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Comprehension is often not what it appears

Sometimes it seems like students understand what they’ve read, but it’s not always what it appears to be. I decided to show my students that answering questions in their own words is important.

It’s been an uphill battle convincing students that answering questions with only quotes from a text doesn’t show you know anything about that text. EAP students are inundated with the message that they shouldn’t plagiarise, they shouldn’t copy excerpts from readings to answer questions and they need to express themselves in their own words.  Over and over and over.  Yet they continue to do it, accompanied by expressions of wonder when assignment feedback is critical.

Student: Why not? The quote answers the question perfectly.
Me: Yes, but what does it mean?
Student: It’s the answer to the question.
Me: Ok, but what does it mean?  Tell me in your own words.
Student: Why?

Problem #1: I needed an activity with the power to effectively convince students to use their own words in answers and essays.  Then, somewhere in the back depths of my brain came a vague recollection of an activity from my linguistics studies: ask questions about a foreign language text that they’ll be able to answer even not knowing the language. Of course, since my students are reading in a foreign language anyways, I decided to look for one that included gibberish words instead.

Problem #2: I couldn’t figure out how to find this type of activity. How does one Google this?  I tried gibberish reading activity.  Nope.  linguistics reading comprehension activity. Nope. garbledegook. Nope.

Solution: With nothing coming up in my searches and no notes from my studies hidden away in old binders, making my own was the obvious choice.

I took the following CBC article, $201,000 cellphone bill charged after trip to Canada, replaced vocabulary with gibberish and made a series of 12 simple detail questions that could still be answered in full sentences and three comprehension questions that were impossible to answer without understanding the vocabulary.  For example, here is a simplified version of the first sentence and how I modified it into gibberish:

A Florida woman got a cellphone bill that showed she owed $201,000. It was no mistake.  / A Memony blablen got a miggleloth boop that lirfed blable nammered $201,000. It was no fizzle.

The first of 12 detail questions of “Who got a cellphone bill?” became “Who got a miggleloth boop?”  Obviously, the answer can easily be made by saying “A Memony blablen got a miggleloth boop.”  Ta da!  We can answer the question without actually knowing the meaning.  Let’s try a couple more, shall we?

But while blablen’s zexis were cacciling for two meefs in Canada, they mooged over 2,000 hebles and also hippled kempos, sometimes totalling $2,000 in jippy edects. Blable never nekled to a plodderith rippy.

What were the blablen’s zexis doing in Canada? How long?
What did they do while they were cacciling there?
What quent them $2000? Why?

Simple ability to locate key words and draw from basic understanding of structure, grammar form and usage proves anyone can answer these types of questions, but nothing about it demonstrates any type of real comprehension.  So in addition to these types of questions, I wanted to stump students by asking more meaningful questions to see what they’d do.  If you look back at that last paragraph, try answering this question:

How would nekling to a plodderith rippy have solved this problem?

In this case, students would need to understand what neckling and a plodderith rippy mean in order to formulate any reasonable answer.  This was proven in class when all students left this question (#13 and 14-15) blank on their papers. A few made pitiful attempts, but were again stumped when I asked them to explain why.

Ultimately, I asked students the following two questions to consider in pairs:
1) Were some of the questions easier or more difficult to answer than others? Why?
2) What has this exercise demonstrated to you?

In a delightfully resounding chorus, they said that they could answer many questions even though they didn’t understand anything about the text, so copying directly from text fails to show that they understand. Hooray for small mercies (or rather large ones, actually)! This led quite well into a discussion on the virtues of paraphrasing.

Of course, this exercise also should speak to the quality of comprehension questions teachers and publishers make about any given text. Do your questions really accomplish the aim you want them to?  Probably not always.

Language awareness extensions to this exercise
1) Word class – Ask your students to determine the word class of the various gibberish words.  Ask them to consider the difference between related words, like hebles/hebling, nekled/nekling, zexis/zexiey, blablen/blable, caccil/cacciling, etc.
2) Types of nouns – Ask students what they think Memony or T-Miggleloth could be?
3) Collocation – Ask students to see if they can work out synonyms for any of the words based on how they were used.  For example, quents is followed by a dollar figure, which suggests that it could be costs.  Another example, meefs and chitties are preceded by numbers and talk about a duration, so they are probably words for days, weeks or months.
4) Give them a copy of the original and ask them to try answer questions #13-15 by translating the jibberish into English.

—>You can download this exercise here.

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Great post! When I taught Spanish as a foreign language we used a short story by Julio Cortázar written in a language he invented. Makes you think of language, meaning, language conventions . . .

[…] Comprehension is often not what it appears | 4C […]


What a brilliant method for making students think and feel like pioneers in deciphering a new language! Besides, cracking the crazy words must be huge fun.

Thanks for sharing this, Tyson!

Brad Patterson

There are tons of plodderith rippys (rippies) laying throughout the yard as it’s jepedrius season here in Paris. Can’t wait to carve my ullopasquarn… FUN.

Brad Patterson

I don’t mind that it’s Rejintaqui. Like Basoopalox said “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!”

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[…] Comprehension is often not what it appears | 4C Source: […]


I’m embarrassed how long this took me to read – and understand! I absolutely love teaching reading strategies. I focused more on your extension exercises of defining gibberish vocabulary in context, etc. I found this particularly useful when I had students of various levels so that NONE of them knew the words and they all had to take their time and actually think about the language. I love the sample activity, definitely a keeper for me. Great post Tysen! Thanks for sharing.

Naomi Epstein

This is a marvelous activity which I have been using for years with TEACHERS (lots of my students see everything as jibberish anyway). I first learned about it in a book from the 1980’s about teaching the deaf and then watched over and over how Richard Lavoi used it in F.A.T CITY / How Hard Can it Be” to demonstrate how understanding individual words is not an indication of comprehension (it is a video about how learning disabled children learn). REALLY recommend that video! Here is the link to the relevant part

GREAT strategy!!!!! Good for you!

Jemma Gardner

Good morning,

Great post, hadn’t ever thought of using this with English learners, but I have used it with Celta trainees to show them what comprehension questions are and are not. There’s an activity in (I think)Penny Ur’s teacher training book (I am constantly worried about getting credits right after Scott Thornbury’s recent post!!).

I like how similar activities can be useful for both learners and teachers (in training).

Thanks for sharing,


Jemma’s right about the Penny Ur activity that highlights this skill. I used it when I taught the reading portion of a TESL course.
These activities are good reminders for all of us that there’s more to reading than meets the eye.

[…] was reminded of the topic of utilizing nonsense words when reading Tyson Seburnt’s excellent post Comprehension is often not what it appears . In his post he uses nonsense words to show students that copying from a text doesn’t mean you […]

[…] is often not what it appears to be. I think we’ve proven this (in a post here, for example). When students believe they are showing their comprehension, they often are just […]

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