Hacking reading comprehension: Part 1 – When to Hack


What this is not

This is not a peer reviewed article. Nor is it a scientific treatise on empirically researched and proven methods of improving reading comprehension. It’s just going to be a list. And it’s a list based on the fact that if you are an educator, you need rough and ready ways of hacking reading comprehension.

You could read like Snoop

Actually, I’m going to split things up. You’ll get the list in the next post as I don’t want to make this too long.

Let’s face it. It’s actually really hard to improve someone’s reading comprehension. Reading is difficult and it takes a long time to see real gains. The problem is compounded if you have to do training or teaching in an environment where literacy gains are becoming more “high stakes”.

Perhaps your learners are tested for reading comprehension improvements. Or perhaps you just want to make sure that your learners actually read AND understand the texts that you put in front of them.

Whatever the case, the Reading Hacks list is offered up free of charge but with no guarantees. Pick and choose. You can let me know in the comments what you think. But first: When should you use this list?

When to use the Reading Comprehension Hacks list in Part 2

Use the Hacks list under the following circumstances:

  1. You have to create reading comprehension questions NOW for a text you use. This is because you want to check your students understand the content. You’re a responsible tutor or trainer. Good for you.
  2. You want to assess what you students actually know. You don’t have much time because your class starts in an hour. You should have done your prep yesterday, but hey you don’t get paid for that right?
  3. You’re doing a professional development course to improve yourself as an educator. Someone has set you an assignment. You have to do some kind of reading comprehension intervention. You don’t want to read someone’s lame text book on how to do this. You don’t have much time and you don’t care about the theory anyway, right?
  4. You’re teaching or designing a course where you need to embed literacy into your particular content or subject matter. This is a great idea. Good for you. If you can embed literacy into your trade or other vocational training you are officially doing “more with less”. You just became a more valuable employee. Don’t ask for a raise though as your boss doesn’t have any more money. She has to do more with less as well.
  5. You want your students to get more familiar with the kinds of questions that they might face in a formal assessment. Just to clarify, this is not to say that you want to “teach to the test”, but it’s more like you want to ensure that people know the kinds of questions and the question formats that they might face. The more familiar they are with the structure of the questions and the kinds of answers, the more likely their test results are going to be valid. If they don’t understand the questions… how can they answer based on what they know about the content? My Reading Hacks list is based on the kinds of questions my learners have to answer. Actually, my learners’ learners as I’m in the professional development field.

How does the list work?

Again, this is non scientific. It’s just my own personal analysis based on several days staring at a bunch of computer generated reading comprehension assessments. Basically, I think there are two broad question types we want to work with. These are:

  1. Identify something. “What year was the company started?”, “How is this list organized”, “Which person has only one item on the list”.
  2. Complete something“New graduates must…”, “The aim of the study was too…”, “The purpose of this text is to…”

And then I think there are about three kinds of responses we want to limit ourselves to. These are:

  1. Choose from multiple choice answers. E.g. Choose from one of four possible answers.
  2. Choose from a forced binary choice. E.g. Choose whether something is true or false, correct or incorrect , or answer yes or no.
  3. Underline or circle something.

There are more response types and question types obviously. But I think it’s useful to set some narrow parameters to make it easy to generate reading comprehension questions quickly and easily. Also, these kinds of restrictions work if you are creating question items on a computer-based learning platform. Computers aren’t clever enough yet to deal with big chunks of text generated by the learners as answers. It’s coming but we’re not there yet.

Finally, I think we need to add one more dimension to make it interesting. This is inferencing. Inferencing is what you do when you can’t get the answer directly from the text. You have to “read between the lines” to get the answer or draw your conclusion. In other words, you have to infer an answer when understanding something that is not stated explicitly in the text. 

So this means our reading comprehension questions can be tagged as follows:

  1. Inferencing required to answer
  2. Answer stated explicitly. No inferencing required.

One more comment on this: You won’t be able to tell sometimes if someone has inferred the answer or they already knew it based on their prior knowledge of the subject. For example, if you ask a question like “What does X mean?”, a reader who has good inferencing skills but doesn’t know the word may be able to work it out from the surrounding context. Another reader may already just know the word. If you really want to know, just ask them. They’ll tell you.

For our purposes it probably doesn’t matter too much as you’re probably assessing higher level vocabulary that is going to be technical and specific. Great if they already know it and great if they can work it out.

And actually, great for you if you can use your rough and ready reading comprehension hacks to figure out that they don’t know a word. Because then you can teach it to them. I know… amazing really.

Ok… Working on the list. Stay tuned. Thoughts and comments below please.

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