Best of Frank Serafini: Asking Questions

Three assumptions that underlie the types of questions we ask and why we ask them:

  1. There are particular meanings that are more important than others and the teacher believes they know which of these meanings are correct. It seems that teachers ask questions to provide students with an opportunity to offer the interpretations teachers have already decided are correct. Teachers believe they have privileged access to a book’s meaning and ask questions to see if their students can provide answers that align with their thinking. When we do this, the question we are really asking is, “Guess what’s in my head?”
  2. In general, a majority of the questions that teachers ask can be answered by referring directly to the text. The research I have conducted, and the reviews of research available in the professional literature, suggest that teachers favor asking literal questions. These questions privilege the text over the thinking of the reader by locating the answers directly on the page. These questions simply expect students to remember what was in the book and regurgitate it during discussions. Its focus is on students’ memory, not their thinking.
  3. Many teachers believe that the best ways to assess students’ knowledge and understandings is through questioning. They ask questions to know whether students have comprehended what has been read. Although this is certainly possible, we often over rely on questions to help us assess the comprehension skills of readers in our classrooms. Listening to the ideas students offer freely, considering the questions students ask, and allowing students to represent and articulate their understandings in a variety of ways will help us to stop relying exclusively on asking questions, especially literal ones, as our primary source of information.

Considerations for Asking Questions
Questions should provide space for an acceptable range of answers, possibilities and interpretations.

Questions should help readers make connections to their lives and other literary experiences.

Questions should promote further inquiry, discussion and reflection, allowing students to extend, clarify and confirm their interpretations.

Questions seem to be more effective when they are asked in response to students’ ideas, rather than in front of them.

Questions should have integrity. I believe, teachers should not ask questions when they already know the answers.

Questions should help students explain or justify their ideas.

Questions should be used as a scaffold to support students’ learning.

Questions should help students notice things in the text they may have not noticed on their own.

Questions should address what is in the text as well as what is in students’ thinking.

Questions MUST go beyond literal recall and ask students to provide evidence of their interpretive processes.

Asking students to talk more about their thinking may be a better way to get to their interpretive processes than asking “why” questions.


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