Asking Better Questions


On Wednesday Turn and Talk Blog posted this amazing post about questioning: click here.

As I read the post I immediately thought of a silly question I asked yesterday in 3rd grade.  During our minilesson on how to read and think about the material section of how-to directions I pointed to the word optional and I asked:

“Who knows what the word optional means?”

Well, silly me, I got quite a few incorrect answers before one student saved the day!

So, I had to laugh then when I read in the post:

Suddenly, your fast review question that was going to be a ten-second reminder to the class of an old concept has turned into a two minute long moment that left half the class convinced that revision has something to do with peeing in the woods.

Yes, I had fallen into the trap of fishing for a question!

Here is sound advice found in the post about this problem:

One of the moves that can do the most to tighten your minilessons, focus your instruction, and provide time for real talk, reading, writing, and learning is to cut bait on your fishing questions. Fishing questions are like the one above – you know the right answer, the kids know you know the right answer, and the goal is to see if you can fish it out of a child. Kids’ goals are to avoid being called on, to get called on and show off their mind-reading abilities, or to try to ferret out the right answer from hearing their classmates’ missed guesses.

I love this reminder.  I know this well.  That is why I start every minilesson with a summary statement “Yesterday we…Today I want to teach you…”  and not “Who remembers what we learned yesterday?”

So in reflecting on my mishap I could have said:

“Optional means you have a choice to use that material.  How many of you chose to use the eraser?  How many of you chose not to use the eraser?  Tell me why you made that choice.”

Katy (the post’s author) states these types of questions does three things:

  1. reminds kids of what you mean when you say the word
  2. invites kids to recall their past experience
  3. lets you read the room to figure out what this group of kids knows about the topic

The post ends with these helpful tips:

  • Before you pose a question to the class, think about what jobs that question will do.
  • Consider whether the question is one that is best posed teacher to a single student, with the class listening, or whether it’s one that invites a whole class conversation, or whether it’s a topic perfect for partners to turn and talk about.
  • Be ruthless about cutting questions from your lessons. Remember that if you’re looking for one specific answer to a question that sounds like an open-ended question, it is often a fishing question.
  • In the moment, if you’re finding yourself flailing to connect kids’ responses to the right answer, or calling on numerous kids to get a response to what should have been a fast review question – cut bait! Tell kids what you’re thinking – usually the definition of a term or a concept you have a particular explanation for – and then change the question so it forces kids to engage with the concept (like giving an example of the term or idea).

Supporting Conversations

CMtoXX8WEAAIxFSGoal 12 in The Reading Strategies Book provides teachers with 21 lessons on how to foster talk in the classroom.  The introduction to the goal provides readers with the knowledge of why talk is important.  Serravallo provides this helpful continuum of conversation skills in the introduction:

  • active listening
  • body language
  • staying on the topic
  • conversation worthy topics
  • elaborating
  • respectful language
  • accountability
  • balance
  • keeping conversation moving
  • questioning
  • stamina
  • flexible thinking
  • debate
  • empathy

Each of the 21 lessons in the chapter focuses on one of the above mentioned skills.  Here are some great ideas from the lessons:

  • If conversations fall flat it is likely the students are being overly literal or just retelling the story p. 326
  • Listening begins with your whole body p. 328
  • Some teachers like to use talking tickets to see who is talking and who has a lot remaining p. 330
  • “I heard you say _____.  What I think is _____.”
  • take turns without raising hands p. 332
  • Partner menus help provide ideas on what to talk about p. 333
  • “This reminds me of _____ and that helps me understand ____ in the book.”
  • Have students use a conversation playing board to talk about post-its p. 336
  • Students can respond by:  adding on, agreeing, disagreeing, supporting, or asking questions p. 338
  • talking across books fosters deeper thinking p. 340

My favorite strategy lesson was 12.20 titled Power Questions.  This lesson helps students to realize that their questions can help keep conversations going.  By sharing the chart below readers can become aware of how their questions keep the conversation growing.

IMG_8011 copyThis chapter reminds me of the acronym shared by Alissa Levy at the TCRWP Summer Institute.  In her session titled “How Can I Get My Students To Do More Than Just Read” we were asked us to remember K.I.S.S. – Keep It Social Silly.  “Teaching reading is hard because what students really do is invisible – talking and writing help make reading visible.”