The Internet TESL Journal

What Do We Test When We Test Reading Comprehension?

Akmar Mohamad
a_mohamad [at] hotmail. com
Universiti Sains Malaysia

As ESL/EFL teachers, we are aware that the primary objective of reading is comprehension--being able to find meaning in what is read. Thus, we give our students reading assessments in order to test their reading abilities. When we are preparing these assessments, we may go through some of the following:

However, some teachers may not be aware that the comprehension questions they formulate only test students' ability to understand and recall ideas and information directly stated in the given text. It is indeed unfortunate if comprehension assessments do not go beyond this level of comprehension. The purpose of this article is to provide ESL/EFL teachers with some guidelines when preparing reading assessments.

Teachers need to be aware that there are actually three main levels or strands of comprehension--literal, interpretive and critical comprehension.


Although comprehension takes place at several levels, mastery at any one level is not a prerequisite to comprehension at another level. Furthermore, the reading skills for each level or strand cut across ages; they are relevant to young readers in primary schools, secondary school students right up to students at tertiary level. EFL/ESL teachers also need to keep in mind that the three levels are not distinct . Dividing comprehension into literal, referential and critical strands is only intended as a guide for teachers when preparing reading assessments. Studies have shown that teachers tend to ask their students mainly literal comprehension questions. They need to be aware that there is more to reading than just the basic skills of reading and recalling information.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 12, December 1999