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?

How useful are comprehension questions? - reading article - guest writers

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.


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.


Submitted by carladelia on Mon, 11/03/2008 - 17:49


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.!


Carla D'Elia - English Teacher

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

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

Submitted by Harsh Kadepurkar on Wed, 11/05/2008 - 00:17


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      

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

Submitted by Rob Ledbury on Sat, 11/08/2008 - 09:50


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

 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

Submitted by Mario Rinvolucri on Tue, 11/11/2008 - 12:47

In reply to by iriselina


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,


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 your 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

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.


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

Dear Mario

I am sorry for taking some time to write back. In fact, I was waiting for others to join in the debate ( if I may call it so). What others have written and what you have written convinces me more than ever about the need of re-visiting the issue of comprehension questions. Your observations are excellent. As I wrote to you earlier I shall definitely try to experiment with these ideas.

However, I feel that we need to consider a number of aspects here. One of them is the learner's competence. If the learner is above average, he/she, perhaps, does not need any comprehension questions. But how about the average and the below average learners? I think that these students need comprehension questions for two reasons. First, not for testing their understanding of the content as such, but for testing if they can express themselves in the language being taught. So for them it is not a test of comprehension, but a test in language ability. Second, comprehension questions are not set just for testing somebody's understanding of the text but also for helping them to understand the text! Comprehension questions offer support, offer clues that may lead them to some understanding of the text. This is particularly relevant with reference to poems. For example, the poem of e.e. cumming will make no sense to the second language average learner, if there is no support in the form of questions, guiding the learner. I have tried this already with e.e. cumming poem: 'anyone lived in a pretty how town'. Unless we draw the learner's attention to the use of the word 'anyone' and ask questions about normally what kind of words are used at such places, why the poet has used this word here, and so on.

I shall be happy to get your response.


Dear Robert,

Nice to hear from you after our meeting earlier in the year in Turkey. I fully agree with you that the concept of a "main idea" is a very slippery and elusive one. It suggests that reading can somehow be "objective", that there can be one correct reading.Let's take a succinct 16th century text:

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard/     it seems to me most strange that men should fear/    seeing that death, a necessary end/     will come when it will come

The undertaker: " despite the credit crunch, I am in the safest of businesses!"

Feminist " Typical of men to get the jitters over something unavoidable"

Believer in re-incarnation: " Surely death is a new start?"

Calvinst: "Only the damned should fear!"

Terminal patient: " I fear precisely because they say I'll die next week"

Though these examples are jokey and a bit silly the point I am making is not. The map is not the territory and no two people read any text in the same way, or, at least, this is my belief. 

Warmly yours,   Mario




Submitted by atanu on Wed, 11/19/2008 - 09:14


Dear Mario

It was great reading your write-up and it really is a sort of interesting way of trying to grapple with this business of comprehension questions. I teach postgrad students in India and comprehension has always been the bane, I tell you. At the end of the day, you grow bald trying to frame them for examinations. Here are a few comments that I thought might be relevant:

a) Going back to Harsh's point, the testing system has to be in tandem with such innovative practices (which in India it is not) since often such activities, though interesting and motivating for students in the classroom, tend to be questioned later when the 'greater' question of the examinations come up. The students would inevitably say after a few days: "It was great fun to do this but really...what would be the questions like in the final examinations?" How do we tackle this?

b) I guess, it has also to do with the lack of comprehension of comprehension questions on the part of the testers themselves: they often test grammar and not 'comprehension' per se. Par exemplum...The Barzog glazed across the drok. And the question would be 'What did the Barzog do'?

c) Comprehension questions are possibly part of testing at all levels in India in all contexts. So training testers to new innovations in testing on such a large scale (we are talking of millions) is ...well...impossible. Though, I know, that your write-up is more on classroom interaction, we need to find ways to carry forward what happens in the classroom to the testing arena as well. I don't know how that would be possible with the suggestions that you have made.


Submitted by Rania Jabr on Tue, 11/25/2008 - 07:30


When giving a four page article for my first year university students to read, they seem overwhelmed at first. But after systematically going through skimming and scanning questions (for details of who, what, where, when) they are ready for higher level thinking skills, like analysis, inference, and writer's tone questions. The gradual shift from the specific to the general understanding of content is key. Rania

Submitted by Rod Bolitho on Fri, 12/12/2008 - 12:17


Dear Mario and readers,

 This one is close to my heart. It reminds me of your splendid 'Revenge Questions' activity in Once upon a Time. 

I'm quite certain that if you let learners ask the questions about a text they have read, they will read it and understand it at a far deeper level than if they just answer the questions that someone else wants to ask.

There's an activity on this coming up on my blog.



Dear Mario,

First of all, thanks for your article. I agree with you in some aspects, however in others I am sorry to tell you that I do not agree.

I mean, I completely agree with you in some statements that you have done such as in your sentence "clearly, comprehension questions are a normal part of discourse." This is an advantage we have when we are communicating among others or listening to something. Of course, this advantage, children also have it but it is more difficult to find it in other languages different from the mother tongue.

The problem is that students sometimes don't understand the reading and this is why, the questions that we propose are also difficult for them to understand. Perhaps we weren't always able to make the questions appropriately for their age, so your statement "My first suggestion is that comprehension questions are the business of the students and no one else" is not true for me. It is important to choose the correct questions to help students understand them. Teachers have to take into account some items like the level of their students, the vocabulary of the story, if the content is useful for the objectives, etc.

Another thing that I consider very important is that teachers have to connect the story with aspects that include the students because doing this we can know if they are understanding the text or not. For example if a story is about animals you can ask them: “who has any animal, do you like animals?, have you ever seen a…?”

This is all, regards. 

Submitted by Arun Ganapathy on Wed, 08/14/2013 - 04:09


Dear Mario, I like the idea of students writing questions on a text. Don't you think they would need some training before they do this? Otherwise - and in my experience- they usually end up writing questions that focus on minute details; and which don't really help their classmates understand the meaning of a text. Your thoughts on this? Cheers, Arun

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