Wednesday / April 24

Learn to Ask Effective Questions

Ask Effective Questions

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” – Tony Robbins

“Who questions much, shall learn much, and retain much.” – Francis Bacon

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

What do these quotes have in common? They focus on the value of a good question. Of course, teachers have known this for a long time. Asking the right question gets students to do the thinking. Asking the wrong question blocks thinking. And not asking questions, and instead telling students what to think, is boring and ineffective.

With the increased focus on close reading, we’ve been thinking more about our questioning habits. Originally, we thought about questions in terms of the content. We developed questions that focused on general understanding, key details, vocabulary, text structures, author’s purpose, and so on. For example, we might ask a student who is reading the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” the following questions:

  • How does the author use geography to convey the message?
  • How does the author use time to convey his message? How much time passes in the poem?
  • Who is “I” in the poem?
  • What is the author’s message?

That approach generally worked, but we started to notice the order of the questions mattered. Students understood the text better when the questions served as a scaffold for complex texts rather than an opportunity to simply check for understanding.

That’s when we revised our questioning protocol to focus on phases of increased intricacy. Now, we take students on a journey with the questions we ask. The four phases we find useful are:

  • What does the text say? These questions focus at the literal level. The content of the questions include the general understanding of the text and the key details found in the text.
  • How does the text work? These questions focus at the structural level. The content of the questions include vocabulary, text structures, and author’s craft.
  • What does the text mean? These questions focus at the inferential level. The content of the questions focus on logical inferences, cross-text comparisons, and the opinions or arguments that can be formed or made from the text.
  • What does the text inspire? These questions focus on the action level. They invite students to do something with the text that they now understand. This might be to respond in writing, conduct research, debate, or create a presentation.

Now imagine students in a history class reading Eisenhower’s D-Day invasion message, “The Order of the Day,” from June 6, 1944. The following questions suggest a move from literal to structural to inferential thinking:

  • Who is the audience for this message?
  • What words and phrases does General Eisenhower use to inspire the troops on D-Day?
  • Ike’s message to the troops acknowledges the difficulty of the mission, but assures them that they will be triumphant. In what ways does he accomplish this?
  • Eisenhower states that this invasion will “bring about the destruction of the German war machine… eliminate tyranny… and create security throughout the world.” What does that sentence reveal about him?
  • How does the use of religious imagery contrast in the opening and closing?
  • Based on the text, what is General Eisenhower’s state of mind before the D-Day invasion?

This experience could be expanded when students have questions that they want to answer for themselves. They might choose to read Eisenhower’s “In Case of Failure” memo, a journal entry from a soldier, the message of a mother who lost her son during the invasion, or watch video clips from this period in history.

Scaffolding students’ learning through effective questions invites them to take action and to find the answers to their questions. Questions matter.

As the Chinese proverb notes: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California.

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