Friday, May 21, 2010

Alternative to traditional multiple choice reading comprehension exams

Here's what I do rather than a traditional multiple choice reading comprehension exam.

I teach my students that reading is thinking and if you're not thinking about what you are reading, then you are not really reading. Every year, I ask students if they've ever caught themselves reading only to realize they were not actually paying attention to what they were reading - leaving them with absolutely no idea what they just read. I use this to show that simply saying the words is not reading.

Mindfulness is required for real reading to occur.

I use the diagram above to explain that reading is brought on by thinking and thinking precipitates questioning. Questioning brings on an accute need for more reading, which causes more questioning, requiring more thinking. Rinse and repeat.

I provide reading excerpts with zero questions because I ask my students to read and show their thinking. I double space the text and remove the lefthand margin almost entirely so that I can double or triple the right hand margin. This provides students with the space they need to show their thinking.

Here is an example of a student reading about the skeletal system:

Show Your Thinking - Skeletal system

Through out the year, I teach students to show their thinking in a number of different ways:

-ask questions
-make metaphors and other parts of speech
-make connections to other subjects, past experiences, books, movies, etc.
-identify difficult words & guess at their meaning (read in context, root word, etc)
-tell stories
-give opinions
-show emotions and feelings
-limited highlighting
-arrows to margin

This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.

I encourage them to write with abbreviations and symbols with a key or legend. I encourage them to use colour coded highlighting systems if they are interested.

Here is an example of a student's final reading project:

Show Your Thinking - story excerpts

To assess this, I observe my students very carefully while they are reading, thinking and showing their thinking. I stop and talk with them.

By the end of the year, my students have done this enough for me to already know where their reading skills are at; therefore, there is no need to "grade" this project. The purpose of this assessment is NOT to even assess the students - that's what the previous 10 months have been for. Rather, I observe and review these projects in order to guide my professional development and teaching practices.

I am currently working on having kids do this kind of project on the computer and with video and screencasting.

If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me: or leave a comment below.


Any assessment, even the best assessments, can be over-done. Please use this kind of assessment sparingly. While this kind of reading strategy might be appropriate when reading non-fiction, it can literally sap the thrill of reading fiction. This isn't to say you can't use this with fiction, but use it sparingly. In my attempts to fine tune this assessment, I have, at times, over used it at the cost of starting to turn my students off of reading - I will never make that mistake again.

Showing your thinking with this kind of detail can take an immense amount of time, effort and patience. Gathering and sharing for assessment purposes must never trump our primary objective of maintaining a healthy desire within the child to go on learning.

We must concern ourselves less with making kids know things and more with inspiring them to want to know. 


  1. This makes me think of the "Think Alouds" I would do with my class to model how to think through math problems. Then, the kids would have to "think aloud" and explain how they solved a problem.

    Having the students do a "write aloud" is a fantasic way to engage them with the material and to allow them to show that they are understanding.

    I am so excited by this technique!!! Amazing authentic alternative to multiple choice that encourages kids to think and share their thoughts!

  2. Great article, Joe! I'm glad someone else out there realizes that older students can absolutely decode (aloud!) and still be way tuned out from the meaning of the materials.

    Loved your examples as well(always nice to see a model!). That youblisher site is a new one for me.

    Keep up the great work! I'll need to check in more regularly.

  3. I'll have more student samples to share soon.

    Thanks for commenting.

  4. Nifty, using a word processor, students could insert notes into the document using colors for different style of comments.

    Great ideas, just wish we could do without grades here.

  5. I love this method for having students SHOW their understanding of text. This way, students are being assessed on what they KNOW rather than what they don't know.

    The idea of writing directly on the text may also be less daunting for students than writing on a blank sheet of apper.

    It also reminds me of textmapping (

    Thanks a lot for sharing! :)

  6. Great ideas - thanks for sharing the examples, they really help :)

  7. After speaking with Alfie Kohn, I added the warning at the end.

  8. Terri BorusiewiczMay 22, 2010 at 9:02 AM

    Fantastic idea. I think I could actually use this with my A.P. Literature kids to chart their textual analysis skills.

  9. I think that this kind of show your thinking is good for any age. I have a friend who went through Med school with a seriously diabolical colour coded highlighting scheme.

  10. In the example of the final reading paper I loved the point that the student made about success. "If success is the main point why do something harder?" Brilliant!

  11. Great post! It reminds me of the 1917 article by Thorndike, "Reading as Reasoning: A Study
    of Mistakes in Paragraph Reading." If you are not familiar with that article, you can find it at:

    I wonder if you ever have students read each others papers. I bet it would make for great converstation and inspire even deeper thinking--especially for readers who struggle.

    I love your statement, "I observe and review these projects in order to guide my professional development and teaching practices." Listening to the thinking of struggling students has definitely guided mine. Being able to read their thinking should guide it even more.

    Thank you for the examples and the great idea!

  12. Thanks for sharing the link. I will check it out.

    I'm glad you found the samples helpful. More to come.

  13. I'm an instructor in a post-secondary graphics program. I found your blog when searching for visual methods to help with comprehension of technical material (software/hardware lessons, print production procedures, etc.).

    Quite often, I create handouts with very large margins, suggesting to students to (and _hoping_ they will) annotate, doodle concepts, highlight -- anything visual as a mnemonic. I have done this all my life and I regularly model it in the classroom.

    Somewhere along the line these young adults who claim to be visual learners have learned _not_ to capture ideas visually, rather, only to "decorate." One wonders how this sad state has come to be. So, applause to you for fostering it when they are younger.


  14. Hey, Joe. Just sent my staff at Broxton Park in Spruce Grove, AB a link to this blog post. This reminds me as well of how I used to get kids to think out loud with their math problems. Loved the real life examples and the way you presented it in a flipbook. Very cool.

  15. Joe,

    Thanks for the great post. I would love to see how this works with the video and screen casting.


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