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Text Complexity and Reading Comprehension Tests

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Erik Castello

Based on the analysis of a specially compiled corpus of internationally recognized English as a foreign language (EFL) reading tests at different levels of proficiency, this volume explores the relation between the complexity of written texts and the difficulty of reading comprehension tests. It brings together linguistic investigations into the text-inherent complexity of the tests and a study of the data derived from their administration to groups of Italian university students. The study of text complexity draws on corpus linguistics, text linguistics and systemic functional linguistics. Both quantitative and qualitative analyses are carried out on the language used in the reading texts and in the related tasks that make up the corpus of tests. The assessment of test difficulty, on the other hand, is informed by research on language testing, and, in particular, by findings and methodologies of Classical Test Theory and Item Response Theory. Relevant aspects of these theories are used to analyze and interpret both the data obtained from the administration of the tests and the data collected by means of feedback questionnaires completed by test takers. The application of such diverse methodologies and the subsequent comparison of the results of the analyses has brought out interesting correlations between text-inherent complexity, perceived test difficulty and actual test difficulty.

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2. A Corpus of Reading Comprehension Tests 23

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2. A Corpus of Reading Comprehension Tests The corpus the present study is based on is composed of twenty-five reading comprehension input texts and of the accompanying questions/tasks to be answered/performed by test-takers. They were selected from various testing systems that aim to assess the reading skills of students of English as a second or foreign language at dif- ferent levels of competence and for different purposes. The majority of them were chosen from free sample materials available on-line, i.e. University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations’ Preliminary English Test (PET), First Certificate in English (FCE) and Certificate in Advanced English (CAE)1, and from commercially available preparation courses for the same and other English language examinations, i.e. Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)2, the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)3, and University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations’ PET and FCE tests. Some other texts and tasks, on the other hand, were taken from the 1 University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations (Cambridge ESOL) is part of Cambridge Assessment . Cam- bridge ESOL offers a wide range of exams for learners and teachers of English: General English exams, Professional English exams, Young Learners English, and Teaching Awards. The General English Exams offered are: KET (Key English Test), PET (Preliminary English Test), FCE (First Certificate in English), CAE (Certificate in Advanced English), CPE (Certifi- cate of Proficiency in English), and Certificates in ESOL Skills for Life . Websites last visited on 25th April 2008. 2 The Test of English as a Foreign Language...

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