Back to school sales have been happening which can only mean one thing: IT’S ALMOST TIME TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL!! For some, that is great reason to celebrate, and for others, it’s a little too soon to be thinking about it (What?! Didn’t school just let out a couple weeks ago??). Either way, it’s almost always a good time to clock in some extra minutes of parent-child reading time together!
As you probably know, I’ve been in the middle of a series on how to read well with your child. Yes, straight-up reading out loud to your child is great, and is already more quality and productive time than a lot of other things you or your child could be doing. But if your child happens to be struggling at all with reading, there are a few simple things you can do to make the reading time together even more effective! If you’re hoping to get more bang for the minutes you are spending reading with your child, bookmark this parent page and try some of these simple strategies to help your child grow as a reader.
Today, I’m going to go more in depth on teaching your child the reading strategy of asking questions while reading. I have spent weeks teaching this strategy alone in the classroom. There are so many ways to talk about asking questions that I was tempted to break this post into two parts, but the OCD part of me wants to link just one “Asking Questions” link everywhere, so… here goes!
What does the “Asking Questions” strategy involve?
Good readers frequently wonder things while they read, and the best readers wonder deeply. When I was in elementary school, we did a lot of reading comprehension worksheets. There was a lot of who, what, where, when, and why? going on, and the questions the worksheets posed to me took all of a minute or two to complete. If we wanted to go for the gold, there was the starred and bolded *How? question that early finishers could work on. Woot.
This is NOT what the asking questions strategy is all about in the Reader’s Workshop. First of all, it’s not about quizzing the reader. It’s about the reader asking questions while they read. Instead of just answering questions to prove our comprehension, our goal is to ask good question to improve our comprehension. We all do this naturally at some time or another– Why did she say that? What will happen next? What does that mean? Who is going to win? Why did the author end the story this way?! We may not always be aware of it, but if we paused to examine our thoughts, we’d probably see lot of questions whizzing through our minds as we read. It’s one way of thinking that shows that the reader is engaged with the text and making sense of things. All good readers do this.
Some readers do not do this. They simply read and decode the text (i.e. read the words without really processing what they mean) and move on in life. They struggle with the task of answering questions (on a test or worksheet, for example) about the text because they have not thought very deeply about the text themselves. Asking questions is a way that good readers engage with and wrestle with text, which ultimately helps them to understand and remember it better.
Lesson 1: Asking before, during, and after questions
There are different types of lessons around asking questions. If you search on Pinterest, you’ll see a lot of “Good readers ask questions before, during, and after reading.” That’s true. Before questions usually revolve around wondering what will happen in the upcoming text and activating background knowledge to inform questions about what will happen in the text. During questions are things you wonder about while you’re reading the text. After questions are questions you still have after reading the text. Pretty straightforward, right? That’s why this makes a nice easy lesson to start off with for the questioning strategy. You can easily form a lesson around that topic and create a graphic organizer to help your child organize their questions in this manner:
This is a very basic and accessible lesson to start off with. Before reading a text together, preview the front cover and title and generate some questions together:
I see a man about to eat something– probably a fig, since the title is The Sweetest Fig. I wonder what’s so special about the fig? I wonder if there’s a competition to find the sweetest fig. He’s wearing a bow-tie and looks kind of rich. I wonder if he paid a lot of money to get the sweetest fig. I wonder what figs taste like.
Jot all these before questions down into the appropriate column, then start reading the text. Jot down questions that come up in the during column as you read through the text– first modeling your own questions, and then inviting your child to share her questions to write down, too. When you finish reading the story, generate some lingering questions you still have about the story, and record them in the after column.
This simple exercise is a good introduction to the asking questions strategy and will give your child confidence to go a little deeper in the next lesson.
Lesson 2: How do I go deeper with the Asking Questions strategy?
Once you know your child is comfortable with the idea of posing questions to the text, then take it one step further. One of the things I always teach my students is that good readers ask deep questions. Unlike the boring worksheets of yore, we do not relegate questions to who, what, where, and when. Why and how aren’t automatically considered advanced questions just because they started with why and how. Instead, we talk about how questions have varying levels of depth. The following is basically a lesson I got from Professor Judith Shierling during my teaching program, which made a lot of sense to me. I’ve used it every year and it makes a great foundation to build on as I teach the questioning strategy to my students.
Again, I’m going to use one of my Chris Van Allsburg favorites, The Sweetest Fig as my sample text for this lesson. Let’s continue as though we had already used this text to practice asking before, during, and after questions as shown above, so now we are using the familiar text again to study the questioning strategy further. At this point, I break questioning down into four levels/types of questions, and usually explain it like this:
Me: There are different types of questions you can ask while reading a book. Some are shallow, simple questions, while others are deeper, more thoughtful questions. A lot of readers can ask shallow questions, like, “Who is the main character?” or “Where does this story take place?” However, good readers ask both shallow and deep questions while they are reading a text. What does it mean to have shallow and deep questions? Well, think of it like the ocean (I draw the graphic organizer below):
Right below the surface are the simple questions. They’re easier to think of, and they’re easier to answer. The most basic questions are the ones where you can find the answer by flipping open the book and finding the answer right there. So we’ll call these Right There questions. Here are some examples of right there questions:
Q: What is the name of the main character?
A: Ah, it’s right there (point). His name is Monsieur Bibot.
Q: What does Monsieur Bibot do for a living?
A: Oh, I see the answer right there (point). He’s a dentist.
Q: How does the old lady pay the dentist?
A: Hm… (flip through the book), ah. The answer is right there (point). She gives him two magical figs.
The next level of questions take a little more work to answer. You have to search through the text and find answers, sometimes in multiple places. We will call them Search and Find questions. Here are some examples of search and find questions:
Q: What kind of person is Monsieur Bibot?
A: Well, here it says he is fussy. Here it says he doesn’t let his dog onto furniture. Here it says he doesn’t let his dog bark. (Flip the page and search through the text). Hm, over here it says that he wouldn’t give an old lady pain killers because she didn’t pay him with money. And he shoves her. And the next page says he would pull sharply on his dog’s leash. Now that we’ve done some searching and finding, I think we can answer the question– he is not a very nice person! He is unkind to others, including his dog and the old lady.
Q: What’s special about the figs?
A: Hm… on this page, we see that they’re very sweet. (Flip the page). On the following pages, we see how Monsieur Bibot realizes that the weird dream he had last night came true after eating the fig. On this page, he’s walking around in his underwear like he had done in his dream, and on this page, the Eiffel Tower bends over like soft rubber the same way that happened in his dream. So they are magical figs that make your dreams come true. I found that by searching through the book and getting the answer from several places.
Now we’re going to get a bit deeper. Some questions we can’t find just by looking through the text and pointing here or there. Sometimes, the questions remain somewhat unanswered, and they’re questions you wonder to the author. We’ll call these Me and the Author questions. For example:
Q: Is the lady a witch or something? How did she get magical figs?
A: The text doesn’t tell us, but based on other books we’ve read from Chris Van Allsburg (like The Widow’s Broom), having a witch in the story wouldn’t be out of the question.
Q: Why did the dentist have a dog if he was going to be so mean to him?
A: I’m not sure– the text doesn’t talk about why he chose to get a dog. But I think based on his personality, he likes to control other things and probably other people or be a bully. By owning a dog, he can choose to treat him however he wants and maybe that makes him feel powerful.
Another level of deep thinking is starting from the text to pose a question to the world. We’ll call these Me and the World questions. These are the questions that come up when you allow the text to make you think more deeply about things in the world, and what this text means in the greater scheme of things. For example:
Q: Why do people care so much about getting rich?
A: This is a big question. Why are we greedy? Why do we covet things? Why do we think money is so important? What do you think, world? Maybe we care because it makes us more comfortable, or it makes us feel superior to other people. Maybe we are trained to think having money and having things is important because that’s what we see on commercials and in advertisements on TV all the time! Maybe we should watch less TV…
Q: What would the world be like if animals were suddenly put in charge instead of humans? Do we treat animals as well as we should?
A: There are a lot of things that humans do to animals that are bad and wrong. We should treat them with respect and care! Hm I wonder, what should we do to be more kind to animals? Maybe we should adopt dogs, or maybe we should be more careful about how we are treating the environment so that we don’t ruin things for animals, such as polluting the air, using too much energy and causing global warming, or littering and allowing trash to end up in the sea where it can harm animals.
As you can see, the types of questions get increasingly harder to pose but also grow increasingly interesting and thoughtful. Someone who takes the time to think of a question that examines a character’s motives and personality will think about and remember details about the character much better than someone who just read the text without thinking of these kinds of questions.
There are other ways you can talk about questioning with your child, but I think it works well to start with the basic before, during, and after questions. It makes for a nice and simple opening lesson on the topic. After that, I would recommending doing a follow-up lesson or two (or several) on thinking about and asking deeper questions. The deeper questions will probably be challenging for your child (or even you) to generate at first, but more practice makes it much easier, and also helps your child improve as a reader!
Teaching your child to pose questions to the text is perhaps a different methodology than you grew up with. It’s certainly different than what I grew up with, where I was usually the one filling in blanks and answering questions off of a worksheet. However, it’s a very effective way to help your reader interact with and engage with the text in a meaningful and authentic way!