How to Write Reading Comprehension Tests

Make sure students' reading skills are on track: design and administer comprehension tests.

According to the National Literacy Trust’s first annual survey, students prefer reading text messages and e-mails to fiction and non-fiction, but, the survey shows, those who read technology-based material don’t meet literacy expectations as often as those who read traditional texts. The 2011 ACT report also acknowledged the problem, stating that only 52 percent of high school graduates met the reading college readiness benchmark. To change this, teachers can monitor students’ abilities by giving reading comprehension tests. The results expose students’ strengths and weaknesses, allowing teachers to better meet their needs.

Choose grade-appropriate reading passages. If your classroom has a textbook set, select a short story from it to use for your test. For example, if you teach sixth grade English, choose a story from your textbook like "The Jacket" by Gary Soto or "All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury. If your classroom doesn’t have textbooks, find age-appropriate reading passages online or at the library. Print or photocopy at least enough for each student.

Read the story yourself, looking for the main idea of each paragraph and of the piece as a whole. Then, write test questions about the main idea of the passage and key paragraphs. This will test students’ ability to focus on the big picture and grasp general themes in a story. According to "The Real ACT Prep Guide," main idea questions are fairly straightforward, sometimes stated as simply as, "What is the main point of the passage?" If you are writing a reading comprehension test for "The Jacket" by Gary Soto, you might ask students, "What is the main conflict of this story?"

Read the passage again, this time noting important details (ones that move the story forward or reveal something noteworthy about a character). Write questions asking students to recall these details. These questions test students' literal comprehension as the answers can be found explicitly in the text.

Scan the passage for difficult vocabulary words. Compose multiple choice questions asking students to choose the best definition for each challenging word. This will reveal students' ability (or inability) to decipher meaning from context clues.

Add a few questions asking students to make inferences or draw conclusions based on what they’ve read. In their article, "Developing Reading Comprehension Questions," Richard R. Day and Jeong-suk Park explain that making inferences involves more than a literal understanding of the text; it requires that readers combine their literal understanding with their intuitions based on what happens in a story. To answer these questions, students will need to use their observations to “read between the lines” and determine, for example, how a character really feels or why a character acts as he does. An inference question about "The Jacket" might ask, "Why does the narrator take off his jacket to play kickball in the seventh paragraph?" Although he never explicitly says, "I played kickball in the cold because I was embarrassed to wear my ugly jacket," the narrator makes other statements that show he feels self-conscious about his outerwear.

Allow a friend or colleague to take your test. Then, ask her to identify any confusing elements that need clarification. Revise accordingly.

  • Don't give reading comprehension tests that have too many questions (more than 20 per 500 to 800 word passage). Students might to become bored and frustrated, which won't help their literacy development.
  • Don't write any questions that require prior knowledge. All questions should be answerable using only the reading passage. Include a variety of question types, such as short answer, true or false, fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice. If time allows, you may want to add an essay question to the end of your test.
  • 1 "The Real ACT Prep Guide"; ACT, Inc.; 2005

Sarah Watson is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has been writing professionally since 2006, with work appeared in poetry anthologies and literary journals such as "Arts Beat," as well as in various online publications. Watson holds a Master of Arts in education from Northern Illinois University.