Once we take apart the machine — and apply the language to a couple of practice tests and sample questions, done all-class, and in pairs, and independently — the next phase is to write their OWN multiple-choice reading exam.
I give them a detailed template where the prompts look something like this:
Required: ONE “Main Idea” question
How to come up with the best answer: Read the entire article, and come up with a single sentence that explains the opinion of the author and/or the main person being profiled in the story.
How to come up with your other three answers: Create statements that mention the same topic, or focus on a specific part of the essay, but don’t summarize the entire passage.
Write in your “Main Idea” question and answers here:
We started by working in pairs and all reading the first few pages of the same essay. I picked something that has consistently proven high interest: The Inner City Prep School Experience.
Because my students have consistent internet access, I could have them search for their own essays on NYTimes.com – I specifically limited them to longer articles from the Sunday Magazine, which were in-depth enough to excerpt the first 1500 words or so and have it be similar (or more advanced) than the pieces in the PSSA. Giving them freedom to browse and choose an article that interested them was key, but it would be easy to present them with a selection of articles pre-printed in class.
They build all of the different question types: Main Idea, Drawing Inferences, Context Meaning (aka vocab), and so on. Some of the observations they quickly make:
– Writing the answers is a lot harder than writing the questions.
– The right answer often comes out as the longest; you need to extend the others so that they match in length, and also have some common threads.
– There are rarely 100% “throw away” answers that having nothing to do with the reading; good “red herring” questions incorporate some actual details from the article, but twist them around or just aren’t the right answers.
Once we’re done, we print and take each other’s exams. The peer review is popular because the reviewer tried to take the exam as well as rate it, and the author got to see how easy/difficult their exam was.