Creating effective reading tasks

In my previous post, I looked at the whole idea of reading tasks and the arguments for and against using them. One conclusion I came to is that, ideally, tasks should bear some relation to the kinds of processes we would use when reading in real life contexts.

There are some quite simple task types which will work for a lot of texts. For example, setting up the topic (using pictures perhaps, or the title) and then asking students think of questions that they would like answered about the topic. Alternatively, ask them to write down what they expect to learn and then read to check their ideas.  This kind of approach has the obvious advantage of no preparation, and is very close to what we would do in the real world.

Similarly, with different kinds of texts, particularly factual ones, we can set tasks which require students to scan and find particular bits of information. Classic examples are small ads, tv listings etc.

More typical comprehension questions,such as we see in EL exams, tend to test what the question setter sees as the main points of the text. Of course, in real life, we are able to decide for ourselves what the main points are, which means that pre-set questions are intrinsically somewhat inauthentic. The format of typical question types can also be rather inauthentic, of course. While at IATEFL this year, I saw John Field, talking about listening, and he made the very valid point that when carrying out multiple choice questions, we are asking students to do something much more complex than simply listen for information. As well as listening for the information we require, they also have to pick up on the distractors and discount them, a sophisticated process.

Some traditional question types are closer to real world reading than others. For example, multiple matching, which is becoming a very popular exam type question. This is a task type which can work very well with short texts. In a comment on my last post, ESL Notes, asked about a possible reading task for these very short tasks (death by twitter). I think multiple matching is ideal for these kinds of texts. For example, for theseparticular texts, you could ask ‘Which text is about a fuel related tragedy?’ ‘Which text tells us about a possible miracle?’ (maybe a rather depressing lesson though? 😉 )

Form completion, note completion and summary completion can also be quite realistic, depending on the students’ context. Form completion is important in an ESOL context, note and summary completion are skills needed by students studying in the English medium.

Other tasks are not necesssarily realistic, but do have a definite value in terms of the skills they teach. For example, matching headings or summaries to paragraphs, which encourages students to read in such a way as to grasp the main point of each paragraph. Incidentally, although it isn’t foolproof, it is worth pointing out to students that the main point is often in the first sentence of the paragraph (the topic sentence).

I am also quite keen on tasks where students have to put in missing sentences or even paragraphs, as these really help develop awareness of how texts are constructed. However, they are quite difficult to construct as you have to make sure that there are very clear clues which guide them to the right answer.

This is the first part (there is more text and more gaps) of an example from Real Life Advanced, an Upper Secondary book, published by Macmillan. The original article is here.

Mark Boyle, 31, gave up using money in November 2008. He lives in a caravan that he got from Freecycle, an organisation which matches people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them, and so keeps usable items out of landfills. His caravan is parked at an organic farm near Bristol, where Boyle volunteers three days a week. He grows his own food, has a wood-burning stove and produces electricity from a solar panel (it cost £360 before the experiment started). He has a mobile phone for incoming calls only and a solar-powered laptop. Boyle, who has been vegan for six years, set up the Freeconomy in 2007, an online network that encourages people to share skills or possessions and now has 17,000 members. His book, The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, is out now.

 1_______________My friend and I were talking about all the problems in the world, such as sweatshops, global warming, factory farms, animal testing, wars over resources. I realised they were all, in their own way, connected to money.

2_______________I sold my houseboat in Bristol and gave up my job at an organic food company. I made a list of everything I bought and tried to figure out which I could get in another way. For toothpaste I use a mixture of cuttlefish bone and wild fennel seeds. Things like iPods you just have to knock off the list, but birds in the trees around my kitchen have become my new iPod.

Everything takes more time and effort in a moneyless world. Handwashing my clothes in a sink of cold water, using laundry liquid made by boiling up nuts on my rocket stove, can take two hours, instead of half an hour using a washing machine.

It was meant to be just for a year but I enjoy the lifestyle so much that I’m just going to keep living like this. 3________________

I had a very normal childhood. I think at first my parents wondered what on earth I was doing. But now they totally support me and they say that they may even try it themselves.

A I’ve never been happier or fitter.

B Just being a vegan cuts down the number of women I’m compatible with, never mind being moneyless.

C It all started in a pub

D My girlfriend isn’t that keen on my lifestyle though.

E Sometimes it is frustrating trying to socialise with no money

F I decided to give up cash.

The answer to the first gap is ‘C’. This is clear if you understand how narratives work- that we start by giving the background- where he was, what he was doing. The second gap is ‘F’- this relates back to his conversation- it was the result- and to the fact that he realised that the problems were all caused by money (relates to cash). It relates forward to the impact of his decision. The third gap is ‘A’ and relates back to what he says about enjoying his lifestyle. (‘D’ might also be possible here, but it is clear from the rest of the text that he doesn’t have a girlfriend).

Multiple choice and true/false are perhaps the most artificial task types. True/false also has the disadvantage of being pretty easy to guess. However, they are also the most common in exams, which many of our students will need to take, so it is perhaps worth giving them practice in these task types for that reason alone. Some tips for writing these types of questions:


  • Don’t use the exact language in the text- paraphrase.
  • Make sure there is only one idea in each statement, so that students aren’t likely to think it is partially true. For this reason, keep statements short.
  • Make sure there is roughly an equal numbe of T/F answers, and be careful not to create a pattern (e.g. T then F then T)

Multiple Choice

  • Paraphrase as above.
  • Make sure all the choices are plausible and can’t be guessed or answered through general knowledge (for example, a well known piece of ESOL material which asked largely Muslim students about what Ramadan is)
  • Don’t make the distractors (the wrong answers) too complex. You are testing what’s in the stem (the first part of the question).
  • Make all the choices a similar length if possible, and don’t make the correct answer the longest or shortest.
  • Make sure the answer isn’t always ‘C’ etc.

Whatever task type you use, in the spirit of demand high teaching, I think it’s always a good idea to devote some time to exploring why students have chosen particular answers. What in the text led them to that conclusion? This will not only prevent guessing, but will, I think, actually go some way towards developing their ability to tackle texts.


Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials

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