It is that time of the year again.
Nope, it’s not Christmas, but it sure is a mad rush, especially if you didn’t take the June Holidays to be on the hunt. It’s the time when we (teachers) start searching for passages, drafting comprehension questions, vetting exam papers, perfecting formats, editing passages and questions… and then wait to MARK THEM AT THE END OF THE YEAR.
So if anyone thinks that it is a pain to sit for exams, just think of the teacher. Seriously, exams are worse for the teacher. And even worse for the language teacher. And even worse for the new teacher.
It was really a challenge to set comprehension exam papers in my first year for a few reasons:
- I lack resources.
- I don’t know the demands of the paper intuitively.
- I’m still trying to figure out the internal standards of the cohort and the school.
- But most of all, I have no idea where to start.
I’ve since grown, and this year I found myself enjoying (a little) the process of searching for a passage and crafting questions for it. While I’m still in the process of refining my art, I thought to share some starting points and tips I’ve relied on.
1. It’s all in the mind: see this as a chance to influence.
We all complain that kids don’t read enough these days. So what better opportunity, than during a comprehension exam, to make them read about something that will inspire them. On that note, before I hit Google or decide to give up and sleep instead, I’d do a brainstorm:
- What inspires me?
- What am I passionate about? (Some examples: Social justice? Astronomy? Food?)
- What values does this generation need more of?
- What do I want to impart to them?
They can’t run away from the exam. They can’t run away from you. So use the opportunity to inspire a vision, challenge the process or encourage the heart.
2. Be Relevant: Start with them and their generation.
Usually in my brainstorm, I would also think about what they are familiar with, first. Things like technology and social media would usually top the list. If I were truly out of ideas, I would go with those. Otherwise, I would keep going – friendship, parents, books, education, popular culture, charity, travel…
After that, I try to pair an abstract concept with something more tangible:
- death – social media
- happiness – youth
- charity – technology
- education – prison
I guess it is pretty obvious what I enjoy reading about. In any case, this process ends with a google search.
3. Know the sites that you can trust for credible information.
Bearing in mind that the kids would most probably trust what they read in an exam, make sure that the passages can be trusted. Most of the time, I tend not to take passages from blogs, or dubious-looking websites. And I never take passages from satirical or entertainment sites. Apart from questionable facts and details, these sites are usually written in a style that may not be suited to the demands of the paper. In the end, the heavy editing will cost you more time, than finding an article that is almost ready to go.
Here are some suggestions for sites that I usually go to. It’s an open secret, and in the spirit of sharing and caring, here it is:
- Huffington Post
- New York Times
- National Geographic
- Reader’s Digest
- Psychology Today
Apart from decently written articles, one other reason for scouting these sites is that students barely read from them. In all fairness, we should try to avoid setting exams from passages that students are likely to read.
(Well, I guess any student who gets their hands on this would be happy….BUT THERE ARE TONS OF ARTICLES, so beware!)
4. Pitch it perfect
The tricky bit about finding a good comprehension passage, is to be simultaneously thinking about whether the language features, style of writing, and topic would be pitched at the right level. Lower Secondary students vs upper secondary students, boys vs girls, normal academic/technical streams vs express streams…
In addition, another tricky bit is to ensure that there is enough content to test for a variety of skill sets. Whether its answering inferential questions, language questions (my favorite question type), vocabulary questions, direct questions (free marks! Be kind!), the global question or summary question, a good passage would always give room for the required questions.
What is varies from level to level, could be the content that you choose to test their understanding of, the amount of inferential and language questions or the way the question is asked.
- Identify the word in paragraph 2 that suggests that the writer is cynical about the efforts to decrease global warming.
- What is the writer’s tone when he uses the phrase ’empty promises’ to describe activists’ efforts to decrease global warming.
These questions test the same content, but the demands are quite different and may affect the pitch of the paper.
5. Steal and borrow
If a passage is not long enough, or lacks content, simply cut and paste from another article. Yes it would require you to scout the forest of the world wide web to hunt down another passage. But once you have a good idea of what your core topic is – to find another passage is not too difficult.
The downside of this is that if the passages are written in different styles, you would have to edit it to make it seem like one coherent passage. Well, boost your ego a little: ask a question about a word or phrase that you have added. They can’t run from the exam. They will have to answer it anyway.
Then feel your pride swell a little.
6. Copy and Paste
When I set questions for an exam, I usually have past year papers in front of me. Rather than crack my head over the phrasing of the question, I simply imitate they way questions were asked in previous years. After all, why re-invent the wheel?
And that’s about as much of a starting point that I can offer at this moment.
Of course this can be a most tedious and frustrating process. When I did my first exam paper, I nearly tore out my brain, looking for passages, thinking of questions and trying to ensure I met the standards of the school. However, as an experienced teacher once encouraged me, setting the comprehension paper is one of the best learning experiences – by the end of the process, you would definitely know the paper inside out, and be better equipped to teach it, especially since the comprehension paper is usually a student’s downfall in the English exams.
A huge part of a teacher’s job is to inspire meaning. And reading can be said to be a diminishing art that enables our students to search for it.
So take this one chance, when they can’t run, to share impart a little of yourself to them. After all, how often do we have a 100% captive audience, all prepared and motivated to read something?