rinvolucri

Hi Harsh,

Thank you for your contribution above. Testing, to my mind, is a really difficult area. When you test what do you want to find out? Let's take a word. What do you want me to show you about my knowledge of it? Let's take the word "dodo" in French: do I need to show you that I know its gender? Do I need to show you that I know it is a baby-language word? Do I need to show you I know its denotative meaning? Do I need to show you I know what it collocates with? How about its register and the typical text type where it might often occur? [ "dodo" is a baby word for "sleep" in French]

Let's take a more complex text above word level: how about a bit of ee cummings?

yes is a pleasant country

if's wintry

(my lovely)

let's open the year

both is the very weather

(not either)

my treasure

when violets appear

If you are testing me on this tiny text ( no very hard vocab items) what do you want to find out? What am I supposed to KNOW?

What am I supposed to FEEL?

How much am I meant to notice about the form of the poem?

Might I suggest that testing the comprehension of another person is a very dicey business.

What, for example is your comprehension of this sentence: Obama has won the US election ? To understand this I need to have a huge understanding of your political thinking and your associations with the words "Obama", "US" and "election".

Sorry if I have offered you more questions than answers.

Warmly yours, Mario

Rob Ledbury's picture
Rob Ledbury

Thank you Mario for your interesting article and others for the stimulating discussion that follows. While I agree with your suggestions to see this from the students' perspective, I wonder if you have any tips for dealing with longer, drier academic texts.

Materials I use (and subsequent "comprehension" tests) frequently ask students to find the "main idea" in a text, part of a text. I have some personal difficulty in finding this slippery "idea". So, I believe do students.

Does anyone have a definition for "main idea" and suggestions as what reading skills students are practising while searching for said "main idea"?

Rob, Izmir

iriselina's picture
iriselina

 Hello Rob,

I taught English for Theology for 26years to Post -Graduate students.This is academic English and very abstruse at times. I took recourse in I.A.Richard's tools of analysis though I simplified it a lot to: Meaning, Intention, Tone and Style and first showed a sample in class using poetry. I used Emily Dickinson and Blake.

My justification  for using poetry was that  the Bible is Literature too and my students did a lot of interpretation of Texts as such. (they studied Hebrew and Greek too)

By splitting between Meaning and Intention and Tone much was made clear to them.

 Later, they applied this to writing Book Reviews too and claimed to have understood Reading now. The skills being applied are critical reading or reading with discrimination

I wonder whether this would be accepted by others.My students loved it.

Iris Devadason

Mario Rinvolucri's picture
Mario Rinvolucri

Dear Iris,

                   Good to hear you voice from around the curve of the earth! Thank you for contributing. May I ask you a couple of questions?

in your classes who defined meaning, you or your students?

                             If the author was dead who defined intention?

These may be naive questions but I believe they are fundamental.

Warmly yours,

Mario

iriselina's picture
iriselina

Dear Mario,

I am honoured to hear from you as I have used your books with great results.I'm referring to 'Once upon a time' ... where the poem on Lazarus was open to various interpretations and my students did a great job providing meaning.( ..and I enjoyed correcting their work too.Takes away from the monotony of getting yor own version back umpteen times!)

I always allowed them to offer opinions as long as they could reason why and offer evidence from the text. As for authors being dead..that is the whole point  of  this exercise......all  interpretation of biblical texts is challenged this way and apart from the exegesis the sts did in class, every Sunday preachers do offer their own versions of biblical text dont they?

I had the privilege of teaching  Advanced English  to PG sts , some of whom had done English Literature earlier,  (a minority) but to those from simpler backgrounds too  (the larger group) this was very useful as they had never been "invited" to offer opinions in their prior studies at the undergraduate level. This was an important  dimension to their learning experience .....thinking aloud, thinking creatively and supporting their views.I taught in a liberal theological college where free thinking was encouraged.

A polish poem translated by W.H.Auden was a great success as the poet hardly explains  anything  and we are expected to provide all the details.The opening lines are ,

'Every railroad station has a book of complaints" etc ...

"If Eternity had a book like that", ...etc  

 but ...

"How we would be struck by that entry of half  a line,

 written by that woman who ,

 slumped against the railings

was crying in the park last night".

What Meanings and Intentions I received!!

What a lot of discussion was generated in the class!

In the context of ESP:Theology these are not at all naive questions , but absolutely essential.

Thanks very much  for replying

Iris Devadason

paula_bello's picture
paula_bello

Dear Mario;

I would like to greet you. I am Paula Bello from Argentina, the new guest teacher in the site. I would like to tell you that I found your article very interesting because I share your views. One of the most common reading comprehension exercises my students have been doing for years (and I think most of students elsewhere) have been comprehension questions in which they should repeat exactly the same words and ideas they have read in the text. I acknowledge that my students have been very successful in doing these kinds of classwork, but for these last month of classes before holidays I have planned a rather different task to do with one of my groups. They are 13 years old and they have read a short text about Hamlet’s story in their student’s books. They have already learnt about Hamlet and Shakespeare at school, therefore they can understand very well what the story is about. Consequently I have designed a new kind of task, similar to those you present on your article. The students are going to work in groups and each will have to choose one of the following tasks in order to show their understanding of the text and the story behind it.

Tasks:

v Write the letter Ofelia would write to Hamlet asking for clarifications as regards his strange behaviour.
v Write the actual dialogue between Hamlet and his father’s ghost and act the scene. (They don’t have the original version of the play)
v Write the actual dialogue between Hamlet and Laertes and act the scene.
v Write a newspaper article narrating the story of King Hamlet of Denmark and his family.
v Create a computer game with the story, including fights, dialogues and deaths in order to sum up point to win the game.
v Write a comic strip with the story.

There are surely many more tasks that can be accomplished based on a text and a well known story as this one, so teachers elsewhere are welcome to add up more proposals to the list provided.

Kind regards to all,
Paula Bello
Argentina 

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