Quandaries of the quiz writer

Kate Barton

Kate Barton has been a school librarian for 9 years and has worked with a number of different literacy intervention schemes. After discovering Renaissance Learning’s Accelerated Reader (AR) software and its benefits, she trained as an Accredited Renaissance Consultant (ARC) to help other schools as they went through their own learning curves. Working more closely with the software triggered curiosity about the core offering of AR, the reading practice quizzes, and not so long ago she trained to become a quiz writer. She now crafts numerous quizzes for Renaissance Learning every year, each quiz a labour of love.

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What can bespoke quizzes offer the classroom? School librarian and trained quiz writer Kate Barton discusses how best to go about creating these activities for your classroom.

For over six years I’ve used an educational software program which quizzes school students on books they have read. The quizzes are designed to measure to what extent readers have understood the books, and ensure that their choices are both enjoyable and suitably challenging for them.

I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of students, and watched so many blossom into such confident, admirable - and well-read - young people. But from my earliest encounters with this program, one question quickly arose and never left me: “Who gets to write those quizzes, and how can I become one of them?”

So these days, love it or hate it, it’s my job to read whichever book needs a quiz – bright pink school-day romances, gangsters packing guns or misunderstood outcasts wallowing in angst. There are many benefits to both me and my readers from this experience: I have a better understanding of what my students should expect to encounter in a quiz; what skills they will develop; what kinds of titles are available to them... and why it takes so long to get these quizzes ready.

I always understood the frustration of waiting for books to get snapped up as ‘quiz ready’, and of keeping my keen quiz-takers waiting, but now I finally know why the wait is necessary.

High profile books tend to jump the queue a bit, which can push other items back. Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Darren Shan, Karen McCombie et al will always trump Joe Bloggs. Famous book prizes have to get some priority treatment too; World Book Day, the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards and many more tend to create bottlenecks in the quiz-writing schedule. School recommendations also leap up the priority queue and leave poor Joe Bloggs waiting patiently on his shelf for a little while longer.

Once the book is in the hands of a quiz writer, time is absorbed by the mechanics of getting a good quiz written and approved. We can’t use too many words in the question and answers, or the reader loses the sense of what they are being asked. Everything has to be phrased in language appropriate to the setting and level of the book. The order of the questions has to synchronise with the events in the story. Those are the ‘simple’ parts of the process.

The question has to clearly define the moment in the story it is asking about. This may include using a variety of character names, place names, How / When / Why / What, and use a particular kind of ‘approved syntax’.

Each type of question has its own difficulties. ‘Why’ is a minefield, because the reader must not be asked to infer facts in a reading practice quiz (that’s the domain of literacy skills). If the text doesn’t explicitly state why, the quiz writer cannot fairly expect the reader to be certain.

‘How’ is not much less problematic; the pitfall is also expecting leaps of logic that are not actually described in the text.

If ‘When’ is similar to other times, it is useless; ‘when they had dinner and argued’, ‘when they went to school and had lessons’ – which of the several similar moments in the story is the right one?

‘What’ ought to be straightforward – but suppose several things happen in close succession; consider crafting a question to lead clearly and inexorably to only the answer you seek.

When it comes to framing the correct answer, this must utterly scream its rightness to those in the know, without standing out as an obvious choice to everyone else. Next, we must offer alternative answers of a kind that look entirely plausible but can never, even faintly, be mistaken for the correct one to someone who has actually read the book.

Being imprecise about the wording is a cardinal sin for a quiz writer. I once used the word ‘ghost’ to describe the disembodied spirit of a girl who had definitely died at the moment defined in the question. It was in a book which was a ghost story and featured the word ‘ghost’ applied to another character, but that word had not actually been used for this girl specifically. Although ‘she’s a ghost’ was what the writer wanted the reader to think, I had strayed into the domain of inference. So this left an unsupported use of a word, and potential confusion to the reader.

So ‘ghost’ put that question back on the drawing board. Redefining that can change the perspective of questions that come before or after it. So tweaking that one word could potentially trigger a cascade-failure to the whole quiz. Working with an editorial team, we can identify and amend any such problems.

Once issues like this have been addressed, an editor will clean up and streamline the grammar and syntax. Their changes get checked again, and then it is passed along for quality control. After that, it has to be submitted for approval and loaded on to the student-facing database by the software team, who do this for hundreds of books each term.

Most quizzes I write have ten questions, but we also write three, five and twenty question quizzes. We have platinum-standard writers for shorter books, who undertake a form of mental gymnastics that defies belief.

So despite seemingly simple questions and answers, it transpires that writing quizzes for the world’s most widely used reading management software requires a combination of creativity, rigour, caffeine and determination. Considering that, the mere two to three months it usually takes from start to finish now seems far less a mystery and rather more a minor miracle.

Do you use quizzes in the teaching of your students? Let us know in the comments.

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