A Better Way to Ask Questions about Texts

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On a recent classroom visit, I overheard a teacher asking the question, “Why did Brent decide to try to commit suicide?” The class was reading the book Whirligig, and the teacher was pushing students to understand the main character’s motivation in narrative texts. After a few moments of silence, a student raised his hand sheepishly and said, “He felt hopeless…?” Bingo! The teacher, in the name of text-dependency, followed up with the classic, “Great! Can you show me some evidence?” The student began quickly flipping pages in his book while the rest of the class watched, still silent.

A colleague of mine recently dubbed these types of questions “straight-up” questions. And while they are often text-dependent (one of the major Common Core instructional shifts), there are two issues with using “straight-up” questions to teach reading comprehension.

First, they don’t teach students anything. The goal of reading class is not to teach the text. That’s a secondary benefit. The goal of reading class is to give students skills they can use to comprehend texts that they read independently. And the question above does none of that. If a student were reading a book on their own (or on a test), the question above would do nothing to help them.

The second issue is that a “straight-up” question often promotes thinking in only a few students–the ones that know the answer. The other kids that don’t know the answer can just idle, especially since they’ve not been taught a skill to find the answer.

So what to do? Try revising your questions using this simple question starter:

Which details does the author include to…

If we take the question above and revise it accordingly, it now reads, “Which details does the author include to show why Brent decides to commit suicide?”

Two things change: First, now those who may not be able to articulate why he decided to commit suicide are engaged–they must go back and reread to find details. Second, teachers are encouraging that big skill of teaching students that any idea elicited from a text is based on some textual details (or formatting, illustrations, etc.).

It’s a small and powerful shift. If used repeatedly, it will foster students’ ability to focus on text evidence and make them stronger, more insightful readers.

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I’ve been working to encourage teachers in our network to ask more text-dependent questions. The Common Core Standards themselves don’t really blow my hair back–teachers have been teaching most of those standards in one way or another for years. But the instructional shifts that the CCSS promote–now there’s something to sink your literary teeth into. Sorry, into which you can sink your literary teeth.

In particular, pushing teachers and students to focus on text-dependent questions has been majorly lacking since the “connection” fad, when the comprehension skill/strategy du jour was “Let’s make connections to the text!” No, I’m not saying that connecting to a text isn’t important. It is. It’s why we read books. Just that the strategy of connecting to a text does nothing to push our students’ ability to deeply comprehend texts.

The real skill we’re trying to teach students with this emphasis on text-dependency is that any idea they elicit from a text–be it an explicitly-stated idea, or an implicitly-stated idea–must be based on something the author wrote.

How many times have you heard a teacher ask a “straight-up” question (How does the main character feel right now?), get a variety of scattered answers from students, both right and wrong, and then follow it up, “Ok, well show me the evidence?”

In light of that instructional shift, we’ve been working to develop teachers’ skills around asking what I’ve dubbed, “interpretative-level text-dependent questions.” Or, as if we don’t have enough acronyms in education, ILTDQs.

Others have written about the idea that “text-dependency” is a low bar. Some questions like, “Who is the main character?” are text-dependent, but they’re also not going make students super-comprehenders. But even for more rigorous, text-dependent questions, many fall short of driving home that big comprehension skill I described above: nearly all ideas from a text are born from the words, pictures, or formatting the author chose.

A colleague of mine recently asked me, “Rob, is it ever ok for reading teachers to be asking ‘straight-up’ questions?” I immediately fell in love with the term “straight-up” questions. Because that’s exactly what the question above represents.

But there’s a better way to ask this question.

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