After years of teaching expository text, I have finally stumbled upon a miracle way to assess my students’ ability (or inability) to comprehend a short expository text. It’s not a four step summary, a rhetorical precis, or a well-crafted summary template using They Say/I Say sentence frames. It’s a selected response, multiple choice assessment . . . plus a brief constructed response.


First thing’s first. I can’t take credit for this. I found it in Jennifer Fletcher’s Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. It is an incredible book! A revelation!

I taught AP English Language and Composition for 10 years and thought I knew how to teach rhetoric and argumentation. Then I read this book and it filled in so many missing pieces for me. I could go on, and perhaps I will in another post, but let’s get back to the topic at hand.

The Reading Comprehension Formative Assessment

At the time of this posting, I am teaching English IV Expository Reading and Writing Course. I am in the midst of teaching the module titled “Juvenile Justice.” To kick off this module, the students read an article titled “Kids Are Kids — Until They Commit Crimes” by Marjie Lundstrom.

After the students closely read the article, I give them this assessment:

Kids are Kids formative assessment
Screenshot of the Google Doc. Please Click the link above to access it. Download and leave a comment.

It’s two parts: selected response and constructed response. They are challenged to select the question that is most central to the text. That means that all the parts of the text, taken together, are essentially an answer to this question. I liken it to the gameshow Jeopardy: the short expository text is the answer, and the students need to provide the question.

After they provide the question, they justify their selection, referencing the text. I encourage quoting, paraphrasing, and any discussion of the author’s rhetorical choices (i.e. structure, devices, arrangement of detail/evidence, and word choice).

Here’s the process broken down simply:

  • The students are given the assessment.
  • The students take out their close reading of the text.
  • I explain the assessment.
  • They are given a time limit of 20 minutes.
  • I allow them to discuss it with classmates for 5 of the 20 minutes.
  • For 15 of the 20 minutes, they write their justifications.

The Take Away: Why You Need to Do This as Soon as Possible!

You should see how focused and attentive they are to the text. They furrow their brows. they engage in conversation while leaning over the page. They keep pointing to passages and declaring, “No, it can’t be X because of what the author said right here.”

The activity alone is good enough, but reading over the results shows me what they do (and do not) comprehend. I get a really good read on what they understand and what I need to teach moving forward. And the best part is that it is quick and easy to go over their responses!

Even when I would read summaries and precis, I would get hung up on formatting and wording. I was assessing too many elements of their written response. With this assessment, I am not tempted to look at their wording or sentence structure. I just focus on their ideas and references to the text. It is freeing!

Next Steps for Me (Us?)

I am working on a rubric that can help me score this and put it in the grade book (not that this is a necessary step, but it is clarifying for me). My students tend to get motivated when the stakes are a little higher, so I put it in as an assessment grade for 20 points.

Here is the rubric I’m working on:

Rubric Read Comp Formative Ass
Screenshot of the Google Doc. Please Click the link above to access it. Download and leave a comment.

In the near future, I plan to explain the layout of this rubric. It is intentional, starting with the low score on the left and moving to the high score on the right. Also, I am doing my best to take out “deficit” language, where the scoring criteria discusses what the student did not do or where he or she performed poorly. I try to keep it behavioral, describing what the student did rather than attach vague adverbs to a criterion that lacks meaning (i.e. inadequately, effectively, or flawlessly).

What you see here is the rough, rough draft (I put it together just before typing this post). I would love your input!

What do you think? Leave your thoughts as a reply below.

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