Making the Most of Questioning Techniques:
Moving Students Forward to Deeper Learning
By Mary Murray Stowe, M.Ed.
Strategic questioning may be one of the most effective and powerful tools for assisting students in deeply comprehending text as well as developing metacognitive skills to allow students to monitor their own comprehension of text. Development of questioning skills is a critical component within the Virginia English Standards of Learning (SOL). The skill acquisition requirements begin in kindergarten with SOL K.9d (The student will demonstrate comprehension of fictional text, d. begin to ask and answer questions about what is read.) and continue through SOL 12.5a (The student will read and analyze a variety of non-fiction texts, a. generate and respond logically to literal, inferential, evaluative, synthesizing, and critical thinking questions before, during, and after reading text.).
Mastery of question generation is critical to students’ deep comprehension of progressively more complex text. Teachers must model and use questioning techniques within their pedagogical practice to assist students in acquiring these skills. Mastery of appropriate questioning skills must also be developed to monitor comprehension of text and develop strong critical thinking processes. Many sources (e.g., Cain, 2012; Hattie, 2009; McKeown & Beck, 2012) support the power of questioning strategies for teacher practice and student achievement. Citations and links to additional resources may be found at the conclusion of this article.
Surface vs. Higher-Order Questions
If we ask only questions at the knowledge level of Bloom’s taxonomy that students “get right” with ease, we are not promoting a thoughtful comprehension process but are merely asking them to report what they already know. To truly promote students’ comprehension of what they read, questions must leave room for them to build meaning rather than directly pointing them to the answers (McKeown & Beck, 2012). Referencing Bloom’s taxonomy regarding sentence skeletons is helpful in generating higher-order questions (see Additional Resources at the end of the article).
Elementary School Example: When reading a passage from Music of the Dolphins by Karen Hesse, which question might move students to a higher level of critical thinking?
- Who is the main character of the novel, and with whom does she become friends?
- Why might the author format the text so that as the story progresses to the middle of the novel, the text becomes smaller and denser, while the text vocabulary becomes more complex? From the middle of the novel to the end, the text and vocabulary returns to a simpler format.
Middle School Example: When reading a novel by Sharon Draper, Tears of a Tiger, which question might move students to a higher level of critical thinking?
- Which character was the driver of the car involved in the opening accident?
- How did being the driver of the car in the opening accident impact the outcome for the main character at the end of the novel?
In both examples, the second question requires students to delve more deeply into the text and build meaning. The deeper questioning raises the bar along Bloom’s taxonomy of difficulty as well.
Increasing Metacognitive Skills Through Questioning
The most effective metacognitive reading comprehension strategies are awareness of textual inconsistency and the use of self-questioning (Hattie, 2009). Students must develop the skill of self-questioning or asking questions of themselves while reading to ensure that they are constructing meaning and continually monitoring their comprehension. Being able to monitor one’s comprehension is a powerful metacognitive skill – thinking about one’s thinking.
Monitoring Comprehension: Teaching students how to summarize what they have read and to generate questions to test their understanding is an effective strategy for learning to read (Cain, 2012). Students are asked to monitor their comprehension throughout the Virginia English SOLs. This may be accomplished by developing students’ self-questioning techniques. Within the Virginia English SOLs, standards requiring demonstration of comprehension of fiction and non-fiction text indicate that the essential knowledge, skills, and processes necessary to accomplish this include “generating questions to guide reading of text” and “asking and answering questions about the text to demonstrate understanding.”
Students need to be taught to use questioning to monitor their comprehension of passages. The teacher should model this in lessons to prepare students to do the same. To do so, the teacher selects a passage to read, stops, and generates questions to assess his or her understanding at various intervals, perhaps noting a summary word or phrase in the margin of the text. The teacher (I do.) continues such thinking aloud/modeling with additional passage segments and gradually begins to engage students (We do.) in the process.
Questioning to monitor comprehension is built into several organized learning strategies. For example, the Strategic Instruction Model™ (SIM™) introduces this skill within the Self-Questioning Strategy. Structure Your Reading, developed by Barbara Ehrens, includes points that require questioning and responding to ensure comprehension of text.
Of the 16 categories of instruction examined by the National Reading Panel report (NICHHD, 2000), 7 appear to have a firm scientific basis for concluding that they improve comprehension. The seven include comprehension monitoring, question answering, and question generation. Teaching students to use appropriate and purposeful questioning will lead to successful comprehension and increased higher-order critical thinking skills.
Cain, K. (2012). Making sense of text: Skills that support text comprehension and its development. In L. C. Moats, K. E. Dakin, & R. M. Joshi (Eds.), Expert perspectives on interventions for reading; A collection of best-practice articles for the International Dyslexia Association (pp. 145-152). Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning; A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
McKeown, M.G., & Beck, I. L. (2012). Designing questions toward thinking and understanding rather than answers. In L. C. Moats, K. E. Dakin, & R. M. Joshi (Eds.), Expert perspectives on interventions for reading; A collection of best-practice articles for the International Dyslexia Association (pp. 185-191). Baltimore, MD: International Dyslexia Association.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction – Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Available at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/pages/smallbook.aspx
A Good Read; Literacy Strategies with Newspapers (Asking questions from pp. 34-44): http://www.americanpressinstitute.org/~/media/NAAFoundation/Files/Curriculum/A-Good-Read.ashx
Comprehension: Monitoring for Understanding (from the Florida Center on Reading Research): http://www.fcrr.org/curriculum/PDF/G4-5/45CPartFour.pdf
Fix Up Strategies (Cris Tovani) to Include Ask Questions: http://www.lisle202.org/pages/uploaded_files/FixUpDetails.pdf
Higher Level Thinking Skills, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Sentence Skeletons: http://www.mtnbrook.k12.al.us/Images/Users/16/File/Curr/SCF/HigherLevel.pdf
Levels of Questions with Bloom’s Taxonomy: http://www.unc.edu/learnnc/kinetic-connect/noframes.html
Seven Strategies to Teach Students Text Comprehension: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/3479/
The Virginia English Standards of Learning Curriculum Frameworks: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/standards_docs/english/index.shtml
Use of Think-Alouds and Modeling to Intensify Instruction: http://education.wm.edu/centers/ttac/documents/newsletters/2011mayjune.pdf, p. 8.