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Reading & Literacy

The Common Core Raises Questions About Teachers’ Questioning Skills

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 28, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 6 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story included a misspelling of Jeffrey Greene’s name.

There are no stupid questions. But when it comes to the common core, teachers are finding that their questions could be asking a lot more of students.

Educators have called the focus on “close reading” one of the most critical shifts in the Common Core State Standards’ approach to literacy, and one that many teachers need practice to perfect.

Using questioning techniques, teachers can guide students to think critically about complex literary and informational texts and to construct evidence-based arguments based on them. But getting students to dig into deeper meaning requires going beyond simply asking them to cite an example or find an answer in the text. It means encouraging them to build interpretations and analyses from what they’ve read.

To that end, a number of new district and researcher-led programs are being developed to help teachers learn to ask better questions in connection with reading assignments or activities.

“What’s hard for teachers is forming these questions,” said Lindsay C. Matsumura, an associate education dean at the University of Pittsburgh who studies inquiry. Questioning “really requires a lot of planning to do it effectively.”

For example, in discussing E.B. White’s classic children’s novel Charlotte’s Web, typically a teacher might ask a student what Templeton the rat does to help Wilbur the pig. But a deeper question, Matsumura said, might be: “ ‘Is Templeton the rat a good friend?’ He really helps Wilbur, in the text, but you could argue his help always comes at a cost. What’s critical [in close reading] is you need to reasonably be able to take different perspectives on the text. That is getting to the heart of common-core standards.”

No ‘Right’ Answers

In a 2009 meta-analysis of class discussions led by Pennsylvania State University psychologist P. Karen Murphy, a team of researchers found that most teacher questions ask students to identify surface features of the text, like grammar, plot, characters, and climax.

“I initiate a question, the student responds, I evaluate,” Murphy said in describing a typical exchange. Students answering those questions became adept in basic story structure, but the skills did not translate to deeper understanding of the material or the ability to apply what they learned in one text to another.

By contrast, the questions that improved students’ critical thinking and deeper understanding did not have a “right” answer. Rather, they asked students to speculate on how actions might unfold or to draw on other texts to inform their understanding of the passage being discussed.

Murphy and Matsumura each have been awarded $1.5 million in federal grants to develop some of the first professional-development programs to help teachers improve discussions during close reading as prescribed under the common core.

Murphy’s training initiative, dubbed Quality Talk, grew out of early research on question types. She and Jeffrey Greene of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are crafting a set of videotaped model lessons and an assessment tool for teachers to analyze their own inquiry techniques.

Matsumura and her colleagues at Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, meanwhile, have developed a PD program that uses an eight-week online course and individual coaching. The training includes how to select meaty texts and conceive questions that help students understand multiple perspectives.

Close reading is intended not only to push students to think more deeply and critically about what they read, but also to put students with less background knowledge on more equal footing with classmates during class discussions, according to Matsumura.

“There are real problems in society we want kids to be reading about—water quality, investing in space exploration—these are complex problems. But those texts are by and large not available to kids,” she said. “You have to do a lot of background building, mini-lectures on the subject, and teachers sometimes feel insecure about their own knowledge.”

Claire Borge and Audrey Jakes, teachers in the Fairfield-Suisun district in Northern California, see that discomfort a lot.

Both are on special assignment in the district’s Teacher Support Center, working to help some 1,000 teachers in preschool through adult education classes improve their classroom discourse. Using workshops and ongoing lesson modeling and coaching, the pair helps teachers learn to ask questions that spur discussions about not only text, but also photos, charts, and even political cartoons.

“We are coming out of a time period in public education where the questions have all been prewritten for us, the curriculum has all been written for us, and now we are being given the opportunity to write our own questions within the curriculum,” said Borge, a 30-year veteran teacher. “At first, everyone is really afraid to really look at these question stems and think.”

Hitting the Stopping Points

In one school, the coaches came to help a teacher with one lesson and ended up working for eight weeks with all the teachers in that grade. Teachers learned from and built on each others’ questions to devise lessons integrating science and social studies with reading.

“It’s been a gradual release,” Borge said. “The first year was very general—what is the common core, how does a standard progress from kindergarten through 12th grade—but that’s not going to translate to classroom practice. [In workshops] teachers see the strategies and go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but when they see them layered in their classrooms, it’s really transformative.”

As teachers use more open-ended questions, Jakes said, they also begin to step back and encourage students to ask most of the questions of one another.

The first time Borge and Jakes modeled close reading for an 11th grade history teacher’s students, “you could hear crickets,” Jakes said. “It’s not that [the students] thought nothing, but they were scared. ... You could see they were thinking, ‘You’re not supposed to ask me, you’re supposed to tell me the answer is C.’ ”

Well-timed questions can be critical to getting students to open up, Matsumura said. She found teachers often read through a chapter or text selection completely before starting a discussion.

As part of the training course, they are learning to plan stopping points where the text is ambiguous and launch questions that get students thinking about what is going on. “We want to teach kids to not just start at the beginning and read all the way through,” Matsumura said. “A good reader is thinking about what they are reading as they are going through.”

In a pilot study of the Pittsburgh Learning Research and Development Center training, Matsumura found these more open and in-depth class conversations were particularly helpful to English-language learners. She is still studying exactly why such students showed bigger comprehension improvements than other students, but she speculated that more-integrated discussions of academic vocabulary and connection among different texts and visuals might have made the difference.

It’s easy for teachers to get overwhelmed trying to implement all the changes in the common core at once.

“Start small,” Jakes advised. “Common core is about shifts, not leaps. If you change one small thing in your practice, and then another thing, over the course of the year, you have changed.”

That approach has proved popular; Borge’s and Jakes’ latest workshop had 50 teachers signed up, with a waiting list for 18 more.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Common Standards Raise Questions on Questioning


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