Hacking Reading Comprehension: Part 3 – Some other words you need

The summary so far

Back again.. I’ve got one thing to add to finish off my mini-series of Hacking Reading Comprehension.

I started out by discussing some of the reasons why you might need to hack reading comprehension and when you should use my non-scientific list. One of these reasons was that you might need to familiarise your learners with the kinds of questions they are going to face in more formal testing situations.

My basic idea is that you should analyse the structure of the questions that your learners are going to face and then adapt this structure to your own context and content. This would then mean that your learners would get the benefit of practising really relevant reading comprehension questions written by you in the style of the formal assessment, but narrowly focused on your subject matter.

This is not teaching to the test, but teaching your subject matter while you familiarise your learners with certain question formats.

Think like a hacker… a reading comprehension hacker…

The reading hacks list

I then posted my list of hacks. I think I’ve added one more since the other day. These are in no particular order and it’s a work in process. But, in short, you can write questions that ask learners to identify any of these:

  1. An object
  2. A person or people
  3. A time
  4. A unit of measurement
  5. A suggestion, recommendation, or advice
  6. An action
  7. A location or place
  8. The meaning of a word, sentence, or paragraph
  9. If something is true or correct
  10. A reason or cause
  11. A solution to a problem
  12. The correct second half of a statement
  13. A summary or the gist of something
  14. A step or steps in a process
  15. Typography or formatting
  16. Punctuation
  17. The purpose of a text
  18. A partiicular situation or state

To infer or not

You also have to decide if the answers to your questions require one of the these:

  • Finding or understanding information that is explicit in the text. In other words, you can read through and find the answer.
  • Inferring an answer. Inferencing makes the question more complex. You have to “read between the lines” in order to answer the question. In other words, the answer is not explicit in the text.

Response types

I suggested that you keep things simple by sticking to a very minimal set of response types. This is to make it easy for you to design your questions, and to make it relatively straightforward if you are going to be using a digital learning platform of some kind. My preferred answer responses were something like this:

  • Multiple choice. Let’s say with four options (e.g. A, B, C, D).
  • Forced choice. This is the Yes/No, True/False style of question.
  • Underline or circle.

All of these response types place minimal demands on learners with low literacy skills especially with regards to writing. The last thing we want to do is invalidate our assessments due to making it a test of writing proficiency rather than reading comprehension.

Other standard expressions for designing questions

To finish this off, I want to add another set of words… actually more a set of standard phrases or expressions to use. Again, this is not an exhaustive list and you can probably think of other variations. But you may be able to use these as sentence starters for some of your questions. Use judiciously.

Referring to the text.

Text here can be replaced with a word or words for the actual kind of text, e.g. an advertisement, notice, article, memo.

  1. According to the text, …
  2. Look at X, …
  3. This text is for people who…
  4. According to the text, …
  5. The purpose of this text is to…
  6. What does the text say about…
  7. What is this text about?

For vocabulary in particular

  1. Which word means…
  2. What does “X” mean?
  3. “X” means…
  4. What does the word “X” mean here?

As a way of introducing a question

You can:

  1. Quote a chunk of the text first.
  2. Refer to a particular paragraph (e.g. “In paragraph 4…”) or give some other marker that points people to a location in the text (e.g. “In the first ad…”, “at the end of the page…”, “In the first sentence, …”
  3. Give the first half of a statement or sentence. Multiple choice answers then need to contain four possibilities for the second half, one of which is correct of course (e.g. “To XYZ you need to…”
  4. Direct attention to something in particular (e.g. “Read the information about employment contracts”)

Question words

Also, don’t forget all the standard question words:

  1. Who
  2. Where
  3. What
  4. Which
  5. Why
  6. When
  7. How


And for modifying your questions so they require inferencing use these words or expressions:

  1. It is implied in the text that…
  2. What do you think…
  3. …would…
  4. … probably…
  5. … possibly…

Of course it is entirely possible to construct inferencing questions without using these kinds of words or phrases. You just have to pick response items that require a further step in thinking that is not supplied explicitly in the text.

I’m also playing around with a form for designing your own questions. Current prototype looks something like this. Tell me in the comments what you think.

Template to help you design your own reading comp hacks

Hacking Reading Comprehension: Part 2 – The Hacks List

Revised reading hacks list

Here’s the list. I’ve revised the categories to just one category. Really, it’s just about getting readers to identify something something in the text. See down below for the list.

Are you a reading hacker?

Responses and inferencing

The other dimensions relate to:

  • What kind of response you want them to give you.
    • Multiple choice
    • Forced choice (Yes/No, True/False)
    • Complete the second half of the sentence.
  • Whether they have to
    • Infer the answer, or
    • Find information that is explicit in the text.

Identify something

There are a bunch of things you can ask your learners to identify in a text as part of a reading comprehension question – or series of questions. Here’s an incomplete list with the odd example. Identify…

  1. An object. E.g. “What’s in the picture?”
  2. A person or people. E.g. “Who is this?”, “What organization…?”
  3. Time. E.g. “When was the truck made?”, “How long should you leave X for?”
  4. suggestion, recommendation, or advice. E.g. “What advice does she give for X?”
  5. An action. E.g. “What should he do?”
  6. location or place E.g. “Where should you store the X?”
  7. The meaning of a word, sentence, or paragraph. E.g. “What does “X” mean?”
  8. If something is true or correct. E.g. “What is most likely to be included in X?”
  9. A particular situation or state of being. E.g. “This text is for people who…”
  10. reason or cause. E.g. “Why is Damon such a good tutor?”
  11. solution to a problem. E.g. “How can you get better results with X?”
  12. The correct second half of the sentence. E.g. “The ad promotes the size of its building to show that it is…”
  13. summary or the gist of something. E.g. “What is this article about?”
  14. step or steps in a sequence. E.g. “What should you do first?”
  15. Some aspect of formatting or typography. E.g. “Why is bold print used?”
  16. Some aspect of punctuation. E.g. “Why is “X” in quotation marks?
  17. The purpose of a text. E.g. “The purpose of the text is to…”

There’s probably more, but that’s more than enough for now. Also I’ll  probably lay this up in a table and provide some more examples, but I don’t think WordPress can do all that.

Let me know in the comments if this is useful. I’m going to try it out on some unsuspecting tutors next week. If I design a chart for this I’ll post it as well.

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.

This guy won’t hire you if you use poor grammar

Personally, I’m not a grammar Nazi. Well actually, I am a bit of stickler…

Are you a Grammar Nazi?

But I’m more in the descriptivist camp rather than on the prescriptionist side of things. What I mean is that I’m more interested in what people actually say and do rather than what some stupid rule says. Latin grammar rules just don’t work that well for English. Not these days anyway (Whoops… sentence fragment).

Anyway, I cannot stand seeing bad grammar and poor spelling in a couple of areas that I consider to be “high stakes”. These are:

  • Job applications
  • CVs and resumes
  • Academic essays and reports
  • Newspaper articles

Typos I can forgive. I make typos… In fact, I’m getting worse thanks to predictive texting on my iPhone. Kids are excused too. Some adults I guess as well… Also, this doesn’t apply to people with dyslexia, ESOL learners, or if you have other extenuating circumstances.

Now, all caveats aside, this guy won’t even look at your CV if he finds poor grammar. I can sympathize. In fact, this sentiment makes me feel all warm inside… I don’t mean to be a jerk, but he’s right on a lot of levels.

Here’s a summary below. These are my reasons why you need to get it right, and why you need to teach other people to spell and use correct grammar. Even if you’re American.

  1. Grammar mistakes make you look stupid.
  2. Poor grammar won’t get you killed but it might get you passed over for a promotion or a job.
  3. You might have to answer grammar questions as part of a literacy assessment when you apply for a job.
  4. It’s pretty hard to make a living without doing some kind of writing.
  5. The internet including blog posts, emails, websites, status updates on Facebook, tweets etc actually make grammar more important.
  6. Your words are a projection of you. You’re not there, but your crappy grammar is. Or the reverse.
  7. People judge you if you can’t tell the difference between words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.


  8. Good grammar makes good business sense.
  9. Good grammar correlates with job performance, creativity, and intelligence. Woah… That’s a big call. But I think he’s right. It’s OK, I didn’t have many friends before anyway.
  10. People who can write well, can do lots of other things well. Like write great computer code and run businesses. Bob Jones comments on this every couple of years. He typically hires BAs rather than business graduates.
  11. People who think writing is important care about details. And the devil’s in the details.
  12. People who are about writing tend to care about other things too.

So there you go. Grammatical stickler-ness totally justified… G is for Grammar Nazi. Please make a note of all my mistakes in the comments below.


6 reasons why you should back Kevin Kelly’s Graphic Novel on KickStarter

I just joined Kickstarter the other day and I backed a couple of projects. It didn’t cost me very much money and I got a real… kick out of it.

Now… Kevin Kelly – who is one of my heroes and probably one of the world’s most amazing technology commentators has produced a graphic novel. It’s beyond cool…. And the best thing is that the first part is available for free. You can download from their website for free in a bunch of different formats.

However, I just wanted to point out that there are less than 60 hours to go before they meet their deadline. Currently, they don’t have enough funding to produce Part 2.

Here are my reasons why you should back Kevin Kelly’s kickstarter project called The Silver Cord:

  1. They need the funding to produce part 2. No funding = no part two. I won’t get to find out what happens. A selfish motivation to be sure.
  2. This is a story about robots, half breeds, and angels. It’s science fiction. I love science fiction. It’s a story remember, not anyone’s particular religious views.
  3. It’s posing a really interesting philosophical and religious question: What if Robots had souls? Have you ever seen the movie the Matrix? One of Kevin’s books was required reading for all the cast. Interested in learning a bit more about the artificial intelligence?
  4. The story brings together theology, science, and all sorts of geek stuff like quantum physics. Even if you’re not interested in the intersection of philosophy, theology, and technology like I am it’s just a darn good yarn.
  5. The illustrations are amazing. Download the free Part 1 and check it out.
  6. This approach, which is called crowdsourcing or crowdfunding, is possibly the future of publishing. And perhaps the future of everything.

Check out the kickstarter link here and support this great project. If you want to hear Kevin Kelly speak then check out his presentations on www.ted.com. They are also pretty darn amazing.

Let me know in the comments if you backed it. Cheers, Graeme

Now playing: My very own Salman Khan Style video tutorials

Well it’s taken me all day to get there, but I’ve managed to master what I think is the basics of being able to produce my own Khan Academy style video tutorials. Actually, they’re not exactly tutorials yet, that part will come later. They’re just quick discussions with me scribbling in the background.

Here’s Sal Khan. He’s my hero as he’s obviously working from home in his pajamas

Currently, I’m working on a Fast Track version of the qualification that I teach. This is called the NCALNE (Voc) which is the short form for the National Certificate in Adult Literacy and Numeracy Education (Vocational/Workplace). It’s not the world’s longest name for a qualification or even the worst, but it does come close.

Luckily, despite the name and acronym it’s a great qualification and it’s necessary to tutors and trainers in New Zealand to gain this qualification to prove that they have what I’ve started to promote as:

  • The baseline knowledge for embedding literacy and numeracy into trades and vocational training.

It’s pretty heady stuff I realize. What I wanted to write about was my process for doing the Khan Academy style videos. First of all, after some pondering I realized that I needed to get some very specific tools to do this kind of work. Here’s what I needed and subsequently bought over the last few months.

  1. Yeti Blue USB mic.This mic is the bomb. It looks like an old school radio mic, has multiple condenser patterns that you can select, runs off USB power and sounds great. Better still, I’m sure it makes my voice sound better than it actually is. I don’t have Sal’s deep mid-western accent going on so I need all the help I can get.

    Yeti Blue USB Mic

  2. Intuos 5 tablet (medium) and stylus.I thought about this for a long time. I’m a big iPad fan and I really did look for ways of making this whole deal work via my iPad. Turns out there are some work arounds, but not with the level of control and flexibility that I’ve got now. The biggest thing that stops me using my iPad here is screen capture software which I’ll talk about next. However, the Intuos tablet is very cool. It’s been another learning curve but I’m starting to see the benefits. I was going to go with one of the cheaper Wacom Bamboo tablets, but I got talked up to the Intuos by my designer who uses one extensively. The thing about the tablets is that the active area on the tablet is much smaller than the actual surface… so something to bear in mind. Probably, go for the largest size you can afford.

    Intuos 5 medium

  3. Corel Painter Sketch Pad. I’m still a bit indifferent about the software I’m using. The Intuos tablet came bundled with Corel Painter Sketch and Autodesk on a CD Rom. To be honest, I had enormous difficulty getting started with it. For one thing, my Macbook doesn’t have a CD drive. But the software just wouldn’t work and then finally it did. I can’t explain it. The Autodesk software wouldn’t open at all, so I can’t comment on it. I might still try it but I guess I’ll have to purchase it online. Much nicer if I had a download key rather than a stupid CD.
  4. Camtasia 2 screen capture software for Mac. I probably should have said above that I recently switched to Mac after using windows PCs since about 1990. There are various software companies selling screen capture software and I went with Camtasia because I read that this is what Sal Kahn uses. Although, he does use the PC version. You need the screen capture software to video record what you do and say while you’re drawing using the drawing programme. Pays to be ambidextrous I guess.

The other thing that I did is I created a generic background slide to draw on. I did this using Apple Keynote. My recordings today relate to the learning outcomes that candidates are assessed against when they submit evidence for the qualification. I wanted to have a short video with me talking about some of the main things they needed to supply. I think I’ve achieved it. However:

  1. Recording my voice makes me feel incredibly self conscious. But at least I’m not recording my face, although I might have to cross that bridge too.
  2. I’m not an artist so I constantly feel retarded when it comes to drawing anything on screen. Even holding the stylus makes me feel retarded.
  3. I’m trying to “shoot from the hip” Salman Kahn style, but I keep making mistakes. I’ll redo the video once for each section, but after that I’m just leaving the mistakes in. At this stage I don’t care. I’m conscious I just need to get something up and running.
  4. I’ve been procrastinating about doing this for months. It’s good to get started. But would you believe it…? I set everything up this morning, had coffee standing by and everything in order and then… The computer crashed, the printer wouldn’t print, and the internet keep going on and off so I couldn’t connect. Then when I finally did finish the first one (which is only 3 mins long) it took so long to render and upload to youtube that I thought I’d broken it. I didn’t manage to spill the coffee. That’s how I know that God was watching over me in spite of the gremlins in the machines.

    This was my set up this morning. Before every piece of hardware, software, and the internet failed

  5. I’m feeling a bit swamped with the multiple learning curves I’m experiencing. New computer (Mac), new software application (Camtasia 2) for new processes (video capture and audio recording, new hardware (Intuos tablet), to name a few.

I’m also still coming to grips with how to do the authoring using www.pathwright.com – another new learning curve. With the videos though it’s pretty straightforward. Basically, I export the video from Camtasia 2 directly to YouTube, then copy the HTML code from YouTube and paste it into the correct box in one of the learning steps in the Pathwright course builder.

It won’t make much sense if you’re not familiar with the training I do, but here’s today’s efforts pasted in below for any one who’s interested in it as an example. It’s not exactly world class just yet, but it’s a major milestone in terms of getting our course content online. Just click the blue hyperlinks below.

Section 1 – Section 2 – Section 3 – Section 4  – Section 5  – Section 6  – Section 7

Grown Up Digital

How the net generation is changing your world

Don Tapscott undertook some research back in the late 20th century (1997…) and wrote it up in a book called Growing Up Digital. It was a book about what it meant for the generation that his kids were in – to be growing up in a digital world. Fast forward 12 or 13 years and those kids grew up, got jobs, and now live in the 21st century as digital natives. Tapscott calls them the Net Generation. This book is about the impact of 21st century technologies on their lives. And our lives.

Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World

You can buy this book… Click the image to purchase

Don Tapscott is an American researcher, writer, and commentator interested in the impact of technology on our lives. This book is the end result of a $4 million dollar research project. It’s not written as an academic text though. It’s a big book, but it’s engaging, easy to read, and suitable for an audience who is interested, but who aren’t computer and IT geeks themselves.

There haven’t been many books that I’ve read in the last 12 months that have changed the way I think about things. This one did though… I went out and bought five copies to give to colleagues. There is an excellent chapter on the net generation as learners and how we need to rethink education. This is the chapter that connects most with my work and the one I wanted to really spread the word about. Technological change is moving too fast for us not to stay informed… We don’t need to understand everything but I think we do need to stay informed and this is what the book is about.

Tapscott’s basic premise is that the net generation – that’s someone aged between 11 years old and 31 years old today – has come of age. We have faster broadband internet available via mobile devices just about anywhere, iPods and iPhones, not to mention all of the personal social networking websites like facebook and others that are really quite new. Part of his argument addresses the concerns of parents and critics who think that the digital age is making us dumber and causing us to devolve into net-addicted, socially inept morons… While there are people like this around, Tapscott argues that for every plagiarising, narcissistic, online bully, there are multitudes of well adjusted, well informed, and in fact, highly motivated, digital activists who represent a new culture of 21st century work, education, and cooperation.

Tapscott explores a lot of interesting content, among it all he unpacks what he calls the Eight Net Gen Norms including: 1) freedom; 2) customisation; 3) scrutiny; 4)integrity; 5) collaboration; 6) entertainment; 7)speed; and 8) innovation. For us in education, though he offers seven strategies for education 2.0 which he also unpacks and discusses. These are:

  1. Don’t throw technology into the classroom and hope for good things.
  2. Cut back on lecturing.
  3. Empower students to collaborate.
  4. Focus on lifelong learning, not teaching to the test.
  5. Use technology to get to know each student.
  6. Design educational programmes according to the eight norms (listed above) with a focus on fun, innovation, and project-based learning.
  7. Reinvent yourself as a teacher, professor, or educator.

Buy this book… Click the image to purchase

Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World