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Pour lire, il faut...

Questioning Strategies

10 Ways to Help Students Ask Better Questions

Friday, April 08, 2011
from the blog by John T. Spencer

My students gather in a circle for article reviews. Each pair offers a short summary of the current event followed by a few discussion questions. On this particular day, we meander between talks of democracy, education, death and human suffering. The points students bring up are thought-provoking. However, I'm most impressed by the questions they ask one another. They clarify and ask follow-up questions. They make inferences. They ask connecting questions and critical thinking questions. It's a messy process, but it's beautiful messy. It's art.

However, the deeper questions didn't happen in a vacuum. Students have spent hours learning the art of questioning. Here are ten things I've done in class to encourage students to ask better questions:

  1. Question Everything: It's become a mantra in our class and it extends all the way to me. As long as a question is respectful, I want students to question their world. This applies to analyzing mathematical processes, thinking through social issues, making sense out of a text or analyzing the natural world for cause and effect. Pretty much every lesson we do includes students asking questions to me, to one another or to themselves - and the boldest of students will ask questions of the world.
  2. Reading: I require students to ask questions before, during and after reading. At first, the questions are basic. "What's this story going to be about?" or "Why is that character acting like that?" Over time, however, students think deeper about the text and start asking some profound questions. For example, yesterday a student asked a question about Flowers for Algernon: The main character seems to be happy but ignorant that people make fun of him. Is it better to be ignorant and happy or to know the truth, even when it will crush you?
  3. Inquiry Days: Three times a week, we do inquiry days, where students begin with their own question in either social studies or science and they research it, summarize it and then ask further questions. While my initial goal involved teaching bias, loaded language and summarization, I soon realized that students were growing the most in their ability to ask critical thinking questions.
  4. Feedback on questions: I highlight their questions in Google Docs and leave comments on their blogs with very specific feedback. It might sound harsh, but I will tell a student, "This question is shallow. You're a deeper thinker. Try asking a question that forces someone to question what they already believe" or "This question is deep, but it's worded in a way that elicits a short answer response. Can you change it so that you draw a longer response?"
  5. Model It: In the first week of school, I model the types of questions that require deeper thinking. This happens during read alouds, but also during class discussions. Sometimes I'll ask a really lame question and then say, "Someone tell my why that question sucked?" or I'll ask a deeper question and say, "Why was that a hard question to answer?" The goal is to get them to see deeper questions and to also think about why a question is deep or shallow.
  6. Practice It: We do mock interviews, fake press conferences and rotating discussion zones in the first week of school. Instead of spending time on ice breakers or excessive time on procedures, we spend time on learning to ask better questions.
  7. Scaffolding: Some students have a really hard time with questioning strategies. So, initially I give sentence stems. At first this was really hard for me. I thought that students would naturally ask questions and grow through accessing prior knowledge. I quickly realized that language acquisition had often been a barrier in asking better questions. So, sentence stems and sample questions became a way that ELL students could modify questions and access the language.
  8. Types of Questions: I teach students about inquiry, clarifying, critical thinking and inference questioning. Often the process is messy and there are moments of overlap, but it helps students when they can think, "What needs to be clarified?" or "How does this relate to life?" and from there they can develop better questions.
  9. Multiple Grouping Formats: Students sometimes ask me questions. Other times they ask partners or small group questions. Still other times they ask the questions to the whole class. Thus when they do an article summary, they start with individual questions but eventually move into leading a whole-class discussion.
  10. Technology: E-mail, Google Docs, instant message, Twitter and blog comments have all become asynchronous formats for asking and answering questions. Technology allows students to take their time in crafting a question while having access to the questions of their peers.
John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at He recently finished two books, //Pencil Me In//, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

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