Nothing is more surely designed to drown any flickering student interest in a book than chapter questions. Honestly, if there is a good reason why we still do this it is beyond my comprehension.

And this is the point isn’t it?  Comprehension.

I have always loved to read, and it is no secret that English was my favourite subject at school.  Not much has changed really. I still love to read. The thought of having to stop at the end of a chapter to answer questions about it makes every fibre in my being scrunch up in revolt.

I don’t want to answer questions, I want to read the next chapter and the next and .. well you get the picture. I will think about the book once I have finished reading all of it. Yes I will probably have a pen in my hand and be putting asterisks in corners or underlining sentences , (librarians can relax, we use post-it notes for your books) but I don’t want to stop reading.” A book is a complete work, a carefully crafted and lovingly built whole which deserves to be considered as such rather than broken into bits.

Comprehension of bits is never going to be comprehension of the whole. Share on X

A book is a complete work, a carefully crafted and lovingly built whole which deserves to be considered as such rather than broken into bits. Comprehension of bits is never going to be comprehension of the whole. Perhaps really challenging chapter questions could be useful on subsequent readings, maybe the 3rd or 4th, to fill in any gaps that may still exist.  

‘WHAT?’  I hear you say,  ‘subsequent readings! It is hard enough to get them to read the book once.’ Well if that is the case then chapter questions have no place and little value in teaching our students to love literature and reading.

Surely that is our first priority. To help them discover the joy of reading which will lead them to read more and consequently learn more and want to talk about books more. If they don’t have that nothing else we do will work very well.

Chapter questions have been around for a very long time and they belong to the school of thought that believed that test results were the best indicator of education.  Answer these questions, we will check that you have them correct and then we will test you on them. The higher your score the more you understood. Right?  

Wrong, on so many levels and thankfully, even if only among educators, not how we view education any more.

There are so many ways we can gauge students comprehension that are far more interesting and useful than chapter questions. So many bigger questions that will allow them to develop higher order thinking skills. Something chapter questions usually just don’t do. I am going to be looking at some of these alternatives over the coming weeks.

Why I finally lost faith.

If I ever had any faith in the ability of this type of questioning to aid in student comprehension it was routed one day when I was teaching in the UAE.

My class was one of those ‘uber’ classes we are sometimes gifted with. A fairly large group of smart, high achieving, often cheeky, actively engaged students who were a delight to be with every single day.  The ideas they expressed and the work they produced was fantastic.

The school was working with a particular curriculum that required them to do a standardised test of the type we are all familiar with.  A short story followed by a series of ‘comprehension’ questions.  It was horrible. The students, all of them, scored poorly. As I went back over the paper and tried to work out why the results were so disappointing I discovered that it had nothing to do with the students and everything to do with the text and the questions. The text and questions had been set by people in another context and there were cultural signifiers (I am going to be talking about these a lot more) in the text that made it inaccessible to that group of students, and even the questions made assumptions that were, in this context, invalid.

I have to tell you I was mortified. We all have times when we feel we have let down our students. We are mere mortals after all, but this experience was crushing and I vowed never to let it happen again.

Some Alternatives

There is not time here to go into lots of alternatives, but if you need them to be working quietly some quick suggestions would be:

    • Develop a Facebook page for a character or group, write an explanation of the choices made.
    • Create a character Avatar- ditto with explanation.
    • Tell me what you think would have happened if……(insert relevant occurrence)..?
    • Choose a character you would like to be friends with and explain why?
    • Make a list of things you do not understand?
    • Write an email (letter) to a friend telling them about the story. (length is flexible)
    • If you were making X text into a movie who would you cast and why?

Do you have strategies you find helpful for gauging student comprehension? I am sure others would be keen to hear them. Pop over to the Facebook page and share them. Let’s help each other.

Teach Well