Principled Washback – Academic Reading and TOEFL

(This post is the second in a series of several posts on “principled washback” which I introduced here.)

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R. R. Martin, Dance with Dragons

Reading is an important feature of civilization, and literature is considered one of the cornerstones of a “civilized” society. Reading is also the basis around which many of our daily activities occur, and academic reading is certainly the staple of our academic careers. It is safe to say that reading forms an important part of any EAP program. This might include out-of-class extensive reading or more intensive readings that challenge students with unfamiliar subjects, new vocabulary, and strange grammatical structures or turns of phrase – as it would in the “real world.”

There are many ways to assess students’ comprehension, but the typical way is to use reading tests that ask students to apply skills they have been practicing to a brand new text, perhaps in the same genre or with the same theme, and that is also perhaps peppered with the vocabulary they have been studying. There are many different types of questions that can be asked and it seems that, as teachers, the question possibilities are endless. Unless we have some strategy for question writing, we may be doing our students a disservice. Questions on a reading comprehension test should be balanced and test different skills. One way in which we can help our students is to follow a strategy of designing questions following TOEFL or IELTS question types. Now, before I go on, I am not advocating designing a TOEFL/IELTS style test, but rather incorporating their common question types among other questions we would typically ask (especially short answer and essay responses). In this way, students are not only having their comprehension and reading skills checked, but they are also getting valuable test-taking experiences.

TOEFL Reading Question Types

Because I am only familiar with TOEFL’s two main iterations (the PBT and the iBT), I cannot really write about IELTS reading question types. However, I’m sure the same concept can be applied. The following slide show contains a great overview of the question types on the TOEFL, including examples:

Question Type Skill Assessed
Factual information Ability to find details in a text, skimming and scanning
Negative factual information Ability to find details in a text, skimming and scanning
Inference Ability to infer a meaning not explicitly stated
Rhetorical purpose Ability to understand the main idea and purpose of a text
Vocabulary Vocabulary knowledge, especially synonyms, or understanding words from context
Reference Ability to understand the noun references of pronouns and determiners
Sentence simplification Ability to understand the meaning or main idea of a sentence or passage
Insert text Ability to understand structure and logical organization, main ideas
Prose summary Ability to understand main idea
Fill-in table Ability to organize details and main ideas
Despite the fact that these are from the TOEFL, they are still valid question constructions. The slide show and table above can give you some ideas that can both assess specific skills you are teaching while giving students important test-taking practice.
TOEFL Reading Ideas
These constructs can be applied to coursebook texts, texts taken from the internet (for example, sites such as [incidentally, this site offers quite rigorous quizzes for its reading]), journal articles, or any other source. I use these questions on two different types of text types:
  • Simple English US history texts which are written with a limited vocabulary and structure but are long and contain completely new information for students, and
    • These texts are available here and are based on the “Making of a Nation” VOA radio series.
  • Semi-academic/semi-scientific articles about interesting, funny, and unique topics that are written at a high but accessible level.