Introduction to Asking Questions
What is the reading comprehension strategy of asking questions?
Why do we teach children the strategy of asking questions?
How do we teach the strategy of asking questions?
The Sample Lesson: From Questions to Answers

What is the reading comprehension strategy of asking questions?

As teachers, we spend a lot of time asking our students questions. In the best case scenario, our questions are designed to stimulate their thinking. But all too often, our questions seem to have a different effect: they teach students that their job is to “guess what’s in the teacher’s head” – to come up with the answer that corresponds to what the teacher is thinking. Sometimes, our questions simply assess what the children already know or don’t know, rather than stretching them into new horizons, leading them to wonder, explore, follow their own curiosity and think for themselves.

image001A lot of very smart, creative, and successful people tell us that the learner’s questions are the ones that matter most. For example:

  • “The important thing is to not stop questioning.” (Albert Einstein)
  • “Questions can be like a lever you use to pry open the stuck lid on a paint can.” (Fran Peavey)
  • “How do I create my own life? I think it is by questioning. ” (Amy Tan)
  • “With a culture of questioning, there is always more possibility.” (Debra France)
  • “All education is about making people curious.” (Stephen Sondheim)
  • “The job is to ask questions – it always was – and to ask them as inexorably as I can. And to face the absence of precise answers with a certain humility.” (Arthur Miller)

No wonder that research shows us that proficient readers are always asking their own questions as they read – questions to clarify misunderstandings, questions to satisfy curiosity, and questions to probe more deeply into new and meaningful ideas.

Why do we teach children the strategy of asking questions?

“Questioning is the strategy that propels learners ahead and keeps them coming back for more.” (The Comprehension Toolkit, “Ask Questions”, p. 17 ). We buildimage002 upon and nourish children’s natural curiosity by encouraging them to ask questions when they read or are read to. Their own, authentic questions engage them with the text and lead to deeper thinking and greater understanding. The South Carolina first grader who reads that ladybugs help plants grow and asks, “How can ladybugs help plants grow? I thought that the bees help plants grow” is thinking as she reads, not just decoding words. Additionally, she is more likely to remember information than the child who simply ticks off one more fact from the text.

image003Authentic questions motivate children to search for answers. Nothing fosters close reading more than scratching the itch of an authentic question. The door is open to teaching children how to be flexible in finding answers to their questions – how to comb the text and text features carefully for answers, to use their background knowledge, make inferences, and seek out other sources. During a read-aloud of Sarah’s Sleepover, the first grader who asks, “Why can she hear things before anybody else?” is thrilled to discover, later in the story, “She was blind!”

Children’s authentic questions provide valuable information to us as teachers. We don’t have to front load all the background we want children to have about a topic before we read if children’s questions are expected and respected. Students will ask for themselves about new vocabulary words and concepts that confuse them, and they will listen much more carefully to answers from their peers, from the text, or from their teachers.

Asking questions is empowering. It puts the child in charge of his or her own learning. Rather than being embarrassed about not knowing something, children build confidence when they realize that their questions are actually a vital part of the process of learning. Children who struggle with decoding come to realize that their questions are every bit as valuable as those from the “good” readers. And the other students come to respect them as thinkers as well. With that confidence comes a positive cycle of engagement in reading.

How do we teach the strategy of asking questions?

As with all strategies we teach, we use the Gradual Release of Responsibility,
starting with modeling and guided practice using interactive read-alouds. Then children practice asking their own questions in their chosen texts, always with the purpose of increasing their understanding and enjoyment of their reading.

The 3 minute video clip shows excerpts from Irby DuBose’s lesson on asking questions with her kindergarten class. As they are studying snakes, Ms. DuBose reads them the picture book, Verdi, about a young snake confused about the changes taking place in his skin. By stopping at strategic places, and listening carefully to the children’s responses, Ms. DuBose not only encourages her students to wonder, but shows them how their questions actually support them in following the big ideas of the text.

image005Children need time to learn to ask and answer their own questions, so we generally teach various aspects of questioning in multiple contexts and lessons. We read picture books and chapter books aloud to show how our questions lead us to deeper thinking about big ideas and themes. Content studies are perfect places to embed learning to ask and answer questions in nonfiction, showing children what research is all about. Learn and Wonder Centers in the classroom provide places for students to continually explore various topics through their questions.

Lessons to teach questioning tend to fall into three categories:

  • Feeding the flame of curiosity
  • Searching for answers
  • Expanding thinking

Each of these is briefly discussed below.

Feeding the Flame of Curiosity

Teaching children to wonder about their reading

“When we begin teaching the strategy of questioning, we simply share the questions we have before, during, and after reading.” (Strategies That Work, p. 112). Reading the story “Ice Cream” in Frog and Toad All Year leads Kindergarten children to ask, “I wonder will Frog get ice cream?” and “Who is the monster?” Their questions keep them intrigued and actively involved with following the story.

Questions as a springboard to a unit of study

A useful way to begin a unit of study on a topic is to show children images aboutimage006 the topic, and simply ask them to jot down their wonderings, as well as any other thoughts they have. This provides a strong assessment of prior knowledge for the teacher. By activating the children’s curiosity through the images, they are excited to learn more. Here South Carolina second graders ask questions about primary source images as they embark on a study of the Underground Railroad.

Searching for Answers

  • Asking and answering questions from text features (illustrations, captions, headings, etc.)
  • Building a repertoire of flexible strategies for finding answers to our questions, including answering each other’s questions

Wondering leads children to want to find answers – to their own and to their classmates’ questions. We show children many ways to search for answers. Their responses are posted on anchor charts that include the information they have found and celebrate all their contributions.

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Expanding Thinking

  • How one question leads to deeper questions – and inferring answers
  • Thin (easily answered) and thick (deeper) questions – how they affect our reading
  • Lingering questions and questions without answers

A student listens to a read-aloud of The Art Lesson by Tomie dePaola. When he asks, “Why don’t she let him use his crayons?” he is beginning to delve into important issues of fairness and power relationships. In inferring answers to these types of questions, children find new questions await them. As we model our own authentic questions about important ideas in books, and support our students in exploring their questions further, we lay the basis for children to use literature as an exploration of life. They come to understand that the best questions are sometimes those that linger on without definite answers.

To learn more about the strategy of Asking Questions, including lists of tried and true children’s books that encourage children to ask their own questions, see Suggested Readings.

The Sample Lesson: From Questions to Answers

In the Sample Lesson for this section, Melody Blackwell, first grade teacher at Watkins Nance Elementary School in Columbia, SC, builds on what she has already taught her students about asking questions. As part of a study of animals, the students explore how questions may arise from text features such as captions, headings, and photographs, and how to use a variety of approaches to try to find answers to these questions.

Teaching children to ask questions from text features as they study nonfiction has many benefits:

  • It draws children’s attention to these features, and helps them become accustomed to using them regularly.
  • It expands the pool of texts available to children as learning tools. They can view the pictures and read the captions and headings even if the connected text is too difficult for them to read independently.
  • Turning a heading into a question and then reading to find answers is a skill many of us may not have learned until high school or college, but first graders learn a great deal about the organization of nonfiction texts as they use this approach.
  • Text features are full of fascinating information that stimulates students’ curiosity and makes them want to read to find answers.

image010Having piqued children’s interest, Ms. Blackwell shows them different ways to try to find answers to their questions: from the text, from background knowledge and inferences, or searching for clarification in other texts. She demonstrates that readers haven’t failed when the answers to their authentic questions aren’t readily apparent. Instead, she shows students that the search for answers is a process and that it may take more than one source to really comprehend a concept.

Student independence and choice play important roles in this lesson. For independent or partner practice, the children are given a choice of books, at various reading levels, about different animals. They are in charge of what they will learn about these animals through the questions they choose to ask.

PLC Facilitators: Click here for Facilitator Notes.