Our Students’ Questions Should Be a Top Priority

By Molly Ness

I juggle two primary roles in my life: first and foremost, I am the mother of a young child. Second, I am a professor and teacher educator. At no other time did my worlds overlap more than when my daughter was four years old. Each day began with her rapid-fire questioning.

“Mama, can ants swim? Why do worms come out of the ground when it rains? If there is a Big Dipper and a Little Dipper, why isn’t there a medium Dipper?”

As parents and educators, we know that this “why time” is a normal developmental phase for young children. As children pursue their seemingly endless “whys,” they are trying to make sense of the world around them.

On the average day, mothers typically are asked an average of 288 questions by their children aged two to ten (Frazier et al., 2009). Parents field one question every two minutes and thirty-six seconds. Within one year, children have posed 105,120 questions. Chouinard and colleagues (2007) revealed that children ask between four hundred and twelve hundred questions each week.

When children come to school, however, their questions taper off. In the vast majority of classrooms today, the responsibility for generating questions is left to the teacher. In fact, the typical teacher asks 300-400 questions a day (Cazden, 2001; Leven & Long, 1981). Most of these are low-level, literal questions (Allington & Weber, 1993; Dewitz, Jones, & Heahy, 2009).

The power of student-generated questions has been proven in research, with the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) concluding that “the strongest scientific evidence was found for the effectiveness of asking readers to generate questions during reading” (pp. 4-45). In spite of this research, students are more likely to answer questions (and not very good ones) than to generate them in the typical English Language Arts classroom.

How can we make student questions a priority?

So what can teachers do to carve instructional time and space for more student-generated questions? Here are some tips that are relevant for students across grades K-8.

  1. Make a parking lot for off-topic student questions.

Turn a bulletin board space into your question parking lot. When kids have questions that stray from the lesson at hand, have them jot them on a sticky note and park them in the lot.

Encourage them to seek out texts to answer those questions on library trips. When you have some extra class time (those odd minutes near the end of the period might be good) pluck some questions from the parking lot for discussion. If you have even more time, you might model Internet searches in pursuit of answers to these student-generated wonderings.

  1. Create I Wonder journals.

Encourage students to keep their own journals with their ever-growing list of questions, so that they have an ongoing record of their curiosity and a safe place to honor those questions. Encourage them to continually add to their journals so that they understand that questions beget questions.

If you use reading logs, might you re-envision the log, from a place where students merely record the pages that they read and instead generate a question that they had about the text? Imagine situations where students might volunteer a question from their journal or log during class discussion.

  1. Use picture walks to generate questions.

As a pre-reading activity, elementary teachers often have readers generate predictions as they walk through the illustrations in a book. This simple routine can easily be shifted to a focus on questioning, rather than predictions.

The growing interest among middle grades teachers in using tween/teen oriented picture books makes this a viable option in grades 4-8, too. As students are encouraged to ask questions about the illustrations in an illustrated text, they read the text with more purpose and more engagement.

from Miss Mary Reporting: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber

  1. Update your KWL into a KWLS.

The KWL graphic organizer is ubiquitous in classrooms where teachers activate background knowledge, set a purpose for reading, and identify areas about which they’d like to learn. By adding the “S” (or the Still Want to Know) the KWL becomes more fluid, encouraging students to generate questions well past the last page of the book or article.

  1. Start young!

Harness young children’s innate curiosity by helping them generate questions from even the simplest text. Young children’s questions often emerge from the world around them, rather than text itself.

Even our youngest readers can ask rich, complex questions from text as simple as nursery rhymes. In my work with preschoolers, I was blown away by their questions from the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme: “Are Jack and Jill related? Why would they go up a hill to fetch water when water usually runs down? Where was their parent?”

What can middle grades educators learn from their colleagues in the earlier grades about inviting and fielding student questions?

  1. Create a culture of questioning in your classroom.

My hunch is that kids stop asking questions as they get older because they feel that our content-driven curriculum does not have time or space to honor their wonderings. Be the teacher who models the questions that you have yourself – your own wonderings – so that students see the value of questioning as a lifelong learning skill.

Praise the process of questioning. Perhaps if more students heard the teacher exclaim, “Oh excellent, excellent question!” (as written by reading researcher Laura Smolkin), student-generated questions might become the driving force of classroom instruction.

How do we we energize our classrooms?

When students’ questions are honored, scaffolded, and encouraged, we may find ourselves realizing that the question is the answer.

______________________

Molly Ness (@drmollyness) is an associate professor of education at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University and earned her PhD in Reading Education from the University of Virginia.  Her research focuses on reading comprehension instruction, the instructional decisions and beliefs of preservice and inservice teachers, and the assessment and diagnosis of struggling readers.

Ness is the author of Think Big with Think Alouds (Corwin, 2018). You can read more about her ideas for grades K-5 at the NCTE Blog. Read a review of Think Big with Think Alouds here at MiddleWeb.

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