Asking Strategic Questions

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.Adapted from the new book The Language of Learning: Teaching Students Core Thinking, Listening, & Speaking Skills 

Curiosity is at the heart of learning—and a healthy curiosity depends on questioning. Learning to ask questions moves children beyond themselves; they become able not only to consider what they know or think but also to seek out the knowledge and opinions of others. To do this, however, children need to be taught how to ask relevant, respectful, and probing questions.

Knowing how to ask purposeful questions:

  • Fosters curiosity and engagement.
  • Leads to deeper, richer conversations.
  • Supports children’s ability to communicate with others socially.
  • Boosts children’s academic growth across subject areas.
  • Results in more effective learning communities.

Teach Students to Think About the Purposes Behind Questions

By understanding the purpose behind every question, students can better clarify their own thinking and make strategic decisions about what to ask in a given situation.

Introduce the skill.

Here’s one way to begin teaching awareness of the different purposes behind questions.

  • Choose a short, engaging text or video clip for students to read or watch. Then have students form small groups, and give each group a large piece of chart paper.
  • Students brainstorm questions about the text or clip and list them on the chart paper. For example, a class of fourth graders reads a one-page informational text on weathering and erosion. Here are a few of the questions they came up with:
    • “Where can we see evidence of weathering near us?”
    • “What can farmers do to stop erosion?”
    • “How does erosion affect wild animals?”
  • Groups post their charts. Give students a few minutes to walk around and read the charts. If they see interesting questions, they can add them to their group’s chart.
  • Groups cut up their charts so that each question is separate. Invite each group to identify four questions—each serving a different purpose (see list below)—and bring those back to the whole group. Combine all the questions. Together, sort them into categories that reflect the different purposes questions can serve.
  • Guide the class in labeling each category. For example:
    • Clarifying questions—to understand what you read, heard, or saw
    • Background questions—to understand more about the history behind what you read, heard, or saw
    • Opinion-seeking questions—to find out what others think about what you read, heard, or saw
    • Challenging questions—to find out whether you believe or trust what you read, heard, or saw

Explain that there is no right or wrong set of categories, and many questions might fit into multiple ones. The value of this activity is getting students to think more strategically about their use of questions. You may want to post these categories for students as a reference for when they engage in their academic work.

Practice the skill.

Here are some ways to give students ongoing practice and support in asking purposeful questions.

  • Have students read a thought-provoking passage (or read it to them) and then analyze it as follows:
    • Students form small groups and count off.
    • Each group brainstorms as many questions as they can that fit a certain question category, such as clarifying questions.
    • Call out a number. The student with that number in each group shares out one or two questions from his or her group. Repeat with other types of questions.
  • Have students analyze or sort textbook or test prep questions according to what sort of information the question is seeking.
  • Post anchor charts, and remind students to use these displays.

“In your literature circles today, see if your group can discuss at least one of each type of question on our chart.”

  • Pair students up to brainstorm questions. For example, before having a whole-group conversation about a given topic, give partners time to think about what questions they have and what their purposes are in asking those questions.
  • After a discussion, pair students up for a brief reflection on how well they’re doing asking questions for specific purposes:

“Think with your partner for a minute about which types of questions you asked. Which types were easier to think up? Which were harder?”

Reinforce Learning with Meaningful Feedback

To create a culture of curiosity that fosters thoughtful academic conversations, encourage students whenever you see them engaged in thoughtful questioning. Here are a few guidelines and examples for giving students useful feedback.

Focus on the positive.

“Zoe, I heard you asking Brendan if he thought your plant would lean the other way if you turned it around in the window. That’s exactly the kind of question scientists ask.”

Point out how questions lead to deeper understanding.

“When you all asked Tyree those clarifying questions about his strategy, you helped him better understand how he solved the problem. I think the rest of us also thought more deeply about division.”

Name specifics when giving feedback.
  • Instead of: “That is such a great question!”
  • Try: “That opinion-seeking question is going to help us explore what the author means. Who else would like to suggest a question for us to explore?”
  • Instead of: “I like these questions I’m hearing.”
  • Try: “Your questions are purposeful. That’s helping to give this discussion depth and richness.”

Teaching the Language of Learning

Fostering students’ curiosity by developing their questioning skills gives them practical tools for wrestling with challenging or unusual content. Students who can ask insightful questions are also more likely to be successful in school and outside of school. Teaching these and the other communication skills can help you provide the foundation for a stronger learning community, more stimulating classroom conversations, and higher levels of academic achievement.

The Language of Learning: Teaching Students Core Thinking, Listening, and Speaking Skills, by Margaret Berry Wilson; Foreword by Lora Hodges

“Here’s the guidebook for educators . . . to help students develop and hone those foundational skills that are precursors to accessing virtually all learning opportunities in school—and in life.”     —Carol Ann Tomlinson

Tags: Engaging Academics, Redirecting Language, Reinforcing Language, Reminding Language

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