Asking the Right Questions Can Transform Our Practice
The Common Core State Standards have required us to up our teaching game–big time. In my work as an instructional coach, my goal was to help teachers understand both the ELA CCSS and the pedagogical shifts demanded of them. This was no small feat. In my previous role as a professional development facilitator, I had been working with districts since 2011 as they gradually and strategically rolled out these new, rigorous standards.
Since all of my PD experience with the standards was with school districts across the country who were either initiating or implementing a rollout plan, you can imagine my shock when I walked into my first day as an full-time instructional coach only to learn the district simply pushed out all of the standards to all of the grade levels in one cold shot. Although I was taken aback, I was up for the challenge.
My plan of attack immediately became focused on text-dependent questions (TDQs) because I knew that changing the way we ask questions has the power to greatly impact the way students think. According to Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey, students tend to read to the level of the questions we ask. So, if we ask a question like, “Why did Cinderella lose her shoe at the ball?” kids actually read to find out why she lost her shoe–basic, low level recall and recitation or DOK 1. Asking more complex questions brings about more complex reading where students are making inferences, connecting information, and employing metacognition. This, in turn, leads to more complex thinking.
But how do we do this? And what does it look like in the classroom? We can’t continue to fall back on the same pedagogy we did when were asking kids traditional comprehension questions (questions you’d find at the end of the chapter). Because TDQs are so complex, students can’t answer them independently or in isolation. Rather, they should productively struggle through these questions with their peers under the careful guidance of their teacher. This means, of course, that we need to provide the appropriate scaffolds so students can reach these complex learning targets.
Take a look at this question written about an 8th grade informational science text:
In order to explain energy, the author uses the example of pedaling a bike uphill. This is just one of many examples, comparisons, and analogies he provides for the reader. Explain how these help shape the tone of the text.
Could an 8th grader read the text and answer this question effectively on his own? Probably not. The question has many layers that need to be unpeeled in order for students to tackle it. They’d have to go back and reread the example mentioned. They’d have to locate and analyze other examples and analogies in the text. And they’d have to refresh their understanding of tone–especially in the context of informational text.
What might this unpeeling–or scaffolding–look like?
- The teacher isolates portions of the text that contain examples, comparisons, and analogies.
- The teacher may create another TDQ that focuses students’ attention on these techniques and helps them understand why the author used them. (We can’t discuss tone until we know what the author was up to and why.)
- Students analyze the isolated text through a student-centered activity like Save the Last Word.
- Academic discourse ensues–students are using scientific vocabulary from their article and articulating their thoughts using evidence from the text.
- The teacher facilitates the activity, collecting formative data that can be used for further scaffolding and/or clearing up misconceptions during a whole class debrief.
You might be thinking that this type of lesson could take up to three days whereas the traditional method of “teaching” the concepts in this text may occur in less than 45 minutes. While this is true, the latter is doing a gross disservice to our students. As 21st century learners, it’s not enough to simply “know” the information presented in a text. They can Google that. Instead, we have to teach our modern learners how to extricate information from a variety of multimodal texts. If we give them the skills to expand their understanding through close and careful reading, we’re setting them up for success way beyond their time in our classrooms. Plus, we’re teaching science in conjunction with literacy. And this disciplinary reading is what the Common Core is all about.
Our focus on TDQs last year had a huge payoff. The district saw large gains in the end of course literature scores. More importantly, teachers saw a tangible difference in their students’ thinking, and many felt more effective in their classrooms than ever before. So go ahead, take a risk–try it. Use your grade-level standards and Fisher and Frey’s progression of TDQs to design your own questions. While it’s not easy and you will struggle, the impact on your classroom and your students’ learning will be well worth it.