How Not to Prepare for Reading Tests

Can you prepare for an ‘unseen’ reading test – a test in which you will have to read something you’ve never encountered before, and answer questions on it? To answer this question, we need to consider what is required to succeed in such a test.

Reading consists of two key aspects: your ability to decode – to turn the squiggles on the paper into the sound of language – and your knowledge and vocabulary. Clearly, decoding is crucial, otherwise a reading test will be the equivalent of being asked to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Beyond that, you need knowledge and vocabulary. Your ability to understand a text depends upon your knowledge of the domain with which the text deals. Most of the readers of this blog probably consider themselves to be good readers, who would perform well in a reading test, but they would struggle to make sense of the following passage:

‘We demonstrate a bandpass amplifier which can be constructed from common electronic components and has the surprising property that the group delay is negative in most spectral regions. A pulse propagating through a chain of such amplifiers is advanced by several milliseconds: the output waveform precedes the input waveform. Although striking, this behavior is not in conflict with causality, as demonstrated by experiments with pulses which start or end abruptly.’


I’m willing to bet that only those with a relatively advanced knowledge of physics will be able to derive much meaning from the above. A famous experiment along these lines is mentioned in Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School, in which a passage about baseball is given to pupils who have previously been tested on their knowledge of this specialised subject. The supposedly ‘poor readers’ with good knowledge of baseball understood the passage better, and did better on the test.

By far the most important component, therefore, of performance in reading tests is knowledge of the domain contained in the text to be read. This presents teachers with a problem, because they do not know which domain of knowledge will be important. The text could refer to anything, although test designers do try to avoid topics which are particularly obscure. In the absence of specific knowledge to be mastered, how can schools prepare pupils for reading tests most effectively?

The answer must be to teach as much knowledge and vocabulary as possible, and this is the responsibility of every teacher in the school. Every single lesson is preparing pupils for doing well in reading tests, if that lesson is building their knowledge and vocabulary. English teachers cannot take either the blame or the credit for the grades of pupils in their English Language GCSEs; most of the preparation has been done by others.

Given that building knowledge and vocabulary must be the priority, English departments must be realistic about what their role can be. The key knowledge which they can provide is knowledge of literature, but this is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless other departments (and primary schools) are providing a curriculum rich in knowledge, through proper teaching of a broad range of subject disciplines, many pupils will never perform very well in reading tests. Those who do particularly well without a knowledge rich curriculum succeed because of the knowledge and vocabulary they have acquired outside school.

Of course, outside the teaching of literature, there is something which English departments typically spend a large amount of time doing, especially as GCSEs approach: test drill. Many lessons are spent doing exercises that are more or less identical to the reading sections of the English Language examination: pupils are given passages they have never seen before, and required to answer a series of questions modelled on those posed by examination boards. Putting to one side the tedious and dull nature of this sort of exercise, which is likely to convince pupils that English is a very boring subject indeed, let’s ask whether these sorts of lessons are even likely to achieve their intended effect of increased GCSE grades.

I would argue that grade increases will be marginal, because the only likely benefit of this exercise is to build familiarity with the question types which pupils can expect to encounter. Pupils are very unlikely to acquire much new knowledge or vocabulary, because their working memory will be fully occupied by the simultaneous challenge of coping with an unseen text and answering questions on it. When the working memory is fully occupied with complex tasks like this, pupils can be working very hard for long periods of time and retain no new knowledge after the lesson, because their attention is completely taken up with the complexity of the task, and so there is no capacity remaining for transferring knowledge into long term memory.

The main result of spending large amounts of lesson time doing test drill is that pupils are more likely to perform at the level they were already at. In other words, they are more likely to be able to apply effectively the knowledge and vocabulary they already possessed. The lessons themselves are not giving them any new knowledge and vocabulary, and so are not actually increasing their capacity to read with understanding.

English teachers need to ask themselves what they hope to gain from lessons that mimic examinations. Examinations measure performance, but there is no expectation that they will increase performance, because there is no expectation that those taking the examination will acquire any new knowledge. One would hope, on the other hand, that our lessons actually taught our pupils something which they remembered.


Can Schools Make a Difference?


When studies are made of how much difference schools make, they focus on finding out the main factors which contribute to the variation in academic success, and discover that schools are a relatively small player in this, overall.

But it isn’t only the variation between people that we care about. We care about whether people, generally, are getting a decent education. Even if schools cannot close the attainment gap, they can still move the whole bell curve to the right. Even if, on average, pupils of well educated parents always tend do better than those of less well educated parents, we can still aim to make sure every pupil, whatever their parentage, does not leave school without a solid foundation of knowledge.

Instead of looking at sets of pupils within the same education system, we should compare whole education systems, and consider whether one education system means, on average, that everyone knows more, even though there still remains a large variation, and even though this variation may be largely dependent upon genetic inheritance or social class.

There are education systems in the world in which the vast majority of primary pupils become fluent in basic mathematical operations. There are other education systems where they do not. Does that mean that in the more effective education systems which do build this fluency, everyone becomes a mathematics professor? Of course not; there is still going to be variation in individual outcomes, even in the most effective education system.

France provides an excellent example of how different systems affect outcomes for everyone. Prior to the loi Jospin of 1989, overall outcomes were better, as well as being more equitable, but that does not mean there was no variation. Outcomes were still significantly better for those from more affluent backgrounds. After the loi Jospin, which mandated constructivist approaches to curriculum and pedagogy in primary schools, outcomes worsened for everybody, but they worsened most for those with the least cultural capital. One system was better for everybody, but neither system led to equal outcomes for all. One system was more equitable, but no system can be completely equitable, and neither should it be. We would have to hold some pupils back deliberately if we wanted total equality of outcome.

One of the things which really doesn’t help the cause of education reform is the talk of ‘closing the attainment gap’. Teachers cannot work miracles. Pupils come to school with vastly different processing equipment (fluid intelligence) and prior knowledge (crystallised intelligence), which means that there is no way that outcomes are going to be the same for everybody. The genetic and cultural inheritance of a child outside of school is always going to make a huge difference.

But this does not mean that more effective schooling cannot have a significant impact, on everybody. A more coherent curriculum and more explicit methods of instruction will help everybody make more progress. But it would be odd if that progress were not even more rapid for those with sharper intellects and more prior knowledge than it is for those who are less gifted.

People are not the same. But an effective education system will help everyone to fulfil their potential. What matters is whether everyone is doing better.

[Image from Wikimedia.]