Cracking the code: thinking skills in the literacy reading exam unpacked

My favourite way to teach unfamiliar texts and comprehension activities with students is to feed them lots of different types of text. Then I would teach them about the thinking skills that are needed behind common reading comprehension methods. Then I would teach them how to write easy, medium and hard questions (three level questioning) and suddenly they could predict exam answers for any text. Any text! The key is knowing what kind of thinking is at play when reading critically.

The thing I want students to know is that examination writers only have the same tools available to them when writing the assessments. They also have the same world of texts to choose from, need to write questions that target reading comprehension skills and need to provide different levels of questions that give opportunities for different types of thinking.

Learners in New Zealand need to sit an online reading exam as the first half of a 10 credit compulsory assessment duo to gain NCEA. The reading exam is worth 5 literacy credits and the writing exam is worth 5 literacy credits. These two ‘common achievement assessments’ combined will prove that they are literate in reading and writing.

I did a deep dive into the reading exam because I wanted to understand it better. I also wanted to make a self-marking one that teachers could use as a practice to understand it better too. I wanted to make one that talks to learners about the thinking skills involved in each question and gives them feedback and tips as a practice experience.

Here’s what I found out:

Eight sections: this means eight different texts. Think of all the places text is found and choose a random selection at level 5 and you will have a good idea of what might be there. Think article, blog, reference book, prose, website, historical account, interview, text message thread, social media snip, review, recipe, speech. It has made me read the news differently if I’m honest as I have started to think ‘this would be a good text for the exam’ while scrolling news and opinion websites in particular. A good text needs some solid vocabulary, a clear real-world context and an ideally something implied. (Eg. A travel blog reviewing a pie using some quirky and entertaining reviewing language with a subtext that they want New Zealanders to travel to the South Island to experience them).

Five questions: for each text there are between three and five questions. The questions require students to use right there, think and search, context clues, inference, analysis, cross-checking, comparing, re-reading and connecting with the author’s intention for reading skills. Sometimes the cross-checking is about checking which statement is the best summary, which title is the best fit, which word would be a good replacement etc.

Thinking skills needed: guessing and checking, comparing and contrasting, skimming and scanning, inferring and analyzing, questioning and proving. Find and figure out. Three levels are right there, think and search and ‘author and me’ or ‘text and world’ connecting the text to something greater than itself.

Multiple choice: multiple choice questions typically have one outlier and three similar answers but this is also not a hard and fast rule. The answers often require more close reading to check what the question is really asking.

Vocabulary checks: most questions have a vocab question that requires students to choose the best definition or synonym for a word in the context of the text.

Inference and context clues: all questions require that students can read between the lines to find inferred meaning linked to the author’s intention, a tone in a text thread or a bigger idea that is not ‘right there’ that requires more probing and proving. This is a vital reading comprehension skill.

So what is the best way to prepare?

Reading. Read everything. Think about everything. Read critically.

Questioning. Try predicting some ‘implied’ things from texts to regularly check understanding and talk about how texts work.

Talking about texts. As above. Why do you think the author used the word _________? What would be the best title for this text? What did the author hope the reader would do when they included __________?

Checking vocabulary. Look words up. Find synonyms. Weigh up the best fit.


The science of reading hasn’t changed. If we can teach kids what to expect and how exams and assessments are designed and give them opportunities to design similar activities with any text then we are setting them up well. Reading comprehension still requires close reading, re-reading and cross-checking using clues in the text. The best way forward is to feed them lots of texts and keep encouraging them to think critically for themselves.

Brain and heart. Read, think, care.

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