Choosing texts for comprehension activities in the classroom

By Anne Kispal, NFER Research Director

Monday 23 May 2022

This article was first published in Schools Week on Friday 20 May 2022.

Choosing the right text for assessing comprehension is not an easy, five-minute job. However, for many of us - whether we are teachers or assessment specialists - it is one of the more pleasant tasks.

Browsing children’s books, dipping in and out of old favourites, chancing upon moving, funny and exciting extracts, all offer a chance to get to know the vibrant world of children’s literature. Our reading assessment team has been doing this job for over half a century and we have learnt a few lessons along the way.

The intended purpose is critical in selecting a suitable text. Is the text to be used as the basis of a collective classroom activity, or for solo test practice under exam conditions?

You have so much more freedom, if you are selecting a text to be introduced and mediated by you, if you are going to guide the discussion and adapt your questions, responding to issues arising on the spot.

Your text can be long (to be read in chunks over several days) or short to focus on just one aspect of comprehension. For traditional paper and pencil comprehension practice, length is a mundane but major consideration. An average Year 6 comprehension text is 600-800 words in length; at Year 2 it is under 500 words. Though limited in length, a story extract chosen for test practice must still include the necessary ingredients: sufficient context to make the setting and the characters easily recognisable, an interesting scenario and some sense of an ending. One thing we have learnt is that abrupt cliff-hanger conclusions are not universally satisfying for children.

We must also beware of too many characters. In a short extract, it is hard to keep track of more than four characters – but, actually, two easily distinguishable individuals is perfect for the needs of a paper and pencil comprehension text.

Like story extracts, non-fiction texts used for test practice need an introduction and conclusion, but must also do justice to the chosen topic so that readers feel that they have genuinely learnt something new and worthwhile from the text that has been put before them.

If you are selecting a text for a classroom activity, then fewer constraints apply. Quirky texts with unconventional features tend to be avoided in national standardised tests but they offer rewarding opportunities for a teacher-led, whole-class comprehension discussion. This would include texts with atypical characters, texts that prompt diverse inferences, different reader reactions or wildly imaginative predictions and texts that present controversial or delicate subject matter. A whole-class activity is also the perfect context for presenting more challenging texts than those you would normally give children to tackle alone.

The unachievable (but still worthy) principle in creating a level playing field is that the chosen text should revolve around subject matter with which all children are familiar or none are. Ideal comprehension texts are ‘free-standing. They do not depend on background knowledge. We do not want a text which unfairly advantages some children through the confidence boost of pre-existent knowledge about the subject (e.g. dinosaurs, hip-hop, Harry Potter). We do not want a text which appears to favour one gender (e.g. dinosaurs, ponies, football). What we are primarily looking for is a text oozing with child-appeal and questioning opportunities.

The ideal text offers an engaging and valuable reading experience. Combined with this, it also possesses additional intrinsic merit which will generate a broad spectrum of questions – whether this stems from inspirational language use, from the meaningful message conveyed, from the heart-warming or hilarious or gut-wrenching episode depicted, or from the fascination of the information presented. What we want to avoid – at all costs – is a text which leaves readers wondering: ‘What was the point of reading that?’