Asking the right questions will help students to think effectively about reading, and understand text in a deeper way.
A hurdle literacy teachers can face is students not doing the ‘big thinking’ as they read. And quite often, it’s because teachers aren’t enabling students to engage in the right processes.
That’s why literacy expert Sharon Callen talked about how teachers can help students engage in conscious acts of questions, visualising and gathering information, on Episode 63 of The Teacher’s Tool Kit for Literacy
Sharon firstly defined the meaning of ‘thinking about reading’, as opposed to ‘thinking whilst reading’.
“Right from the beginning, our students’ capacity to think is huge. And we don’t want to put limits on that. So thinking about reading is different than just thinking whilst we are reading, it’s digging deeper. Whilst we are reading, thinking about it is really bringing together more things than just what’s there on the page. We are really doing a lot more and we’re being much more conscious about the connections that we are making,” Sharon said.
“For an adult example, as we are reading, we don’t go into the text going, ‘ok today as I’m reading I’m going to make connections, or visualise, or summarise’. But what we find ourselves doing, if we are thinking about it as we are reading, is we find ourselves doing those things. So we might be reading something and we think isn’t ‘it amazing how I can almost hear the voice of that character? I can hear the cadence of it or the tone of it’. That’s the kind of thinking that we are trying to catch. We are thinking, ‘wow how am I experiencing that? We’re orchestrating a whole lot of thoughts’.”
To take on this challenge, Sharon advised that teachers should begin with read alouds before encouraging students to engage in their own reading.
“To begin this, the best way to be teaching is through read alouds, and to be allowing students to do the thinking about the text as they’re listening. This way, it’s not an overload of other things. I can learn a lot about thinking about my reading as I’m listening to text because I can practice doing it as I’m listening. Then, I can take it into my own reading. So that’s one of the strongest ways to learn about that process,” she said.
Sharon went on to explain the initial questions, or prompts, that teachers should provide students to think about reading. She said the following questions are particularly important with giving students greater control and self-motivation.
“The first one is tell me anything that particularly catches your attention. So if I was reading to students, I can use this as a prompt beforehand. ‘Tell me about the parts you didn’t like. Was there anything that puzzled you? Have you read other books, stories, or poems like this? Tell me about them. What sticks in your memory most vividly? Can you tell me how they were alike? Which character interested you the most? Is that character the most important person in story, or is this story really about someone else, but that character interested you the most? Who was telling the story?'” Sharon said.
“So these kinds of questions put the child in the driver’s seat. It’s not, ‘ok here’s your question now answer it’. They are coming up with the goods. It’s putting them in charge. They’re in control, they’re self-motivated, self-regulated and self-directed. And they’re really getting to do that through the life of that story being read on that day, or that chapter, picture book, poem or informational text.
So by giving them that kind of thinking to do, we’ve already set them up for a really rich discussion. So after reading, I’ve really got some big talking that we can do here. And not me as the teacher doing the talking – this is about the collective now.”
The second stage is to then explore questions that will help students with different processes, such as the comprehension strategy of making emotional connections.
“So for making text connections, we might come up with ‘well how does this story actually make you feel?’ So, as we are thinking about it, we’re making connections to that text by thinking about how it’s making us feel. So rather than just saying that I made a text to self connection, let’s talk about that as a bigger piece. So if you’re doing, as I say, a comprehension strategy, that’s one of those global questions to get them thinking,” Sharon said.
While they are reading, teachers can also further delve into questions relating to setting, characters, plot and other story elements.
“For a setting question, we might get them to think about when is this story taking place? So that we can start thinking about where is this story happening? So that’s me thinking about the text, and where and when is this story taking place?” Sharon said.
“If I was thinking about characters, are there any powerful characters in this story and what makes them that way? So that’s thinking about the text. What makes them powerful? What’s the evidence of that from the text? What can I work out from the text?
“What about the plot? How does the author begin the story to engage the reader? Now we might say ‘what’s that got to do with plot?’ Well, it’s right from the beginning of the story – plot just doesn’t happen somewhere down in the middle of the story. So how does the author engage us from the very beginning in this story?
“Then theme, so what’s the theme? What’s the author really saying in this story. So as we are thinking about this, we are thinking through what are they really saying in this story?
“Perspective. So who is telling this story? How are they the best person to be telling it? Then we take it further around language. So what are those interesting words or phrases or sentences that we found that really got us thinking?”
Finally, Sharon encouraged teachers to ask students about their personal connections with the text.
“There’s one question I love to ask – ‘when you think of this story now, what is the most important thing about it for you?’ We all bring our own thoughts and we all get different things from books and from stories. And that has got to be the question that I asked most when I was teaching,” she said.
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