Tips to Empower Students to Ask their own Questions about Literature

By Joel Pardalis, sixth-grade teacher at New Fairfield Middle School in New Fairfield, Connecticut

Teach students the value of different types of questions. Initially, we start off talking about open versus closed questions. We talk about the differences and what each type of question leads to when it is answered. We also talk about how closed questions can be revised to make open questions. Once students are confident in their ability to identify and create these two types of questions, we graduate to the 4 types of questions detailed in Shared Inquiry: Factual, Interpretive, Evaluative, and Speculative. Students then are given the opportunity to categorize their questions with one of these labels. Some of the best classroom debates come from students trying to prove why a question fits a certain category. By teaching students the different types of questions, students begin to see that questions have different purposes. They also learn to recognize which questions lead to the best discussions.

Teach students to test their questions. Students often want to skip this step and often for the sake of saving time, teachers do as well. But it’s essential that students learn to test their questions—it’s a great exercise for getting students to look at all sides of an argument. If students can only come up with one way to answer a question, then it most likely is not leading to a great discussion. Spend time with this step to avoid reflecting about how you should have spent more time testing the questions with your students after the discussion is over.

Allow student-created questions to drive discussions . . . even if you know it may fail. Allow time for students to work together in many different facets to create questions. In my class, we normally scaffold through the question creation process. Students initially document their own questions as we read a piece of literature. Students then work in small groups looking at their peers’ questions and categorizing them. Within the small groups, students decide on which questions they believe will lead to the best discussions or they revise existing questions so that they will lead to better discussions. The small group power questions are then compiled as a class, and the whole class discusses and decides which 2-3 questions will be used to drive the Shared Inquiry discussion. Don’t let this become a vote. Allow students to discuss and share opinions, and let the class come to an agreement. Votes become popularity contests and defeat the purpose.

Take a back seat. When students ask their own questions, teachers start to see stories with fresh eyes in every discussion. Enjoy the unique opinions of each class and keep your opinion out of the discussion. Don’t be afraid to embrace the silence and allow students the opportunity to process what their classmates say. Use questions of your own to get students to reflect deeper on topics and to draw others in. But if you have regular classroom discussions you’ll find that students take over this role and drive the discussions independently.

Reflect on Questions. Lastly, it is important to take the time to reflect on what worked with the student-created questions and what didn’t work. If the students were to do it over, would they have chosen the same question? Would they have revised it? How? These reflections not only teach students the importance of reflective practice, but go a long way towards improving the questions students ask the next time.

Questions expand possibilities for our students. By shifting the pendulum of responsibility, the ownership of learning goes where it belongs, with students themselves. How do you use student-created questions to drive instruction in your classroom?

We’re grateful to Joel Pardalis for writing this guest post about how he discovered the benefits of effective questioning and how to get students to ask their own questions.

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