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Questioning is perhaps the instructional tool used most commonly by teachers. Questions may be directed towards building a particular aspect of students’ knowledge, such as how to use a strategy for making meaning or thinking critically. Carefully planned questions can help to build students’ metacognitive awareness of how they comprehend a text or of how a text they are writing will affect its readers. It is generally more effective to use fewer questions, strategically placed in a discussion or conversation, rather than a greater number of randomly placed questions.
Asking questions can be an ideal way to generate thoughtful discussions about the deeper levels of texts and to help students develop the habit of reflecting critically by asking themselves questions as they read. For example, “What do you think the author’s viewpoint is?” “How did you work this out?” “How does this support or challenge your own viewpoint on the subject?” One or two well-thought-out questions can be powerful in helping students develop their ability to look below the surface 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:
Questioning is a highly productive way of bringing out what students know and can do, so that they can apply their expertise to their tasks. An effective teacher extends questioning well beyond the kinds of questions that require students only to recall factual content or to make predictions that are purely speculative. The teacher asks questions that require students to explain their choice of language in their writing or to think critically and reflectively about texts. In responding to such questions, students learn to link their thinking about texts with their knowledge and experience.
Patterns of “teacher question, student response, 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 the deeper features of texts. Students’ responses should be valued and not transformed by evaluative comments that suggest the responses are inadequate. In continuing the discussion, the teacher can sometimes add value to a student’s response by modeling more appropriate language or syntax.
Effective questioning by teachers during literacy learning generates focused, text-based conversations with students and between students. Co-operative activities such as “think, pair, share” and activities in which students form their own questions about texts can be useful for generating conversations.
Attending to the answers that students give, and probing their responses, is just as important as planning and asking the questions. Teachers can ask follow-up questions, such as “How do you know that?” “What evidence can you find that supports your thinking?” Students’ responses yield important information that can be used to evaluate their learning and identify their next learning steps.
Teachers sometimes categorise the kinds of questions they use, for example, as open or closed or as questions for clarification, elaboration, or justification. The kinds of question and the forms they take will depend on the teacher’s instructional objective and the learning goal of the task (which will always be related to the students’ needs). Sometimes closed questions will be most effective, for example, when the teacher wants to probe students’ ability to describe the steps in an explanatory text or to recall (in order to prioritise) the main points in an argument. It’s not necessary or even useful to plan activities based on categories of questions. There is no formula for asking the right questions. Effective teachers aim to ask questions that reveal their 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. Teachers can model the art of self-questioning, especially in shared writing and reading, as a strategy that writers and readers can use to help them create texts and make meaning of texts.
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.
I wanted my students to engage in some real critical thinking about themes and effects in a complex literary text. I chose to read them Margaret Wild’s Fox. Our shared goal was “to identify the theme or themes of this picture book by describing the parts of the story and the text features that help build up the theme.”
After reading the story aloud, I asked the students what they thought its theme was. Sione said, “Life or death.” “Why do you say that?” I asked, and he responded, “Because the magpie thinks about dying, at the start and again near the end. But the dog makes her want to live.” “Is the theme just life and death in general, then, or can you be more specific?” I probed. “Why does she want to die? How does the dog make her want to live?” Sione thought for a minute, and we waited. Then he said, “She wants to die at first because she can’t fl y any more. The dog can’t really make her fl y, but he tells her he needs her.” “Where does he tell her that?” I asked. Sione took the book and found the part he wanted. “And then the magpie says, ‘I will be your missing eye and you will be my wings’.” He commented, “You can feel them being like one person together.” “What could be the theme there?” I wondered. “It’s about friendship, about helping each other when you are damaged,” put in Mia. “It’s a happy story, then, with a positive theme?” I suggested. “No, because of the fox!” cried more than one student.
We brainstormed other possible themes: students now suggested “loneliness”, “betrayal”, and “feeling left out”. I asked them to work in pairs to find evidence, both in the text and in the illustrations, for the theme or themes they thought most important in the text.
Teacher, year 5 and 6 class