Assessing comprehension

The processes of comprehension are interdependent and work together as an orchestrated whole. For this reason, assessments of reading comprehension are often imprecise and difficult to interpret. Nonetheless, it is important to assess children’s progress because the teacher needs to know whether or not a particular child is responding to the teaching, or remediation, provided. Furthermore, a more specific diagnosis of comprehension difficulties is important so that intervention can be tailored.

First, it is essential to distinguish between problems with word reading and problems with reading comprehension (though, of course, some readers may have both sorts of problem). But, when it comes to assessing comprehension, there are a number of possibilities. So, how should the teacher or educational professional choose?

Numerous studies have shown that oral reading fluency is strongly related to reading comprehension (Sabatini et al., 2019). While it might seem difficult to believe that a simple calculation of words read correctly per minute is predictive of reading comprehension in the absence of a measure of understanding, research has produced mixed findings on the value of adding comprehension questions to an oral reading fluency measure. A recent large study found that comprehension
questions did not significantly improve the oral reading fluency assessment’s predictive power for reading comprehension (Amendum et al., 2021). Therefore, oral reading fluency measures are a useful screening assessment to indicate potential
difficulties in reading comprehension, and to monitor reading progress, but do not tell us why reading comprehension may be poor. More detailed assessments are required for that purpose.

Assessing reading comprehension

Reading comprehension assessment is particularly problematic for students at the early stages of reading acquisition as these students are not yet capable of reading sufficiently well to focus on meaning.

When students do reach a level of reading proficiency where comprehension is the objective, there are a number of things to consider: the purpose of the assessment (formative or summative), the skill to be assessed, and the type of task to be used.

Whatever the type of test, the child’s level of understanding can be assessed in different ways (different response formats). Each has advantages and disadvantages which are considered below. The first three can be used in whole class or small group settings.

  • True/false judgements
    Suitable for use in whole class and small group settings but does not allow for subtle aspects of comprehension to be assessed, such as inferencing.
  • Multiple choice
    More sensitive than true/false questions but have a high processing load because students have to read and consider the various options.
  • Cloze tasks
    In cloze tasks, single words are omitted and have to be filled in by the reader, usually from a choice of 3–5 words. The words supplied can differ in terms of lexical coherence (sentence-appropriate) or global coherence (story appropriate).
  • Open-ended questions
    Questions and answers can be written or oral. This is the most sensitive way of assessing comprehension but it is time-consuming to administer and score.

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