15:Question Answer Relationships (QAR)

Many teachers have had the experience of asking students to respond to a question only to have them find and parrot or copy a response that contains key words from the question but that, nevertheless, does not actually answer the question or demonstrate any intellectual engagement with the task.  This behavior on the part of students should not be characterized as laziness or attributed to the students’ intelligence.  On the contrary, it is a lack of training students to attend to the sources of information available to them in making sense of the materials they read (or to which they listen or view).  A classroom structure designed to assist the reader to understand what sources of information they may call upon in responding to or creating questions is the Question Answer Relationship (QAR) (Raphael, 1984).

Training in QARs helps students to establish what they have been asked and then how to identify a response that is appropriate to the type of question.  The QAR structure is designed around the premise that questions are not asked in isolation from each other or the text.  For example, a question asking about the implications of President Truman’s decision to drop a nuclear weapon on Japan during World War II might be a scriptally-implicit question calling for students to employ prior knowledge in after reading one passage, but it might require a response to information literally contained in the passage of a different text. There are four types of QARs (Raphael, 1986); in the first two question types, students rely on information directly in the text.  In the third and fourth question types, students relate what they know from background or prior knowledge with what they read in the text:

  1. Questions that call for students to identify what is literally in the text are “Right There.” These are usually found in one or two sentences within the passage to which a question refers.
  2. Questions that call for students to make textually implicit assumptions or inferences in order to determine an appropriate response from two or more parts of the text are textually implicit and termed “Figure it out” or “Think and search.”
  3. Questions that call for students to draw upon their background or prior knowledge and join that with what they have read are known as “Author and me” questions.  The key differentiation, according to Raphael, is that to understand the question itself, one must have read the text.  In section 2.8, we referred to a story by Hemingway (1987); if we had asked why Schatz thought he was going to die, the question only makes sense if you had read enough of the story to understand who Schatz is and his condition during the story.  Such questions call for a scriptally-implicit inference to be made.
  4. Questions that call for students to use the information from the story in order to apply it or evaluate the information are similarly required to draw upon background or prior knowledge. Students who are asked what they might feel if they were Schatz in the Hemingway story will not respond correctly unless they consider the characteristics of Schatz as they have learned them from reading the story.  This distinction often eludes students and confounds teachers who may think that because they were asked what they themselves would do that any response is acceptable. These questions we call “On my own.”

Note that question types two and three call for students to make inferences of two different types (cognitive strategy 8).  In question type two, students make connections among parts of the same text, but in question type three, students must draw on background and prior knowledge (which can include other texts with which students are familiar) as information sources to construct a response.  As we noted in cognitive strategy 9, questions are helpful tools for teachers and students alike in looking ahead to what a text might reveal and focusing attention on relevant aspects of a text in order to make good predictions.

Step by Step

  1. Use short passages to demonstrate the types of questions and how responses may be located using different sources of information: a specific location within a text, multiple locations within a text, integrating information that is text dependent, and evaluating or applying that information.
  2. As students are learning to think about the types of questions they have been asked, it is helpful for the teacher to provide a line or space under the question (Raphael, 1984). This provides a scaffold for them to think about what type of question has been asked and a reminder about how to locate that information. As an example, refer to the story “August Heat” in the next section, 16.

In “August Heat,” the stone mason is putting the finishing touches on a monument for an exhibition.  How might the marble used in this monument convey a sense of what is to come later in the story?

Right There: __________________________________

Figure It Out: __________________________________

Author and Me: ________________________________

On My Own: __________________________________

  1. Permit students to use the QAR structure as a discussion tool rather than require all their responses in writing which slows down the processing of what has been read. Help students, through discussion, to respond not only with the answers to questions, but to consider how they used different sources of information and knowledge of types of questions to craft a response.

Applications and Examples

Secondary classroom.  In cognitive strategy 8, you read about Dryer Thackston’s twelfth grade students using questions to help them understand an essay before, during and after reading. Mr. Thackston has provided a copy of the essay to students on which they can highlight important concepts and annotate their thoughts.  Below, note how Mr. Thackston uses the QAR on the same reading passage to assist students in reading a difficult text and being able to think about that text on multiple levels.

Using a QAR to Understand That a Conk Is More Than Style

What does a hair style tell about a person?  For Malcolm X, it can reveal a great deal about a person’s morality.  My own grade-level English 12 students complete a unit called Voices of Others that has as its theme how people feel about living on the margins of society.  As a part of this unit, students read “Hair” (Malcolm X, 1997), an excerpt from Malcolm X’s autobiography, in which he discusses how his judgment of beauty had become so aligned to white standards that he endured a painful chemical treatment to straighten his hair.  The learning objectives are for students to read the passage and understand Malcolm X’s point and then relate it to their experiences or observations.  The passage is only 819 words long and has a 6.0 Flesch-Kincaid readability grade-level rating. Despite the shortness of the passage and the relative ease of the reading, many of my students do not understand  Malcolm X’s main point, which is that by trying to live up to someone else’s standards he had degraded himself.

Students will have difficulty relating to some of the colloquial terms and phrases used in the passage, such as “school me”, “congolene” and “conk” (Malcolm X & Haley, 1964) as well as the concept of conking one’s hair.  Many students do not know what lye is, so they will not recognize Red Devil as a brand of lye.  On a more abstract level, they may have difficulty understanding how straightening one’s hair is a form of self-degradation.  I will front load most of these vocabulary items before we begin reading, and I will guide students to the more abstract meaning through the use of guiding questions (Davis, 2004).

I have decided to use a question-answer relationship (QAR) (Raphael, 1984, 1986) activity (Figure 3-7.1) to help my students better comprehend the excerpt.  Asking students questions before reading helps them to focus on important aspects of the reading (Alvermann & Phelps, 2005; Chapman & King, 2003).  QARs serve this purpose as well as explicitly guiding the student’s responses to the types of questions being asked and to the reading itself. Effective readers use prior knowledge to better comprehend their reading (Davis, 2004) and the QAR teaches this purposefully.  Another advantage is that the questions promote specific types of thinking in students; in this case the “Putting it Together” questions require students to draw inferences from the text which is a difficult for many of these students.  Using QARs will help my students better comprehend the Malcolm X excerpt and make them aware of different reading and learning strategies that they can use better comprehend other readings. QARs helps students master content and develop skills that they can continue to use long after the may have forgotten about Malcolm X and his conk.

Many of my struggling on grade-level English 12 students do not think about their relationship to the reading or the questions being asked.  This strategy will help these students because it states those relationships outright (Raphael 1984).  By knowing where the information is located, students know whether returning to the text will be a useful strategy for answering a question or whether it would better to examine their own prior knowledge and experience.  Many of these students also have a difficult time discerning important facts from unimportant facts, but knowing the questions in advance will help focus on the more important facts (Alvermann & Phelps, 2005; Chapman & King, 2003).

The QAR can help students understand how Malcolm X felt marginalized in a society that defined beauty in terms that he, as an African American, could not possibly meet.  Many of my students feel marginalized in school because they cannot comprehend the same texts some of their classmates readily comprehend.  By giving students the QAR, they can comprehend X’s message and develop reading and thinking skills that may lead them to feeling less marginalized.

Figure 3.15.1

QAR Reading Guide: Malcolm X’s First Conk

Directions:    Read the questions below and then read the excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X & Haley, 1964).  On your own paper, answer each question in complete sentences.  Where appropriate, give specific examples to support your answers and help you explain them.

Right There: In addition to writing your answer to the following questions, mark and label the part of the excerpt that will answer the following questions.

1) How much money does Malcolm X say he will save when Shorty “[schools]” or teaches him how to give himself a conk?

2) Why did Shorty have Malcolm X feel the outside of the jar of congolene before he put it on Malcolm’s hair?

3) What is the belief that Malcolm X says many “Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing”?

Putting it Together: The answers to the following questions are stated directly.  You will have to answer them by inferring the answers.  Mark and label the passages that lead you to your answers to these questions.

1) How substantial is the amount of money that Malcolm X saves by having Shorty conk his hair?  (Don’t focus on the dollar amount—look for something in the story to compare with the barber’s price for a conk.)

2) Why does Malcolm X curse at Shorty while his hair is being rinsed?

3) According to Malcolm X, what are the moral implications of conking one’s hair?

The Author & You: You will have to use clues from the text as well as your own knowledge to answer these questions.

1) What purpose do the Vaseline, rubber apron and gloves serve since they are not ingredients?

2) Why would African Americans at the time want to look “white”?

3) Why would Malcolm X call such African Americans “brainwashed”?

On Your Own: Answer the following questions by using your own experiences and observations.

1) Where do standards of beauty come from today?

2) What do people do to their bodies today that Malcolm X might objectionable?

3)   Are hairstyles or any of your answers to the previous questions moral decisions?  Why or why not?

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