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March 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 6

Teaching Critical Reading with Questioning Strategies

Three engaging classroom practices turn middle schoolers into critical readers.

Instructional Strategies
It is time—actually past time—to address critical-thinking and analytic-response skills in our classrooms. The pendulum is ready to swing from overreliance on rote learning and prepping for standardized tests to preparing students to be 21st century thinkers. And thank goodness; our world needs students who can read texts critically, not just fill in bubbles.
Among the many higher-level thinking skills our students need is the skill of generating thoughtful questions. The ability to routinely generate mental questions while reading, listening, or viewing something not only boosts attention and alertness, but also strengthens comprehension (Duke & Pearson, 2002). When you ask yourself questions about incoming information, you are paying attention, self-monitoring, and actively constructing knowledge.
Yes, students already ask us questions. But it has been my experience as both a classroom teacher for 24 years and a staff developer in schools for more than a decade that the questions kids ask typically either seek clarification on procedural matters (Which numbers are we supposed to do?); attempt to cut a deal (Can we write two paragraphs instead of three?); or try to detour the group from the lesson (What time does this period end?).
What we want from students, of course, is the kind of questioning that spurs critical thinking and analytical response. Students need to ask questions if they are to read for real learning.
The following three question-asking activities move learners from "starter" questions to intermediate-level questions to advanced questions that touch the highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy. As a consultant, I've used all three activities in partnership with middle school teachers in a variety of settings and have shared them as literacy strategies with preservice and inservice teachers.

Sparking Starter Questions

An activity called Questions Mailed to My Teacher introduces students to the habit of asking questions as they read. I adapted this one from an activity called Chain Notes in which each student writes a quick response to a review question written on a large envelope. I've modified Chain Notes in two ways. First, I write my name and school address on the front of the envelope. Second, instead of composing a question for student response, I have students write their own questions about the reading (directed to me) and insert those questions into the envelope. The last student to insert a query "mails" the envelope by delivering it to my desk.
Questions to My Teacher serves three purposes: It gives kids practice asking questions and monitoring their own comprehension as they read, it introduces students to the crucial idea that questions have different levels of complexity, and it helps teachers diagnose students' comprehension. By reading the questions, teachers glimpse what students know as opposed to waiting until the chapter test to find out whether all is well—in other words, they practice formative assessment.
  • Why did grave robbers sometimes steal the mummy?
  • Why are step pyramids called step pyramids?
  • I wonder why the people blamed the pharaohs for angering the gods.
The first question shows that the learner needs to review information already presented; the textbook explained the value of stolen mummies. The student who wrote this question missed that piece of information—bad news about his comprehension abilities. The good news is the student sensed something was missing in his understanding.
The second question indicates a communication problem between the reader and writer. The text included an illustration of a step pyramid clearly showing steps on the structure. Literacy educator and author Taffy Raphael (Raphael, Highfield, & Au, 2006) would classify this as a "think and search" question because the information is provided in two (or more) different locations in the text. This learner did not put it all together, however, and the question reveals a comprehension gap—fortunately sooner rather than later.
The third question shows higher-order thinking; this student is wondering about information that the author didn't provide. Kudos to this student for asking a "wonderment" question. The learner is clearly on the ball and even points out a deficiency in the text.
Taking this questioning stance helps student readers realize that reading comprehension is always a two-way street. Instead of always blaming themselves for difficulties with understanding—and perhaps losing motivation—they come to see that the problem can often be traced back to the writer. And they may even be inspired to track down answers through further reading. For instance, here's a great, generative question a middle school science teacher received: I wonder why each nucleotide consists of three different types of materials. As you read the questions kids submit, sort them according to their complexity. One categorization I use is "thin versus thick" questions. Thin questions are literal, recall questions that are easy to answer because the information is in the text (like Why did grave robbers steal mummies?) Why would a teacher allow students to ask such obviously answerable questions? Because they build confidence by allowing students to begin at a "doable" level, which primes the pump for more challenging questions later. Thick questions, on the other hand, require student readers to go beyond the text and speculate, hypothesize, or make inferences. These questions often inspire more complex questions.
  • What are some other ways…
  • What if you…
  • Can you imagine…
  • If … , then…
  • How might…

Becoming Sidekicks

Once students have practiced asking their teacher questions, bump them up to the intermediate level by asking theauthor of a text questions.
I call my favorite intermediate-level activity Thin, Thick, and Sidekick Questions. Tell students they will act as a sidekick to the author as they are reading, meaning they will be the author's dependable ally and helper. It's their job to be there for the author by pointing out any problems in the text that may disrupt other readers' understanding. Another way to cast it is that they are to be a curious sidekick who asks the author questions about the decisions she or he made in the writing and, at times, ponders how well these decisions will work in reaching readers.
  • Would you consider explaining more what the narrator is thinking?
  • I am wondering if the narrator gets in trouble a lot, and how often?
  • Did you consider adding another character? Two fat house cats doing this would be funnier.
Often when students ask these kinds of questions, their understanding of the author's purpose becomes clearer. This opens students to a monumental change in perception: They realize that reading is a communication between two people, a writer and a reader, for the purpose of exchanging information about a topic.
If possible, I send students' questions to the author. With persistence, you can locate a surprising amount of author contact information using the Internet (see Lewin, 2006, for suggestions).

From Curious to Suspicious Readers

  • Type I questions seek to understand information from the reading.
  • Type II questions cause the reader to analyze, critically examine, and appraise the information presented by recognizing what is missing or only implied.
  • Type III questions judge the author's position or formulate an alternative—or even contrary—hypothesis.
If we point out to students that Type I questions look like thin questions and Types IIs look like thick ones, the transition to Type IIIs will be easier. Students will also realize that the labels we choose to describe types of questions are less important than the ability to recognize and generate different types.
Type III questions take students to the level of critical or even, so to speak, skeptical reading by teaching them to ask tough questions about the author's position, decisions, biases, or agenda. I appreciate skeptical readers in class because they are constantly evaluating instead of only trying to understand.
To prompt students toward this higher level, remind your students that they, as readers, and the author should be trying to work together to develop full comprehension of the author's ideas. Tell them to be on the lookout for any missing, misleading, or mistaken information—or even any possible hidden agenda. After you teach students to ask Type I and Type II questions, urge them to build on those questions, considering things they might want to know that can't be found in the text.
  • Do you believe that the death of a beautiful woman is the most tragic thing a poet can write about?
  • You say you wrote "The Raven" in a step-by-step procedure. Do you think all poets work this way? Do they have to follow your approach?
These go beyond "sidekick" questions. Sidekick questions reflect curiosity and they are supportive in nature because they assist the author in troubleshooting potential difficulties for future readers. The questions here are more pointed and more challenging. I call this "talking back" to the author—politely of course.
  • You say _____, but what about _____ ?
  • You imply ______, but ______ ?
  • Are you saying that _____ ? If so,______ ?
  • Why don't you mention ______ ?
  • Didn't you consider ______ ?
  • If what you say is true, what about ______ ?
  • What you say is interesting, but I think that ______.
By teaching students how to generate questions when learning new content information, we empower them to think. And if ever there were a century that demanded higher-level thinking to solve global problems, it's the 21st.
References

Bloom, B. S. (1956). (Ed.) Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Chicago: Susan Fauer Company.

Ciardello, A. V. (2007). Puzzle them first: Motivating adolescent readers with question finding. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Duke, N., & Pearson, P. D. (2002). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension: What research has to say about reading (3rd ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lewin, L. (2006) Reading response that really matters. New York: Scholastic.

Raphael, T., Highfield, K., & Au, K. (2006) QAR Now: A powerful and practical framework that develops comprehension and higher-level thinking in all students. New York: Scholastic.

End Notes

1 This activity is available on the Web site of the National Teaching and Learning Forum (www.ntlf.com/html/lib/bib/assess.htm)

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