9: Asking and Generating Questions

“To be, or not to be?” Hamlet’s famous question (Act III, Scene I) also leads the reader to predict aspects of Hamlet’s character.  Hamlet is a confused, but also a thoughtful, prince.  We might infer that, to him, questions were at least as important as answers. Questions and their answers, as we observe them in classrooms, characterize the discourse found there.  Often, teachers ask questions and students respond.  Thoughtful questions from teachers can provoke learning in ways no other instructional tool can.  However, questions generated by students can be equally powerful, if not more so. We believe the ability to frame a thoughtful question, especially when the answer is not immediately known, is a skill teachers should encourage in their students.  Of course, most readers of this book will be familiar with the questions that appear at the end of the section or chapter.  These, too, can take a useful place in classroom discourse.  In this section, we will treat statements that require a response as questions even if they aren’t punctuated with a question mark at the end (Turner, 1983).

An interesting study (Daines, 1986) reported the results of how 38 teachers in grades from 2 through 12 employed questions in their classrooms.  The question types classified in this study were of four types: literal, interpretive, application, and affective.  Interpretive questions included those that required students to make inferences, compare or contrast, determine cause and effect relationships, make predictions based on trends, and so on.  93 percent of the 5,289 questions teachers asked during this study were at the literal level.  Less than seven percent were interpretive questions.  Teachers asked about 78 questions per hour with second grade teachers asking the most questions and tenth grade teachers asking the fewest questions.  On average, teachers only waited two seconds from the time the question was asked until a student responded and this time did not increase when higher-order questions were asked. Do you want to know how long the average student’s response was?   It was only three seconds with a range that extended to five seconds in tenth grade.

Even though this study is more than twenty years old, the results can inform our teaching in the twenty-first century.  First, we might expect that higher-order questions are asked when the questions are planned in advance allowing for flexibility as a discussion evolves.  Second, we can provide opportunities for students to think through their responses by increasing wait time, through use of journals and other written forms in advance of oral discussion, and by allowing students to work out responses in small groups.  Fordham (2006) describes the responses of teachers and pre-service teachers who had never thought of questions as anything other than a way to assess comprehension.  She suggests that appropriate questions can also encourage the cognitive behaviors, like making predictions, that teachers wish to encourage.

Learning to Predict

  1. Recast your thinking as a teacher about the purpose questions serve. Questions from the teacher may promote better inferences, good predictions, and more transfer of knowledge to new situations in addition to their role as a check for comprehension or for other assessment purposes.
  2. Increase the opportunities for students to think through and respond thoughtfully to the questions they encounter in the classroom.
  3. Ensure that students are taught how to ask questions that further their thinking about classroom content and about how they learn best.
  4. Model responses to questions that show students how to construct the response required. Don’t forget that questions often look forward through content to reducing uncertainty about the content and predicting what may happen next or what the structure of the text may next suggest.
  5. Consider the questions at the end of the textbook chapter as useful tools that can foster discussion, provoke thoughtful responses, and expand what students know about the topics in the chapter. We contend that when these textbook questions are useful, it is because the focus is on the construction of knowledge rather than on obtaining one-dimensional responses that might be construed as correct by the teacher.  Knowledge sometimes is not as immutable as we think; questions about text can promote inquiry and an understanding of how knowledge is constructed.
  6. Use questions orally, in writing, in small groups, with individuals, and with the whole class to prompt thinking before students read, during reading to guide readers who are novices in the field of inquiry, and after reading to extend thinking and to assess what students know.

Applications and Examples

     Secondary Classroom. High school students reading The Good Earth (Buck, 1931) must make sense of another culture and a trying time in the life of a family where the situation the characters confront, on the surface, is beyond the scope of any they have, themselves, experienced.  Notice how teacher Cheryl Wegener uses questions to help students understand the novel and the situations confronting the characters rather than simply assessing what they know about the plot, characters, or theme (Figure 9.1 and Table 9.1.).

Table 9.1  Dilemma Worksheet

What is O-lan’s dilemma?
What are the two possible choices of the dilemma?
Choice 1
Choice 2
What information, evidence, or expertise does O-lan have to support her first choice?
What information, evidence, or expertise does O-lan have to support her second choice?
Evaluate her final decision and action. How does O-lan justify her decision? What information and evidence does she consider in her justification? Can O-lan ever be certain that she made the best decision?
Based on your values, beliefs, opinion, evidence, or other information, do you believe that O-lan made the best decision? Why or why not?

Elementary ClassroomBud, Not Buddy (Curtis, 2002) provides Marla Green with many opportunities to use questions with her students.  She employs questions before students read that help students learn about the setting of the novel and she asks questions and encourages students to ask questions as the novel unfolds. These set the stage for more thinking later on as the story unfolds (Figure 9.2).

[Insert Figure 9.2 about here]

Figure 9.1 In her own words: Cheryl Wegener, Eastern Michigan Writing Project, Brighton High School, Brighton, Michigan

After reading a chapter of text {The Good Earth) where the main character of O-lan kills her daughter shortly after its birth, students are sometimes confused.  Was the baby stillborn?  Did it die of natural causes shortly after its birth?  Did O-lan really kill it?  What is going through Wang Lung’s mind (the father) as he buries the baby, all the while knowing that the mongrel dog lurks nearby will immediately consume the corpse after it leaves?  Outrage commonly follows these questions, leading to a discussion where many morals and dilemmas are examined.  Students are presented a series of dilemmas that are based concepts from the novel. Students first begin thinking about the dilemma presented and the follow-up questions by first responding in journals.  This is followed by small group discussions, allowing students to share ideas and different points of views.  Students also reflect upon how the perceptions, beliefs, and values influence the way they make decisions.

One strategy requires the students to step into the shoes of the character forced to make the decision and examine it through their eyes.  Using key questions, students had to understand the text on multiple levels in order to fully respond.

“They needed to demonstrate not only basic knowledge about the text but also higher levels of understanding about characterization, plot, and theme” (Friedman, 2000, p. 101).  The use of a Dilemma Worksheet (Table 9.1) helps to facilitate this process. After examining this section of text, students are asked to predict the future of the Lung family.  Will they survive the famine?  Will they be forced to sell the daughter known as the Poor Fool?  In order to make such predictions, students may need clarification regarding the social norms in regard to the selling of daughters. They will also need to understand the hierarchy of the time, and what that meant to the Lung family.

Figure 9.2  In her own words: Marla Green, Kelso School District, Kelso, Washington.

I realize some students won’t have the schemata to attach new learning if it’s not pre-taught.  So being able to think about little things like, “What food was available in the 1930’s?  Were there restaurants?  Did they have a McDonalds?”  It seems silly but some kids really wouldn’t have a clue.  In chapter two, an altercation arises.  As Mrs. Amos walks in on Todd beating the heck out of Bud; at this point, I plan to ask for predictions, calling for questions at the interpretive level. Questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?  Will Todd get into trouble or will it be the “foster kid”, Bud, who gets the short end of the stick?  What would you do if you were Mrs. Amos?”  These questions will give the students an opportunity to form their own opinions and prepare them for further discussion after reading.

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