In an extract from ELT Teacher2Writer’s training module, Caroline Krantz gives some useful tips for writing comprehension exercises, followed by a comprehension task of your own to test your knowledge.

Guidelines for writing comprehension exercises Tips for writing multiple-choice questions Tips for writing gap-fill sentences TASK: What’s wrong with the comprehension exercise?

Guidelines for writing comprehension exercises

The following is a set of guidelines to bear in mind when writing reading and listening comprehension exercises.

  • Make sure that you are not testing students’ knowledge of the world. Students need to have to read or listen to the text to get the answer.
  • Items should be evenly spread throughout the text. Don’t leave chunks of text unexploited.
  • Avoid overlap of items. In other words, don’t test the same point in two different questions. If students didn’t understand something the first time, they won’t understand it the second.
  • When writing listening items, keep true/false sentences, multiple-choice stems and multiple-choice options clear and concise. They shouldn’t require a great deal of processing on the part of the students, since the focus should be on listening and not reading comprehension. Also, in practical terms, space on the page is likely to be limited. See ‘Tips for writing multiple-choice questions’ below.
  • The questions shouldn’t contain the exact words used in the text. If the question repeats part of a sentence from the text, the students will be able to answer it in ‘cut-and-paste’ style without needing to understand the text. So the questions need to paraphrase what’s in the text.  But make sure the language in the questions isn’t more difficult than the language in the text.
  • Items should be of roughly the same level of difficulty. If you are writing an exercise that will be used as a test, it is usual to start with a slightly easier question to ease the students into it.
  • The items should be in the same order as the information in the text. Exceptions to this rule are:
    - if you are writing a matching exercise (e.g. matching summaries/headings with paragraphs, inserting missing sentences)
    - if students have to answer global questions about the text, e.g. about its purpose or function. This kind of question might appear at the beginning or end of a set of items.
  • If you are writing true/false sentences, or multiple-choice questions, the false sentences and the distractors in the multiple-choice questions need to be as plausible as possible. This is no easy task!
  • If students are required to complete gaps in sentences, the sentence should provide enough context for them to know what to look/listen out for. See ‘Tips for writing gap-fill sentences’ below.
  • Ensure a variety of answers across the exercise. For example, the answers in a true/false exercise should not all be false, or all Cs in a multiple-choice exercise.

Tips for writing multiple-choice questions

  1. The stem and options should be as short as they can be.
  2. The language in the stem and options should be as clear and easy to process as it can be (e.g. no double negatives).
  3. The options should be roughly equal in length.
  4. Avoid any overlap between the options (i.e. make sure that two options don’t say the same thing or cancel each other out by saying the opposite).
  5. Check that the key isn’t too obviously right or the distractors too obviously wrong.
  6. Make sure that world knowledge isn’t coming into play when comprehension is being tested.
  7. The options should follow on grammatically and logically from the stem.
  8. If using an unfinished sentence, rather than a question, in the stem, check that you have divided it in a logical place (e.g. not in the middle of a fixed expression).
  9. Avoid any double keys (i.e. all the other answers are definitely wrong).
  10. Make sure that the key is ‘true to text’, i.e. that the answer is definitely correct, according to the text.

Tips for writing gap-fill sentences

  1. Your aim is to write a sentence with a gap in which both the correct answer and the distractor(s) can fit logically and grammatically.
  2. The gapped sentence shouldn’t be too long or complex to process.
  3. However, the sentence does need to be long enough to provide enough context for students to know what they’re looking/listening out for.
  4. Don’t let the answer be guessable. Students should be able to work out what kind of word they are looking or listening out for (e.g. a number, a place or a job) but it shouldn’t be possible for them to guess the exact word. So, for example, the missing word should not be part of a strong collocation (e.g. earn _____.)
  5. The words in the sentence should paraphrase the words in the text, not report them directly. In a listening, for example, if the words weren’t paraphrased, it would become like a dictation.

TASK: What’s wrong with the comprehension exercise?

In the following reading comprehension exercise the author has not adhered to six of the guidelines listed in the previous section. Read the text and the exercise and identify the six problems. You can check your answers by clicking on this link or clicking the link under ’Related resources’.

From rags to riches

Some of the world’s billionaires came from humble beginnings. These three entrepreneurs, now retired, are among the richest men in the world. But they weren’t born into rich families. They started working at an early age and were never out of work. It was hard work and determination that earned them their enormous wealth.

Italian industrialist Leonardo del Vecchio became one of the richest men in Italy, but his background was not wealthy. Leonardo’s father, who worked in a vegetable market in Milan, died before Leonardo was born. His mother had five children and couldn’t afford to bring them up. So Leonardo went to live in an orphanage at the age of seven. He started working at the age of fourteen, and after that he was never out of work. He worked as an apprentice in a factory, making parts of eyeglasses frames. He was only 26 when he set up his own eyeglasses company. The company grew quickly, and now employs 62,000 people around the world.

Ingvar Kamprad was born in a small village in Sweden. As a child, he lived on a farm, but he was always interested in business. He used to buy large quantities of matches and then sell them for a profit. He reinvested his profits and expanded his business to fish, Christmas decorations, pens and pencils. When he was seventeen, he got some money from his father for doing well at school. He used the money to set up a mail-order company which later became IKEA. IKEA now has over 200 stores in 31 countries with a total of 75,000 employees. The name IKEA was taken from Ingvar Kamprad’s initials (I.K.) and the initials of his farm (Elmtaryd) and village (Agunnaryd).

His father was a manual worker for a railway company and his mother worked as a cleaner. At the age of thirteen, Ortega began working for a shirt-maker as a delivery boy. Later, when he became manager of a local shop selling expensive clothes, he realized that only wealthy people could afford nice clothes. He decided to make good quality clothes available to everyone. At the age of 27 he went into business for himself, making and selling bathrobes. He then used the profits to open his first retail store called Zara. It became famous for selling high quality designer products at reasonable prices. By 1989 there were almost 100 Zara stores in Spain, and the brand continued to grow and expand. There are now 1,603 Zara stores in 73 countries around the world.

Read the article and decide if the statements are true (T) or false (F).

  1. The three entrepreneurs are still working.
  2. They were occasionally out of work.
  3. Del Vecchio had to go and live in an orphanage when he was only seven because his mother and father had both died.
  4. He worked as a trainee in a shoe-making factory.
  5. When he was a young man he was often without a job.
  6. The founder of IKEA was from Finland.
  7. Kamprad started his first company when he was 21.
  8. Ortega’s father worked in an office.
  9. Worldwide, IKEA employs fewer than 70,000 staff.