Backwards Design and Reading Comprehension

  • 07 April, 2013

Many schools are into what they call “backward design.” This means they start with learning goals, create/adopt assessments, and then make lessons aimed at preparing kids for those assessments.

  That sounds good—if you don’t understand assessment. In some fields an assessment might be a direct measure of the goal. If you want to save $1,000,000 for retirement, look at your bank account every six months and you can estimate of how close you are to your goal. How do you get closer to your goal? Add money to your accounts… work harder, save more, spend less.

  Other fields? Doctors assess patient’s temperatures. If a temperature is 102 degrees, the doctor will be concerned, but he won’t assume a temperature problem. He'll guess the temperature means some kind of infection. He’ll want to figure out what kind and treat it (the treatment itself may be an assessment—this could be strep, so I’ll prescribe an antibiotic and if it works, it was strep, and if it doesn’t, then we’ll seek another solution; all very House).

  And in education? Our assessments are only samples of what we want students to be able to do. Let’s say we want to teach single digit addition. There are 100 single addition problems: 0+0=0; 0+1=1; 1+0=1; 1+1=2… 9+9=18. Of course, those 100 problems could be laid out vertically or horizontally, so that means 200 choices. There is the story problem version too, so we could have another 100 of those. That’s 300 items, which would be a small universe in reading comprehension.  

  A test-maker would sample from those 300 problems. No one wants a 300-item test; too expensive and unnecessary. A random sample of 30 items would represent the whole set pretty well. If Johnny gets 30 right on such a test, we could assume that he would get all or most of the 300 right.

  But what if the teachers knew what the sample was going to look like? What if only five of the items were story problems? Maybe she wouldn’t teach story problems; it wouldn’t be worth it. Kids could get a good score without those. She may notice that eight items focused on the addition of 5; she’d spend more time on the 5s than the other numbers. Her kids might do well on the task, but they wouldn’t necessarily be so good at addition. They’d only be good at this test of addition, which is not the same thing as reaching the addition goal.

  When a reading comprehension test asks main idea questions like, “What would be a good title for this story?”, teachers will focused their main idea instruction on titles as a statements of main idea. Not on thesis statements. Not on descriptive statements. If the test is multiple-choice, then teachers would emphasize recognition over construction. If a test only asks about stories, then to hell with paragraphs. 

  Conceptions like main idea, theme, comparison, inference, conclusion, and so on, can be asked so many different ways. And there are so many texts that we could ask about. Anyone who aims instruction at a test, thinking that is the same as the goal, may get higher scores. But the cost of such a senseless focus is the students’ futures, because their skills won’t have the complexity, the depth, or the flexibility to allow them to meet the actual goal--the one that envisioned them reading many kinds of texts and being able to determine key ideas no matter how they were assessed.

  Reading comprehension tests are not goals… they are samples of behaviors that represent the goals… and they are useful right up until teachers can’t distinguish them from the goals themselves.   


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Backwards Design and Reading Comprehension


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.