Article

Questioning the Text

By Stephanie Harvey
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Quick tips, creative ideas, and fun activities that tap into students' end-of-year energy.

We know how it is. As the days get warmer and the end of the year draws near, it's a challenge to keep the learning going and the kids' energy inside the classroom. The last few weeks of school are an intense time. Both you and your students will most likely be feeling the pressure of the final testing period, strong emotions as you come to the end of your year together, and the pull of warm summer days to come. Make the most of this last month by breaking routine and encouraging your students on to new challenges. Instructor talked with a group of teachers about how to channel spring fever into learning excitement. Here is a roundup of some of their favorite ideas.

Strategy Lesson: Questioning the Text

One way I help students access those inner conversations is by showing how I think when I read. I read aloud, stop, look up at them, and share my thinking. I describe my inner conversation to them. This is one of the best methods I know of to make reading concrete.

Often, I share my thinking by questioning the text as I am reading, because that's what proficient readers do. They wonder about outcomes, characters, new information, and concepts. Questioning is the strategy that propels readers on. Who, after all, would continue reading something if they had no questions about it? Here are four surefire steps I follow to model the questioning strategy for my students.

1. Choose the Text for Questioning

I begin by choosing a picture book that I know will spur a lot of questions. I purposely select a piece of short text because we can finish it quickly and explore our questions and potential answers with relative ease. Certain genres prompt more questions than others. Mysteries make us wonder about outcomes. Nonfiction stories fill us with questions about the real world and its broad range of unusual things to learn.

Of the many great books out there, one is particularly effective for modeling questioning: Jane Yolen's The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History (Simon & Schuster, 1999). It's the true story of a clipper ship, named the Mary Celeste, which left New York harbor for London on November 15, 1872, and was found floating aimlessly near the Azores (islands near Portugal) a few weeks later. The crew was missing and was never found. Questions abound as to the fate of the people on board.

2. Introduce the Strategy.

With the kids gathered in front of me, notebooks in hand, I explain how good readers ask questions when they read because it helps them understand what they're reading. Specifically, I might ask how many of them have questions when they read. I would then tell them that good readers have their own questions and that those questions are really the most important ones. When readers ask questions as they read, it keeps them thinking about the words and ideas in the book. It makes them want to read on. Asking questions helps them when they're confused, too. Then, as I read the book to them, I stop, think out loud, and show them the questions I have.

3. Model Thinking Aloud and Mark the Text with Stick-on Notes.

As I read aloud the first page, I come to this sentence: "The Mary Celeste is about a ship whose crew disappeared when they were on the high seas more than 120 years ago. The crew was never found." I stop, look up, and ask the obvious question: "I wonder what happened to the crew?" Then, I write that question on a stick-on note, show the class the note, and explain that I'm going to write down all of my questions on stick-on notes and place them at the spot in the book where they occurred to me. I point out that I leave the notes sticking out a little, like bookmarks, so that I can find them later.

I read on until I come to a sentence on the second page that says, "Early in the afternoon of December 4th (December 5th in sea time), seaman Johnson ... spotted a smudge on the horizon." My response: "Wait a minute, I don't get this. What do they mean 'December 5th in sea time'?"

I write, "What is sea time?" on a stick-on note. This question, it turns out, is answered on the next page, where the term is defined. So I tell the kids that sometimes when we read on, our questions are answered. I explain that when that happens, they should mark the stick-on note with an 'A' for 'Answered' and move it to the place in the text where they found that answer. It is also important to explain that some of the most important questions aren't answered, but are best left to discussions during and after reading.

4. Allow Time for Guided Practice.

For about 15 minutes, I continue to think out loud and to mark the text with my questions. Then I invite the students to jot down their own questions in their notebooks and then to share them. One student raises his hand and asks what a chronometer is. Another student explains that it is a very accurate ship's clock. Soon, a lively discussion ensues. I call on the kids to ask questions, infer answers, and share information in an informal discussion of the book. In this way, we co-construct meaning as we read and everyone understands the book more completely thanks to the input. We are unlikely to finish this book in one sitting because I want the students to practice the questioning strategy in their own reading.

After another 10 minutes, I ask them to go back to their places, grab a book or a magazine, notice questions they have as they read, and mark them with stick-on notes. I walk around the room and confer with students about their questions and about how asking them improves understanding.

We work on questioning for several weeks in many ways: marking texts with stick-on notes; sorting them according to importance; bringing our questions to book clubs for discussion; talking about questions unanswered by the author; and recording questions on charts. (See sample chart, left.)

Children's writer Madeline L'Engle says, "Readers sometimes grossly underestimate their own importance." This is particularly true of less experienced readers. As developing readers realize their inner conversation and begin to focus on their own thoughts and questions, reading takes on new importance. When readers interact with the text by thinking about their questions, riting them down, and pondering answers, they comprehend at a much deeper level. Classrooms change when readers begin to believe their thinking matters.

 

Stephanie Harvey is a literacy consultant and staff developer for the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition. She coauthored, with Anne Goudvis, Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding (Stenhouse, 2000).

  • Subjects:
    Literacy, Reading Comprehension, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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