Category Archives: asking questions

Breaking the habit of looking for word-for-word answers

I was working with a fifth grader the other day.  He read a passage and needed to answer questions about it in writing.   One question asked, “What is the value of doing X?”  He went back through the passage, turned to me and said, “It doesn’t say.”

“Yes, it does say,” I responded.

He scanned again.  “No, it doesn’t.”

I pointed to the paragraph containing the answer.

He read it again and shrugged.

“What are you looking for?” I asked to be sure he understood the question.

“I’m looking for a sentence that says ‘The value of doing X is . . .’ and it’s not there.”

I “translated” the paragraph for him, pointing out what the value of doing X was, according to the passage.

“Well, why don’t they just say so?”

“Because they are trying to get you to think.”

“Well, I wish they’d just tell me.”

I see many kids like this one, unaccustomed to understanding a passage well.  They can operate at the “knowledge” level just fine, but can’t make that giant step up to “understanding” or “comprehending.”  They can’t “translate” an idea into a form required by a question.

What can a parent or teacher do to help such literal learners?

  • Start with a comfortable reading passage for the student, such as a fairy tale. Read it together.  Ask questions, starting with literal, knowledge-level questions like “What is the name of the girl in the passage?”  “Little Red Riding Hood.”  “Where is she going?”  “To her grandmother’s house.”

 

  • Then ask questions at the understanding level. “Why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “The grandmother is hungry.”  “Yes, but why is she hungry?”  “I don’t know.”  “Look at the picture.  It shows a skinny white-haired woman in bed.”  “She can’t get out of bed.”  “And why might that be?”  “She’s old.”  “Most old people don’t stay in bed.”  “She’s sick?”  “Maybe.”  “But it doesn’t say she’s sick.”  “No, but why would an old grandmother stay in bed and need someone to bring her food?”  “Oh.”  “So why is Goldilocks bringing her grandmother food?”  “Because the grandmother is probably sick and can’t get up to cook.”

By fifth grade students need to expect that answers won’t be found word-for-word the way a question is worded.  Students need to realize they must bring their own knowledge to a reading passage.

Prereading questions help struggling readers

Parents and teachers can help poor readers develop the skills of good readers by asking questions about the reading passage before students begin to read.

First, the adult should read and understand the passage and the places where a student is likely to encounter comprehension problems.

Second, the adult should propose questions about the themes of the passage. Ask the students to read the title. What does is probably mean? If there are graphics, ask what they tell abut the passage.  Encourage students to notice and comment on these clues.

For example, suppose some struggling second graders will be reading Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus. Some questions might be

• Is it normal for some kids to feel a little bit scared when they do something alone for the first time, like taking a school bus?
• Did that ever happen to you or someone you know?
• When some kids are scared, do they want to hide? Do you?
• Can a kid break school rules without knowing he or she is doing something wrong?

Good questions are those without clear-cut “yes” or “no” answers. Good questions make children think. Good questions develop discussion on the themes about which the children will be reading.

Finally, after students read the selection, return to the questions. Ask students if their thinking has changed. For some it might not have changed, but others will gain insights.

For this activity, fewer questions leading to deeper discussion is better than many questions with shallow discussion. If a question can readily be answered with a “yes” or “no,” follow up immediately by asking for an example.

Another way of using the questioning technique is to print a half-dozen questions on a handout. Next to each question have two columns, one labeled “before reading” and the other “after reading.” Under each heading students can write “yes” or “no.” This method forces students who might not want to engage in oral discussion to commit to an answer. Their written answers can serve as the start of a discussion.

It is the “why” behind the “yes or “no” which prepares students for gaining deeper meaning from the passage.

Teaching inferences

If students’ vocabulary is good but comprehension lags, the problem could be inferences.

Inferences are connections between what is said in the text and what we know to be true based on our experiences.

Good students delight in bringing their own world view to their reading, enriching the reading experience. But struggling readers don’t know they are supposed to do this. They think everything must be right there on the page. If asked to answer a question based on inference, they might say, “It doesn’t say,” or “The answer isn’t here.”

How can you teach inferences? According to Kylene Beers*, using the “It says—I Say—And So” chart helps.

Suppose, for example, the students read “The Three Little Pigs.” You ask, “Why can’t the wolf blow down the house made of brick?”

It says: The third little pig made his house out of brick.

I say: Brick is strong and heavy. And it is stuck together with cement.

And so: The brick is too strong to be blown down by the wolf.”

For the “It Says—I Say” strategy to work, this strategy must be used regularly, with modeling by the teacher or by students. A good place to start is with fairy tales or other well-known stories. Later, move on to grade level texts.

*When Kids Can’t Read; What Teachers Can Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004

When is it most useful to discuss a reading passage with poor readers?

Is it most useful before reading? During reading? Or after reading?

During reading.

From my experience, engaging students while they are reading makes the greatest positive impact. It helps students pull greater meaning from the text they are reading, and it models the kinds of thinking good readers do.

What kinds of questions help?

• What does that mean? “That” could refer to a vocabulary word, a sentence or a concept.
• What is confusing or hard to understand? Often a teacher can tell that something the student has read confuses him, but the student doesn’t say so. Even if the student says, “I don’t know,” the teacher likely has ideas about what is difficult to understand. Identifying the problem—an idiom, a metaphor, a reference to another part of the text—and explaining it can be vital to the student’s understanding.
• Who is she? What is her relationship to ___? Sometimes poor readers fail to recognize relationships among characters or the role of a particular character in the text. Or they may fail to recognize that Jean Louise and Scout are the same person.
• What will happen next? Predicting shows students know enough of a story to say what is possible. Not being able to predict might indicate students are not following the plot or a character’s emotional response to a situation.

Modeling by an adult is important for struggling students. “Hmm. I wonder what Nate the Great will do next?”  Or “What is a spinning wheel anyway? I’ve never seen one. Have you?” Or “A red letter day? What in the world is a red letter day?”

Struggling readers need to see that asking questions while they are reading is not a sign that they are dumb; it is a sign they are intelligent. They need to know that good readers ask lots of questions as they read, and if they don’t know the answers, they find out—stopping in the middle of their reading to ask an adult, a dictionary or the internet.

Diagrams help students read

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners, ESL students and students with comprehension issues understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to read a biography of Coretta Scott King.  To help the student see the organization of Mrs. King’s life, the teacher could draw a color-coded diagram of important activities in Mrs. King’s life.   Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.   Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the reading passage breaks down into smaller chunks.

Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children learning English or children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

How to Raise a Reader, according to The New York Times

The New York Times published  an excellent article last month entitled, “How to Raise a Reader.”  You might find the article at your library in the Book Review section.  It is worth the effort.  Here are some highlights from “How to Raise a Reader.”

Become a reader yourself.  If you have let your reading habit slip, reacquaint yourself with the print world.

Read aloud to your infant.  Your reading material might be a medical journal or Dr. Seuss.  The content doesn’t matter to an infant.  What does matter is that you make eye contact with your child, use voice inflection, and read in the normal rhythms of your language.  If the baby responds with baby sounds, respond in kind.

Read aloud to your toddler.  Encourage your child to link the sound of your voice reading to him with strong, positive emotions.  Read at bedtime and during daytime too.  Offer your child variety in picture books, but respect his or her preferences, even if that means reading “Go, Dog, Go” night after night.  When the child interrupts, that shows he is engaged.  Stop and respond.  Finishing a book isn’t all that important at this age nor is reading every word.

Continue to read aloud to your emerging reader.  Once your child shows interest in letters and words, keep reading to him or her.  Encourage her to join in, but don’t pull back now.  She shouldn’t think of reading as work.  She should think of it as fun.  Allow your child to develop reading skills at her own pace, but if you suspect problems, follow through with her teacher.

Continue to read aloud to your early reader.  Take him or her to the library or book store.  Expand his selections from fiction to nonfiction.  Ask him and his friends what they are reading and discuss their preferences.  Let your child stay up a bit later if she reads in bed.  If your child prefers comic books or graphic novels, or if he wants to read about his favorite video game, be thrilled.  He’s reading.

Stash reading materials throughout the house. On the coffee table, in the bathroom, or in the bedroom, show off books, magazines and other reading materials to encourage reading.

Help your child build a personal library.  Make a bookcase part of the child’s bedroom or a children’s section of books part of your home library.  Give books as gifts and rewards.  Bring home armloads of books from the library.  Celebrate your child’s first library card with family stories of other first library cards.

This wonderful New York Times article goes on to describe the kinds of books children are ready for at different times in their lives.  Enjoy.

 

How to build reading comprehension skills in a child who can’t read yet

Though toddlers can’t read, they can begin to learn the comprehension skills they will need when they do read.  Here’s one way you can help.

Improve their listening comprehension by orally quizzing them—as playfully as possible—when you read stories to them.

Ask them questions after each page or each part of a story. “Now I forget.  Is Little Red Riding Hood going to her grandmother’s house or her big sister’s house?”  In this case you offer two suggestions, one of which is correct, and the children can choose the correct answer.

Later, as the children grow, ask them to supply the answer. “How many little pigs were there?”  “Was one of the houses made out of leaves?”

Questions about the sequencing of a story encourage children to pay attention to what comes at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. “When did Sylvester find the magic pebble?  Was it at the beginning of the story or at the end?”

Questions about the setting encourage children to pay attention to the where and when of a story.  “I think Cinderella lived in a tent.  What do you think?”

As much as possible, make the quizzing seem like a game. Use gestures, facial animation and your “big, bad wolf” voice.  Limit the number of questions you ask to the child’s age plus one so the child doesn’t tire of this activity.

Some children will enjoy asking you the questions. Go for it.  This will make the activity seem more game-like since in a game, everybody gets a chance.

If you make remembering information and asking questions a normal part of telling stories, children are apt to bring this habit to the stories they read themselves.