​Would it Be So Bad if We Let Kids Ask Questions?

By Katharine Hale, Guest Blogger 

 I  have always been a slow reader, especially with nonfiction books or articles. For whatever reason, growing up bilingual made me more in tune with sounding out words and less in tune with understanding what the text was actually saying. To this day, I often have to reread a paragraph three to four times because I spend the first three times enunciating words to myself or letting unknown words distract me. Of course I would prefer to read faster but it is what it is and I know my reading comprehension will only continue to improve as the years go on.

However, in the midst of planning reading strategy lessons with my team and with other literacy colleagues, I have recently discovered a new difference between the way I read nonfiction and the way readers around me read nonfiction. They ask a lot of questions when they read and I do not. Do you ask questions as you read?
When you read an article in a magazine or check out a news report online, do you ask yourself, “Who is that? What does he do?” or “Is this true? Did this really happen?” Kelly Purman, a reading teacher at my school, does this all the time. She cannot read without asking herself questions. I once asked her why and her response was that she “just can’t stand not knowing [about something]”. For instance, she says she watches TV with her iPhone glued to her hand so that when something she is watching makes her wonder, she can immediately look it up. And almost always, what she looks up ends up sparking another question which in turn leads her to read yet another text and another text. My husband, Spencer, questions a lot too when he reads. When he reaches for the laptop, it is because he has a question. I recently read an article on Edutopia where Dr. Richard Curwin talked about this exact process in which he does not read unless it is to seek out an answer to a question of his. He says it is because “our minds are set up to not care about answers unless we have a question”.
Spencer encapsulates this statement. Just the other day, he had a craving for Caribbean food so he looked up Caribbean recipes. As he read, he came across ingredients he had never heard of and he wanted to know what they were. This led him to check out a book at the library and search other websites. He also came across Caribbean spices and it made him think of another question: How are Caribbean spices different than spices in other countries?
I began thinking back on what I do when I read news articles or blog posts and noted that rather than asking questions, I would mostly just absorb or react to information. My time on Facebook, for example, is spent either mindlessly browsing through the newsfeed, sharing, “liking” and replying to posts, or laughing at funny videos. When I am on CNN.com or any other news source, I do the same thing. I click on articles, read them, and react with statements such as “This makes me angry because…” or “Wow, I never knew…” But shamefully, I do not ask many questions.
On one hand, I could justify this by arguing that every reader thinks differently and while Spencer and Kelly ask questions a lot, I simply think in other ways. But on the other hand, having inadequate questioning skills while living in a time when most nonfiction reading happens online has, I believe, made me victim to online reading obstacles such as the current hot topic: fake news.
I have spent a lot of time unpacking fake news lately, reevaluating research skills and nonfiction mini-lessons. After all, fake news and information bias are very serious issues in which many people, including myself, have been misguided or misinformed. It is just not as obvious as it used to be. Nonetheless, I think teaching students how to verify news validity does not deal with the root of the problem. It may solve today’s online reading challenge but the real problem with reading nonfiction today is that readers are not asking questions enough when they read.
If they were asking enough questions, our middle schoolers would not have come to school back in October terrified of creepy clowns coming to our school based on the threats made on Instagram. If readers were asking more questions, they would not inadvertently share fake news on social media, but instead check the news source or fact check the information reported in articles. But they fell for it. I mean, many of us did. And we will continue to fall for future online reading or media issues until asking questions becomes second nature for us when we read. Teaching fake news lessons is great right now, but what will we do if the issue is no longer fake news? Will we just wait for the next issue to arise and then react with new mini-lessons?
Of course none of us want to do the latter because it is impossible to keep up with online reading trends and issues. However, if simply asking questions could have kept us from social media posts and fake news articles, it is very possible that this set of reading skills could withstand any kind of reading our children may face down the road. So then the question is what do we have to do as educators to help our readers ask more questions when they read?
According to John Hattie and his research, teachers have relegated themselves to be the proprietor of questioning, and standardized assessments reinforce this habit by compounding questions to students.
“...teachers ask about 200 questions a day and...students already know the answers to 97 percent of them. And most of the questions are about surface level knowledge, and require between three and seven words in response. On average, most students ask about one question a day at school. Then there’s another related issue that involves the kind of assessments that are set for students. For example when I analyzed assessments across several jurisdictions in the U.S., I found that over 90 per cent of the assessment questions were focused on surface level knowledge, rather than on deep knowledge.”
No wonder our students are not asking questions when they read! Questions are not part of their day-to-day school routine. We, the teachers, are asking all the questions. If it is not orally, it is through a handout, the Smartboard, a test, or even at the end of an assigned digital article. We may not mean to do it but we are rewarding students for answers, not questions. I am guilty of this too. Asking questions helped me pace my lessons and it would guarantee that my lesson would go according to plan. Asking questions also gave me feedback about the effectiveness of my teaching and how I could help my students. Questions gave me answers, and answers gave me confidence in my instruction. But notice how all my reasons have to do with me and my needs.
Reflecting on the repercussions of my own weaknesses as a nonfiction reader these past few months has convinced me that enough is enough. Enough about me and my needs as an educator. Our students have to ask more questions in reading class and I have to ask fewer questions. It will be uncomfortable. It will be less predictable. It may take more time. But, if I let my fears be the reason students fall victim of online reading issues, then I have failed as an educator in helping my students become informed citizens. I invite you to consider the same. We can do this! Here are three options in how we can get started tomorrow.
OPTION #1: Teach One Question Tomorrow
Sometimes, I do not ask questions when I read because I frankly do not know what questions to ask. But, if my husband showed me an example of a question that comes to mind for him, I would feel much more confident in knowing where to start. So tomorrow, teach your students one question that you often ask when you read. Below are a few question stems/frames I have heard others ask.
            “What does ____ mean?”
            “Where/Who is that”
            “Is this really true? What facts support this?”
            “How is this different from ____?”
            “What are other people saying about this?”
OPTION #2: Reward Students for Questioning
As much as I hate grading and giving grades in literacy, it is something we have to do as teachers. Grades are the ultimate motivation for many middle schoolers and are what they talk about to measure achievement. We can use this to our advantage by rewarding students for questioning by giving them a grade for it instead of giving a grade for answering comprehension questions. For example, an exit ticket could be rewritten as “share a question you had about an article you read today and how you went about answering it”.  This gesture sends the message that questions in reading are highly valued.
OPTION #3: Start a Reading Conference with “What questions did you have?”
I start just about every reading conference with “tell me what you read about” and then I listen to them summarize or analyze the text. What if we started every conference instead with “tell me a question you had when you were reading”. It is a simple shift but I can only imagine how different and engaging the conversation can become. We could learn a lot about their understanding of the text just from their questioning, and they would gain much more knowledge about what they are reading by seeking their own answers.

Katharine Hale specializes in personalized learning and integrating technology in the literacy classroom. She is a former 4th and 5th grade teacher who currently works as an Instructional Technology Coordinator at a 1:1 device middle school in Arlington, VA. She is also a consultant for The Educator Collaborative, an Apple Distinguished Educator, and a Flipped Learning International Ambassador. Her blog is TEaCHitivity. You can follow her on Twitter at @KatharinehHale