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Concourse 2

Assessing reading skills


Time was when almost all language testing relied, at least to some extent, on assessing reading comprehension and this is still the case.  Many public examinations devote whole papers or parts of papers to assessing reading.  Even when a test item does not target reading comprehension, some ability to comprehend and act on the instructions in the task rubric is being assumed and tested.

One issue is that all assessment of reading skills has to be indirect.  When someone speaks or writes, there is a discernible and assessable product.  Merely watching people read tells us nothing about the level of comprehension they are achieving or the skills they are deploying.  This means that test items have to be carefully targeted at the skills we have identified as important for the group of learners we are concerned to assess.

We can, of course, test some underlying skills discretely.  For example:

and so on.

However, before we do any of that, we need to define what reading skills we want to test and why.  For more on the subskills of reading, see the guide to understanding reading skills (new tab).  The following is premised on the fact that you are familiar with the content of that.


The aims of the teaching programme

All assessment starts (or should start) from a consideration of the aims of instruction.  With reading skills, however, it is notoriously difficult to identify specific skills in reading which are linked to specific purposes for doing so.  An argument can almost always be made that the following are key macro reading skills whatever the setting, whatever the purpose and whatever the topic and text type:

  1. Scanning a text to locate specific data is required:
    1. by general readers to locate items of interest in, e.g., newspapers and websites or something as simple as a bus timetable
    2. for academic purposes to locate the part of a paper, article or book which focuses on what needs to be learned or cited
    3. in the workplace to make the identification and absorption of data efficient and focused
  2. Skimming to obtain the gist is needed:
    1. by general readers who simple want to get the gist of a text and don't need detailed understanding
    2. by students to judge whether a paper, book or article is relevant to their studies and current concerns
    3. by busy people in their occupations so they can judge whether something they are reading is relevant or ignorable in part or whole
  3. Identifying the stages of a text using generic knowledge is required:
    1. by general readers looking for the circumstances or outcomes of, e.g. a news story or anecdote
    2. by students to find the parts of the text which present the data or the concluding arguments quickly without reading every word
    3. by people in the workplace to allow them to locate the data they need in, e.g., a report

Underlying these three macro skills are a number of micro reading skills without which few texts can be understood.  These will include, for example:

  1. Identifying pronoun referents
  2. Using context and co-text to infer meaning
  3. Understanding the way writers in English explicitly signpost, e.g., conclusions, introductions, examples and justifications
  4. Recognising how conjuncts, disjuncts and adjuncts are used to link ideas, reveal attitudes and modify phrases
  5. Recognising grammatical signals concerning time and aspect to understand the setting
  6. Unpacking complex nominalisations and verb phrases to understand the essential participants in a sentence
  7. Understanding enough of the lexis to read the text with adequate understanding


Three basic tenets

  1. We have to use assessment tasks which focus on the kinds of texts the learners will need in 'the real world'.
  2. We need to design tasks which accurately show the learners' ability.
  3. We need to have a reliable way to score the learners' performance.

These three factors are to do with ensuring reliability and validity.  For more on those two concepts, see the guide to testing, assessment and evaluation.  The rest of this guide assumes basic familiarity with the content of that guide.
Fulfilling all three criteria adequately requires a little care.


Identifying text types

The first step is to find out what sorts of texts the learners will need to access.  This is by no means an easy undertaking, especially if the course is one in General English (also known as ENAP [English for No Apparent Purpose]) when it is almost impossible to predict what sorts of texts, for what purposes the learners may one day need to access (see below for a generic check-list of skills).
On courses for very specific purposes, it is easier to identify the sorts of texts the learners will encounter and the purposes to which they will put them but there is no related set of subskills that we can identify with confidence that will allow them easy access to texts in particular topic areas although we can look at the genres of texts and identify key language areas to focus on.  For example:

Genre or text type Is often staged ... Examples include Containing
RECOUNT Orientation > Record of events > Reorientation > Coda an anecdote, an excuse for being late, a funny thing happened to me on the way to ... Time and tense markers, circumstances (when, who with, where etc.), material and behavioural verbal processes
NARRATIVE Orientation > Complication > Resolution > Coda a novel, a short story, fables, parables, jokes Time and tense markers, circumstances (when, who with, where etc.), material and behavioural verbal processes
PROCEDURE Goal > Materials > Sequence of steps recipes, manuals, maintenance instructions Behavioural verb imperatives, lists of nouns, quantifiers and adverbials of manner
INFORMATION REPORT General statement > Description (ordered information by sub-topic) encyclopedia entries, text book sections, reports of experiments/studies Relational verbal processes, tense markers, causal conjuncts, exemplification, graphical representations of data
EXPLANATION Identifying statement > Explanation of stages of a process web pages like this,  explaining processes Material verbal processes, circumstances of time and place, sequential markers, passive forms
EXPOSITION Statement of position > Preview of arguments > Arguments + evidence as examples > Reinforcement of position political pamphlets, leader columns in papers, letter to the editor Modal auxiliary verbs of obligation and advice, attitudinal or content disjuncts, material and behavioural processes, future forms
DISCUSSION Issue > Arguments for > Arguments (reversed or combined > Optional statement of position academic texts, student essays, histories Passive forms, modal auxiliary verbs of possibility / likelihood, behavioural and material processes, circumstances of place

When we have done some analysis of the structure and likely language content of the typical texts certain learners need to access, we can design discrete item, indirect tests of their ability to understand the staging and content of the texts.
If any of the above mystifies, try

the guide to genre which is an overview of the area and considers the seven text types identified above
the guide to circumstances which considers how verbal processes are modified
the guide to verbal process which considers the kinds of events and states that verbs encode
the general guide to assessment and evaluation which focuses on reliability, practicality and validity among much else concerning test design
All these links open in new tabs.


A general reading-skills check-list

It may be the case that you find yourself teaching General English rather than English for Specific Purposes.  If that is so, you need a general-purpose check-list of abilities at various levels against which to assess your learners' abilities to read.  Here's one:
check list

The abilities and text types are, of course, cumulative.  At, e.g., B2 level, a learner should be able to handle everything from A1 to B1 already.


Designing tasks

Now we know what sorts of thing we want to assess, the text types we are targeting, the purposes of reading, the subskills deployed and so on, we can get on and design some assessment procedures.
There are some generic guidelines for all tasks.
If you have followed the guide to testing, assessment and evaluation (see above), you will know that this is something of a balancing act because there are three main issues to contend with:

  1. Reliability:
    A reliable test is one which will produce the same result if it is administered again (and again).  In other words, it is not affected by the learner' mood, level of tiredness, attitude etc.
    This is not too challenging area in the case of assessing reading because the test items are fixed and repeatable.
    We do need, however, to be aware that very long reading texts are unlikely to target skills individually and may overwhelm learners who are otherwise good readers of certain text types.  A range of short tasks focused as far as possible on micro skills is a better way forward in most circumstances.
    Assessment, too, is often repeatable and double or triple marking can be used to raise reliability.
  2. Validity:
    Two questions here:
    1. do the texts represent the sorts of texts the learners are likely to encounter?
      For example, if we set out to test someone's ability to read academic materials effectively, we need to ensure that the topic area is valid for them.
    2. do we have enough tasks to target all the skills we want to assess?
      For example, if we want to test the ability to use context and co-text to infer meaning, do we have a task or tasks focused explicitly and discretely on that skill?
  3. Practicality:
    Against the two main factors, we have to balance practicality.
    It may be advisable to set as many different tasks as possible to ensure reliability and to try to measure as many of the subskills as possible in the same assessment procedure to ensure validity but in the real world, time is often limited and concentration spans are not infinite.
    Practicality applies to both learners and assessors:
    1. for learners, the issue is often one of test fatigue.
      Too many tests over too short a time may result in learners losing commitment to the process.
      On shorter courses, in particular, testing too much can be perceived as a waste of learning time.
    2. for the assessors, too many time-consuming tests which need careful assessment and concentration may put an impractical load on time and resources.  Assessors may become tired and unreliable.


Examples may help

Say we have a short (150-hour) course for motivated B2-level learners who will need to operate comfortably in an English-speaking culture where they will live and work.  They will need, therefore, to be able to read and understand a wide and unpredictable range of texts so we need to focus our assessment on generic, recognisable reading skills.
We have around three hours of the course earmarked for this assessment.
What sorts of items could we include, bearing mind reliability, validity and practicality?
Evaluate the following ideas, based on these principles and then click on the eye open to reveal some comments.

Give the learners a long news article from a newspaper and set multiple-choice questions on its content

eye open
  1. This may be a test of comprehension in a general way but it doesn't help us to know which skills are being deployed.  One learner may understand the article drawing on extensive vocabulary, another may be using context and co-text and other clues to understand.  We just don't know so the test lacks construct validity: we don't know what we are testing.
  2. A single text may not appeal or be interesting for some of the learners whose lack of commitment to the task may affect their performance.

On the positive side:

  1. If all we need is a general estimation of the learners' reading abilities, this is a familiar and easily set up procedure.
  2. Imaginative use of variations in question setting can make the assessment more valid and reliable.

Give the students a range of 5 short texts to read, each targeting a different skill:

  1. A text containing a couple of words only understandable by using inferencing from co-text.
  2. A text containing too many unknown items for more than gist to be recovered.
  3. A text written to be persuasive and clearly showing the writer's attitudes and opinions.
  4. A text setting out a set of instructions for using a mystery gadget.  The task is to identify the purpose of the gadget.
  5. A severely abbreviated short email written carelessly by someone in a hurry.  Inferencing from topic is required to understand the thrust.

Then interview them to see how much they have really understood.

eye open
  1. The interview is the weakest link because it will require some subjective judgements and some assessors may be more skilled than others in probing for understanding.
  2. The feedback is oral and this will benefit learners with strong speaking skills so they are not all being assessed fairly.
  3. The tasks will require careful and time-consuming planning.
  4. Care has to be taken not to penalise the subject for poor speaking skills.

On the positive side:

  1. The tasks accurately target real subskills.
  2. There is a good range of skills being tested.
Give the learners either:
  1. two reading texts on the same subject written from opposing points of view.
  2. two version of a recount of an event (e.g., a road accident seen from the newspapers reporter's point of view and in a witness statement to the police).

Ask the students to summarise, in writing, the similarities and differences between the two texts.

eye open
  1. This requires a written response so favours learners with good writing skills.
  2. It's quite time-consuming to prepare.
  3. It is limited in terms of topic area and not easily altered to suit ESP concerns.
  4. Care has to be taken not to penalise the subject for poor writing skills or low grammatical accuracy.

On the positive side:

  1. Comparing and contrasting points of view is a key EAP skill.
  2. A written response can be carefully and reliably marked.
  3. Carefully designed with needs in mind, it can be a very valid test of the ability to read intensively for full understanding.

Designing anything in life involves striking a balance between competing priorities.

The kind of evaluative thinking that you have used here can be applied to any kind of assessment procedure, regardless of topic, level and task types.


Other reading-skill assessment task types

It may be that your circumstances allow for a very simple reading tasks such as those requiring the learners to answer multiple-choice or other comprehension questions such as sentence completion tasks or tasks requiring the selection of appropriate re-wordings.  This kind of test can be done in the classroom or elsewhere.
Those are all legitimate tasks providing the task type and content suits the purposes of assessment.
There are other ways.
No list can be complete, but here are some other ideas for other ways to set reading tasks for assessment purposes.  The content of any task will of course, depend on all the factors discussed so far.

  1. Scanning tasks
    These tasks always require longer texts but the task itself can be graded even if the text is ostensibly beyond the learners' level.  Just finding dates and times in an otherwise complex text is a good test of the ability to scan and ignore the unnecessary.
  2. Compare and contrast tasks
    house 1 house 2
    See above for an example of this task type.
  3. Matching tasks
    Getting people to match a short text to a picture (or series of similar pictures where only one represents the content of the text) is a good test of detailed understanding.
  4. Multiple-choice tests
    These tests can be carefully targeted on particular items in the text to test the ability to read for detail, infer likely meaning of lexemes and understand tense relationships and so on.  They can also be targeted at the ability to unpack complexity and figure out the subject and object of verb phrases.
  5. How to ... stimuli
    In these tests, learners may be required to read instructions and carry out tasks according to what they understand.  Popular topics are origami and following directions to locate something.  They can be motivating and intriguing tests.
  6. Labelling tasks
    In these tasks, the learners are given a diagram of something fairly complicated and asked to match the descriptions of various labels (A, B, C ...) to the parts of the diagram that the text refers to.
  7. Identifying referents
    These tasks are finely targeted at getting learners to identify what words such as this, that, it, they etc. refer to in the text.
  8. Synonym and hyponym finding
    In these tasks, learners are given either a synonym, a matching definition or a hyponym and asked to locate in the text a word that matches the definition, is a synonym in this context or a hyponym of the hypernym they have been given.  E.g., An owl refers to a type of ..., Another word for 'baby bird' is ...etc.


Measuring outcomes

If you can't measure it, you can't improve it
Peter Drucker

Unlike writing and speaking tests, in which holistic, impression marking can be done, reading tests are normally marked analytically.
This involves breaking down the tasks and being specific about the criteria you are using to judge success.  Any amount of weighting can be applied to whichever of the micro skills you judge to be most important.
Normally, the results of a reading test are permanent in some way (short answers, multiple choice responses and so on).  Even the success of a 'How to ..' task (above) can be objectively marked.  This means that marking can be objective (and the test is reliable, to that degree) but, unless the test items target recognisable and definable micro skills, validity is always problematic.

The summary


Related guides
assessing listening for the guide
assessing speaking for the guide
assessing writing for the guide
assessment in general for the general guide
the in-service skills index for associated guides