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Assessing Student Understanding of Literature

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Having a student read is good, but how do we know what they are actually taking from each reading? Read this lesson to help identify assessment strategies that promote student reading comprehension, understanding, analysis, and skills related to literature.

Purposeful Reading

The majority of children love to have stories read to them, and some enjoy the act of reading independently; but when it comes to the classroom, how can we tell if our students are comprehending what they read? As educators, we have to find meaningful ways to assess our students' reading skills to ensure they are set up for success in the years to come. Let's take a look at some assessment strategies and decide how we can use them in our classrooms.

The Line

It seems students always receive reading guide questions with their reading assignments in school, and there are good reasons for it. Teachers give reading guide questions to assess individual reading ability, keep kids accountable for the work, and teach kids what to look for while reading. As our students grow, we want to ensure we are asking age appropriate questions in connection to increasing skill level. First, we need to give them the tools.

Below are three levels of reading skills that can be scaffolded and used to teach and assess reading comprehension skills.

On the Line-Literal

When we assess plot-based or on-the-line questions, we are talking about questions that are easily answered by looking back in the text. These text dependent questions should ask about setting, character descriptions, and main events; there is no guessing when it comes to the answer. On-the-line questions are based on what is literally happening in the text and will follow the who, what, when, where format. Who is the protagonist in The Giver? Where does the Finch family live? What happens to Tybalt in Act III? Questions like these will help the teacher assess student ability and teach the students what to look for while reading.

This type of analysis can be used with any text--fiction or nonfiction--and promotes the understanding of the main points of an story, article, or essay.

Between the Line-Inferential

We want to move our students past plot-based questions and get them to dig deeper in the text. Between-the-line questions are based on inference. This means students need to access the plot and then make educated guesses about the character's thought and feelings based on textual evidence. A great tool for teaching inference is two-column notes/dialectical journals. The teacher will select a quote that may have clues about a character's thoughts, feelings or intentions, and using context, students will infer by analyzing the character's behaviors, thoughts or speech.

As students become more comfortable with this type of analysis, the teacher can have the students find their own quotes and analyze them. The goal is to get students to figure out what the text is suggesting and begin to look for patterns and compare evidence within a story.

This type of analysis can also be used with nonfictional texts. Two column notes can be used to assess bias and other rhetorical devices.

Beyond the Line-Thematic

After our students are able to access plot and characterization, it's time to raise the bar again. We want to get our students beyond-the-line so they can make connections within and outside of the text. Here, students will connect the plot and characters by answering questions based on symbolism, allusions, history and more, while analyzing the author's intention. Beyond-the-line questions are typically open-ended and bring up discussions surrounding universal truths, morality and ethics, and philosophical propositions that writers have been challenging for centuries.

At this stage, our students should be able to determine the theme of a story and create their own meaning. We want our students to ask how this story connects to their own life and the lives of others. What is this story saying about the world they live in? While theme may not necessarily connect to nonfiction or informational texts, looking for moral, ethical, and political connections can be found through higher level questioning.

Putting It All Together

While reading guide questions and class discussions are an important part of assessing reading comprehension, students can be assessed in a number of ways depending on your objectives.

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