As readers, one of the most important things we can do to increase our understanding of the texts we read is ask questions about what we're reading. But what makes a good question? And, what do we do with those questions once we've asked them?
When teaching students the importance of questioning the texts we read, these are the challenges I face. For many students, engaging with text beyond what is happening is something they simply don't have a lot of practice in. Instead, they've had a lot of practice in answering the questions a teacher has created for them in a study guide, or the questions associated at the end of a piece of literature in a textbook. While there is nothing wrong with these approaches, I believe that students will have more "buy in", engagement, and better comprehension if they create their own questions. Asking Good Questions will set them up for making solid inferences and allow them to gain a deeper understanding of what they're reading.
Surface vs. Depth
When I first introduce this lesson to students, I find that many kids spend a lot of time asking Surface Level Questions like the following:
Who is ________?
What does _______ mean?
Where did ______ go?
And others like it. While these questions are a good starting point for students who may not be used to keeping track of the questions they have while they're reading, eventually I want to lead my students into asking questions that show me they're thinking deeply about what they read. So we have a conversation about Surface Level Comprehension versus Deep Comprehension.
Surface Level Comprehension means that the answers to the questions we come up with can be found directly in the text. These are the "right there" questions whose answers are pretty obvious.
Deep Comprehension means that the answers to the questions we come up with aren't as obvious. We often have to "dig deeper" to find the answers to them. These answers are the ones that we have to make solid inferences about in order to find a solid answer.
To help clarify this for my students, I have them write down this chart:
Surface Level Understanding Deeper Understanding
These are the Is, Does, Who, What, These are the Why and How questions.
Where, When questions. These questions often have longer
These questions often have short answers. answers.
We also talk about how some Surface Level Questions simply provide us with Yes, No, or Maybe for an answer, which gives us validation that we may be right about something, but these questions don't force us to think deeply about what we've read.
We also talked about how asking questions about what particular words mean can really bog us down and distract us from what's really going on in a text. I've found that when I first teach this lesson to students, they spend a lot of time writing questions about what words mean. At first, this is okay, but I've found that when students can't find answers about what words mean, they often feel like giving up, or they don't see the value in Asking Good Questions.
Once I've given a thorough explanation of the types of questions readers can ask, it's time to put this knowledge into practice. I establish some ground rules first:
Asking Good Questions
- Ask questions that will help you gain a better understanding of the text you're reading.
- Use words like Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How to begin your questions.
- Search carefully. Sometimes the answers aren't "right there".
- Re-read as much as you need to.
- Be patient. Sometimes the answers don't reveal themselves until much later in the text, or after we've read.
- Keep track of every question you think of. Sometimes asking one question will lead you to a few more questions.
- Answer all of the questions you come up with.
After we've established these rules, it's time to put them into practice. To do this, I'll read a few pages (or short chapter) of the book I'm currently reading to my students. Right now, I'm reading Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. On my smart board, I create two columns like this, keeping track of the questions I have while I read.
Questions I Have Answers
What is a "quarry"?* pg. 192 A quarry must be a hole or a pile of dirt near a mine.
What does "impenetrable" mean?* pg. 192 Impenetrable sort of sounds like penetrate. I know that adding im- to the beginning of the word means not, so this must mean not penetrable. Like it's impossible to go through it.
When did the "Dark Days" take place? pg. 192 The author hasn't really mentioned any clue about when this era was. From what I can remember in the first two books, it must have been hundreds of years ago before The Hunger Games existed.
Why has it taken Katniss so long to appreciate Peeta? pg. 195 Katniss is naive and stubborn. She reminds me of a lot of young girls who take those close to them for granted. Clearly, she only appreciates Peeta when his life is in jeopardy.
What happened to Finnick and Annie? Why didn't the
author go into more detail about their reunion? pgs. 196-97 I think I need to keep reading to find this answer.
Why is Gale so cold-hearted? How can he suggest Gale's a hunter at heart. He's killing innocent people so easily? pgs. 201-203 methodical. Logical. He's been jaded by everything that has happened to him. Like a true hero, he will do whatever it takes to help Katniss, even if that means killing innocent people or sacrificing his own life.
*Because I know that many students will ask these types of questions the first time I teach this lesson (and until they get more practice in Asking Good Questions), I've included them as examples.
Now that I have these questions in place, I've created my own Comprehension Check. To really get my brain working, I need to go back and do some re-reading and spend some time really thinking about the questions I've asked. By writing the page numbers down, I've made this work easier for myself.
As I work the answers for my questions, I spend about 10-15 minutes coming up with my answers. I read each question carefully, sometimes a few times over, and then go back to the text to search for my answers. For the first two questions, I simply re-read the sentences where these words are located and the paragraph they're located in. This allows me to use Context Clues to make an educated guess (or inference about their meaning). On questions like these, I find students are often tempted to use dictionaries, but a dictionary definition isn't necessary as long as the guess makes sense within the context of the text.
For my other questions, I re-read the pages where I think the answers are and spend a few minutes on each question really thinking about what makes the most sense based on what I've read so far. And this is key. Remembering what I've read in the previous two books and in this book so far. While I've held opinions of both Katniss and Gale to this point, I haven't written anything down about them. This journal entry allows me the opportunity to place my thoughts down on paper.
Often, I'm surprised by what I come up with (and what my students come up with as well). Reading (or hearing) someone's thoughts about what they're thinking is like learning a secret--it tells you a lot about what's going on in someone's head. It also helps me figure out if a student is thinking on the surface or in-depth about what he/she is reading.
After I've modeled what Asking Good Questions and Searching for the Answers should look and sound like for my students, I give them time to practice. I have them read a chapter in their books using the chart: Questions I Have / Answers to help them begin keeping track of their thinking. As they do, I walk around the room talking with individual students about the questions they're coming up with and give them feedback on which questions will provide the best understanding for them.
After they've had some practice, I choose 2-3 students to share their work with the class so that we can identify the types of questions we're asking and trouble-shoot any problems they may have in writing Good Questions.
Teaching students how to Ask Good Questions that force them to delve deeply into their texts they're reading isn't something they're going to master in one class period, or in a week. Good readers know that Deep Comprehension comes with a lot of practice in reading, in Asking Good Questions, in searching for the answers in the texts we read, and in checking those answers against our overall understanding of such texts.
I'll admit that it will take many of my students a quarter, semester, or even an entire school year to master these skills. This is why we practice Asking Good Questions on a regular basis with a variety of texts. In fact, until the majority of them get it down, we practice each time we have a reading day in class.
Asking Good Questions is one way we can teach our students to become better readers. It provides the foundation that allows them to build their comprehension, interact with the texts they're reading, check their comprehension, and practice making solid inferences about what they're reading. It's one of the many secrets we need to explicitly share and model with our students so that they know What Makes Good Reading.
For more on What Makes Good Reading, see: Reading Allowed: Making Sure the First "R" Comes First.
Portions of this article are © Copyright 1995-2012 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., and are used by permission. For more information, and free teaching materials, visit www.ttms.org or contact Margot Lester at firstname.lastname@example.org.