Can adults read?

An ultimate test of comprehension

Introduction. This Literacy Test is the Ultimate to test as whether a reader can 'read for meaning' .  It overcomes criticisms that current Literacy Tests may not test 'real literacy'.  Another problem about other literacy testing is that most reading tests are designed for cheap, quick scoring, and they do not test the adult population, so dangerously low levels of real ability to read may not be clearly demonstrated.

 The test was designed for students, but can be used by adults too.  Unfortunately it has shown that most people do not read accurately.

  The test uses any non-fiction article of around seven paragraphs.  After reading each paragraph, subjects quickly jot down three items of information from it, in a phrase or sentence, preferably what seems to them to be the gist of it.  Subjects can re-read the paragraph if they wish. Their score is how many of the jotted notes are not correct or have not been attempted. The higher the score, the worse the reading.

Tests of undergraduates and secondary school students using a standardised set of 7 paragraphs found that most of them made mistakes. They made mistakes even though they wrote about each paragraph immediately after they had read it, and were asked to write what they themselves had got out of it.  They did not have to answer any questions about what someone else thought they should have remembered, and they could re-read each paragraph if they wished.   

  The most common problem is 'reading by guessing'. Readers often guess what they thought a paragraph ought to be saying instead of reading it properly to find what it did say.  They may pick up a phrase, and miss the context, and so misinterpret the whole paragraph.  They often mix up the referents for pronouns.

In more detail - Materials and Method

“Practical comprehension” is about what readers themselves make of what they read.  It is not about replying to particular questions about a text.  It is about what readers themselves have noticed, and taken in or misinterpreted.

  In most comprehension tests, students reply to direct questions, which are either multiple choice or open-ended.  These can be scored quickly and cheaply.  But often students  can guess answers to questions quite well. They may read over the test passage to pick out answers like Jack Horner picking out plums, without having any real understanding of the text.  Multiple choice questions are even easier. It can be possible to score up to 75% correct by intelligent guessing from the questions, without even reading the text that is being tested.

  I once saw a television contest between two readers.  One reader won because he could answer multiple-choice questions on specified detail like  'What colour were the tent-pegs?', but it turned out in the discussion afterwards that the other reader could talk more sensibly about the passage as a whole, and answer open-ended questions such as 'What were the explorers trying to do?'  and 'How did they try to overcome problems?' 

   This Practical Comprehension test requires individual scoring, but it gives more information about the students, their abilities and their needs, and can be followed up with a class discussion  It gives a clear idea of how much each student is reading with understanding at that basic level, and the sort of comprehension skills they have.  This is important for a teacher to know.  

   Feedback to the student is important.

MaterialsAny text of four to seven paragraphs can be used.
The Ultimate Test has been tried out frequently using two texts, which are both available. Both texts contain paragraphs of varying difficulty, so that weak students can read some of them, and bright students can be challenged by harder parts.

1. An old Sufi story (Muslim) about a bright and resourceful girl, retold as Lisa and the Tent, for around 9 years and upwards.

2. An account of the life of the scientist Sir Peter Medawar for readers 12 years to adult, who may prefer non-fiction.  


STEP 1.  Students are each given a short text of four to seven paragraphs, to read paragraph by paragraph and after each paragraph write a quick gist in three phrases or sentences in their own words. An example of how to do this is given for the first paragraph.

Depending on the level of the class, students can be allowed to re-read a paragraph when answering questions or they can be asked not to look back.  (It does not make much difference. Inaccurate readers will make mistakes even if they do look back.)

 Slower readers can be kept moving as needed by, for example,  "Anyone who has not yet finished Paragraph . .  stop now, and answer the questions as far as you can in five minutes.  Then go on to Part . . ."

At the end, they write a phrase or sentence on what the whole piece was about.

Step 2.   Scores are the number of inaccuracies or omissions made by each student.  (You can also note the number of accurate statements to add to the picture, but this can be harder to quantify. Errors  are easier to score and more significant in basic reading for comprehension.)

Step 3.All work that has few or no mistakes is circulated around the class so students can see the different levels of comprehension that are possible, and see what standard is possible.  This can be extremely helpful for the weaker students - to see a standard. Students also get their own work returned with correct items ticked.

Step 4.  A quick 5-10 minute classroom discussion that sorts out the main points  - what really was the gist of each paragraph and the whole text - and what other information was accurate.   If this is run like a circus, it can be enjoyable.  If made dull, it is tedious for everyone.

Step 6. Students raise and discuss any issues they wish about the text or the task, and keep their work as a benchmark for later progress.

Step 7. Repeat with another 7-paragraph text next term or next month, but not more often, or the task can lose its interest.

Value of the test:

1. Information for a teacher to know more about the class

2. For individual and classroom benefit and feedback

3. Data for research

* The Lisa story is also available including direct questions, True/Not True, multi-choice, and open-ended, so you can compare students' responses to different forms of testing.  Poor writers can give their 'gist' responses orally in individual sessions if necessary.