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Questioning is perhaps the instructional tool used most commonly by teachers. Strategic and purposeful questioning is crucial to students’ literacy learning.
Questions may be directed towards building a particular aspect of students’ knowledge, such as a strategy for encoding or decoding. At a metacognitive level, questions can help to build students’ awareness. Questioning can be an ideal way to generate thoughtful discussion and help students to develop the habit of being critically reflective, for example, “How do you think …?” “I wonder why …?” “What have you noticed …?” “How will your audience feel …?” One or two well-thoughtout questions can be powerful in helping students to get beyond the surface features of a text they are reading or writing. It is important that teachers ask a range of questions and know why they are asking them.
Questions become effective teaching tools when:
Such questions are a highly productive way of bringing out what students know and can do, so that they can apply their expertise to their tasks. Effective teachers extend questioning well beyond the kinds of questions that only require students to feed back factual content or to make predictions that are purely speculative.
Patterns of “teacher question, student answer, and teacher reaction” can inhibit learning. For example, if the students become more occupied with finding out what is in the teacher’s head than with their own learning, they are much less likely to show creativity in composing texts or to explore deeper features of texts.
Attending to the answers that students give is as important as planning and asking the questions. Students’ responses yield valuable information that can be used to evaluate their learning and to identify their next learning steps.
Teachers often categorise the kinds of questions to be used. For example, they describe questions as literal, inferential, or interpretive, as open or closed, or as questions for clarification, justification, and so on. The kinds of question and the forms they take will depend on the teacher’s objective and the learning goal of the task. Sometimes closed questions will achieve the purpose, for example, when the goal is to measure students’ ability to recall facts in a text, describe a process in the correct sequence, or identify a letter of the alphabet. It’s not necessary or even useful to plan activities based on categories of questions. The aim is to ask questions that reveal the students’ thinking, including any misconceptions or inappropriate assumptions that they may have.
Like prompting, questioning may unlock the understanding of a student who is struggling with an aspect of their reading or writing by giving them clear guidance towards what they need to do.
A teacher who uses questions effectively provides a good model to students and shows them how to develop their own questioning strategies. This helps them to bring a critical perspective to texts by asking purposeful questions of themselves as they engage with a reading or writing task. In a classroom environment of critical reflection, thought-provoking questions are not seen as threatening, they are welcomed as a highly valued part of learning.
This example shows strategic questioning to support a year 4 student in meeting the goal of a task. The context is an activity after a year 4 guided reading session using Whale Tales, by Kim Westerskov. The shared goals are (1) to locate specific information and (2) to infer from the text and write their conclusions in their own words.
Teacher What information have you located?
Student (reads) “Humpbacks swim slowly, and they are the most interesting of all whales to watch.”
Teacher OK. Do we need to take any notes there? Did you learn anything about the population or the habitat?
Student Yeah. They have huge flippers.
Teacher OK. So will that help us with our question?
Student Yeah … (uncertainly) maybe.
Teacher (drawing student’s attention to questions on whiteboard) Will that information help you to answer the question about where humpback whales live or the question on why there are only a few thousand humpbacks now?
Student No …
Teacher Well, let’s read the text in this box. You read it.
Student (reading from the text) “Once, there were over 100 000 humpbacks in the southern seas alone. But the humpback was a favourite of the whalers – now there are only a few thousand humpbacks left.” … Oh. I’ve learned something. It says “But the humpback was a favourite of the whalers”. That means that they, like, killed them, and … that’s why there aren’t many living any more.
Teacher OK. So do you think that’s important information?
Teacher Now are you going to copy that straight from the book? What are you going to do?
Student Um, I’m going to put it in my own words.
Teacher Good! Let me see you begin.