Reading One Question at a Time
Teaching reading at any level brings its own unique challenges. Aside from choosing an interesting topic, we have to be concerned with the text complexity, i.e., vocabulary and grammatical structures present in the text. However, teaching intermediate and upper intermediate students brings another challenge: assessing student comprehension and higher-level skills, such as their ability to make inferences and think critically. Students also need help understanding the questions they are being asked, and I have recently begun to focus more on helping students unpack reading questions.
I’d like to share with you an activity that I’ve enjoyed doing in my reading classes since I learned about it at the ORTESOL conference last fall. The presentation was given by two teachers from the American English Institute at the University of Oregon, Karen Ulloa and Amy Griffin.
In this activity, students work in pairs to read and answer questions, one at a time, about a printed text that has been broken up into paragraphs and distributed around the room, e.g., taped on the the walls. The fact that students get questions one at a time is important because this allows them to focus on understanding the question well, and it gives them a chance to receive teacher feedback on each question. Students can also try to work on the question again without just being told the answer, which happens often in reading activities involving the whole class.
Planning this activity begins by selecting the text you would like students to read in class. I find that choosing something that can be broken up unto cohesive paragraphs works best. This is important because you will want students to be able to answer questions from a paragraph that stands on its own. In other words, you don’t want students to have to have read the whole text to be able to answer a question about a particular paragraph.
Here’s an example using text from one of my favorite resources as a teacher, DreamReader. This is a site designed by two teachers in Japan who share free, high-quality, reading materials with questions, vocabulary worksheets, and recorded audio.
There are traditional records for competitions such as weightlifting or the longest time spent playing video games. Guinness World Records used to publish records for smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating but they have stopped because they are afraid that this is unhealthy for people. Guinness World Records also publishes facts such as the highest paid actor (Johnny Depp), fastest jump rope (Megumi Suzuki), and the smallest country in the world (Sealand). Many records are also about the youngest person to do something. There is also a record for the person holds the most records such as Ashrita Furman of New York, who held 100 records in 2009.
Q: List one fact and one opinion found in paragraph 5
For a fifty-minute class with my intermediate level class, I write about 12 questions. Including a brief vocabulary and context warm up activity, these many questions will take up all of the class time.
To make the activity a bit competitive and easier for you to manage, you will want to photocopy each set of 12 questions on different colored paper. So if you have 7 pairs of students, you will need copies of your questions on 7 different types of colored paper. Once you’ve copied them, cut the questions in strips and give one question at a time.
Each pair of students will always get questions printed on paper of the same color. Since students will work at a different speed, keeping questions separated by color is helpful so you don’t end up giving them a question they already answered. In the picture above, you can see how I have all questions divided into two. The top row had questions students had already answered, and the questions on the side hadn’t been given to students yet.
The best part of this activity is that when students come up to you with the answer to their question written on their question strip, you are able to give them specific feedback on whether they got it right or what they are missing. I’ve also noticed that I get more questions from students who might otherwise quietly not understand the reading questions and just copy the answer from a partner. Perhaps this is because they’re asking you about it only in front of their partner as opposed to the whole class.
I’ve only done this activity a few times since last fall, but each time I’ve done it, students have been engaged and have worked well with one another when it comes to discussing the answer to each question. In my current teaching context, this activity also gives students a chance to practice answering questions similar to the ones they will be asked on high-stakes tests, which should make the formative assessment practice more valid.
Let me know if you try this activity in class and how it goes! Also, if you have any questions about the way it’s done, or would like for me to share some materials, send me a message in the comments sections. I’ll be happy to help!