When I spend time in English Language Arts (ELA) classrooms, I pay careful attention to the questions teachers ask students as well as the students’ responses. Questions are a critical teaching tool because they guide students to the details, structure, language, and concepts of the text so they can effectively analyze and understand them.
Well-crafted questions are a means to develop students’ understanding. They bring our students to the powerful ah-ha moments we seek. Along my journey, many teachers mentioned strategic questioning as an area for their own growth. They know that effective instructional practices can help their students understand complex text and concepts. Below, Brandon White—my fellow teacher and UnboundEd colleague—and I explain five recommendations for crafting effective questions:
- Keep the text at the center
- Tie the questions to the standards
- Scaffold for success
- Remember that standards and equity intersect
- Adopt an aligned curriculum
Keep the text at the center
When we visit classrooms, we look to see if students are going back to the text to find the answers to their teachers’ questions. We often find that teachers are using grade-level complex texts, but they ask questions that many students can answer without reading or referring back to the text. When crafting questions we have to keep the text at the center and use questions to guide students to the text’s key ideas, vocabulary, structural elements, and syntax. Whether the question is meant to help students understand the key details of the text, analyze the author’s decisions, or synthesize information, it should serve as a bridge into the text.
We can foster an environment where students are routinely and deeply diving into the depths of the text by asking text-dependent questions that require deep textual support. This will prompt students to analyze and evaluate the true meaning, language, knowledge, and structure of the text, all of which cultivate standards-based learning. This standards-based learning builds proficiency and promotes meaningful writing and discussion within the classroom.
Tie the questions to the standards
Standards are research-based learning goals that show educators what students are expected to learn at each grade level in order to be college and career ready. The standards serve as guideposts to help us know what to ask and how different types of questions advance learning. Connecting the questions to the standards helps build skills and knowledge intentionally within the text, across texts, and across grade levels.
Standards define the areas in which we want students to gain proficiency. Questions based on those standards will be focused, streamlined, and useful in the context of the lesson. Well-crafted questions also provide targeted practice with skills and content students are expected to know and understand by the time they graduate from high school.
Scaffold for success
In a previous blog, we discussed the importance of allowing students to grapple with complex texts in order to build knowledge and competency with grade-level standards. Scaffolding questions support students’ work with these complex texts. They are carefully purposed and sequenced questions that progressively move students closer to understanding the nuances of text more independently.
While scaffolding questions are a useful tool, over-scaffolding is a common pitfall. Taking too much time to build up to more complex questions and discussions dilute the learning process and make it harder for students to develop agency and autonomy in understanding complex texts. This common pitfall can be addressed by backward planning. Backward planning is knowing the intended outcome and planning the steps necessary to reach that outcome. Once we identify the intended outcome, we can craft a series of questions that build in complexity (like an on-ramp) and help students tap into knowledge that will help them navigate the nuances of a complex text—and answer questions that are tied directly to the standard.
Remember that standards and equity intersect
We have to reflect on what are we doing that either supports or hinders student growth, and consider where we may have lowered the bar and why. While reflecting on these questions, remember what it means to be equitable. Equity systematically promotes fair and impartial access to rights and opportunities. Equity may look like adding supports and scaffolds that result in fair access to opportunities or creating opportunities for all voices to be heard. And educational equity ensures that all children—regardless of circumstances—are receiving high-quality, grade- level, and standards-aligned instruction with access to high-quality materials and resources.
At UnboundEd, our learning is grounded in the intersection of the standards, content, aligned curriculum, and the equitable instructional practices that are essential for closing the opportunity gap caused by systemic bias and racism. This means standards and equity work hand in hand. Even with a standards-aligned curriculum, students can lack access if our instructional practices are not equitable. This nuance pushes us as educators to be reflective and to consistently examine our bias and its role in our work.
Here are some questions to consider during a reflection about how teachers use questions:
- How are we leveraging student knowledge?
- Is the text complex enough?
- Does the text selection both affirm and explore students’ experiences as well as the experiences of others?
- How are we scaffolding students toward independence?
- How are we modeling academic language in our questions?
- Are we wording the questions in a way that connects back to a specific standard?
- Are we over-simplifying the question?
- Have we considered possible misconceptions?
- Who are we asking the questions to?
- What answers are we expecting?
- How do we expect students to answer the question?
- Whom do we expect to answer?
Adopt an aligned curriculum
Developing effective questions that consider the text, standards, equity, and scaffolds can be challenging; therefore, it is important to take both time and patience to get it right. We recommend adopting an aligned curriculum because it minimizes extra labor and allows more teacher time for a deeper dive into the content or professional development opportunities. In her keynote at the Winter 2018 Standards Institute, Kate Gerson said that an aligned curriculum is a “technical fix and the consequences are indisputable.”
Here are the facts:
- The impact of a moderately-aligned curriculum closely correlates to replacing a teacher in the 50th percentile with a teacher in the 75th percentile. The difference between a moderately-aligned curriculum and a misaligned curriculum can equate to an additional 8 months of learning for a middle school student. 
- Having a high-quality aligned curricula allows students to engage more with the shifts and standards and results in higher student achievement. 
- What teachers are creating on their own isn’t as effective. According to The Education Trust, only 44 percent of classroom assignments are aligned with at least one standard and only 13 percent ask students to cite evidence from the text. 
Consider using EngageNY or UnboundEd’s free, high-quality standards-aligned curricula that support student achievement from Pre-K to 12th grade. Also look at EdReports’ evaluation of instructional materials to determine their degree of alignment. Join us at the Standards Institute July 9–13 for professional development designed to improve instructional practices for ELA, math, and leadership.
What other challenges do you face when it comes to crafting questions? What are the implications for planning? What changes will you make? For more information follow me, @EducationNomad on Twitter and @TheEducationNomad on Instagram and Brandon White, @ClassroomB!
About Sierah Tyson
Sierah Tyson is a former 10th grade English teacher at University Preparatory High School located in Detroit, Michigan. As an ELA Specialist, Sierah develops, reviews and revises content PD and curricular materials. After graduating from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She received her Master’s in Education from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and served with the Teach for America program. Sierah has worked with Detroit City Council-District 4, organizing community outreach events and sitting in on the Planning and Economic Development Committee.
About Brandon White
Brandon White is a former middle school ELA teacher and Restorative Practices educator for the Rochester City School District. As a student, Brandon found that he could connect with the instruction through the language and culture of hip-hop; as an educator, he in this work by providing cultural relevance and responsiveness through pedagogy and content. As an ELA Specialist, Brandon selects, adapts, and sequences open educational resources and supports the creation of professional development materials and resources. He has also advocated for these practices through his participation in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council and through providing professional development at BMGF-sponsored Elevate and Celebrate Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) Conferences.
- Hanushek and Rivkin. (2010). Generalizations about Using Value-Added Measures of Teacher Quality. Retrieved from http://hanushek.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Hanushek%2BRivkin%202010%20AER%20100(2).pdf and Kane et al. (2016). Teaching Higher: Educators’ Perspectives on Common Core Implementation. Retrieved from http://cepr.harvard.edu/files/cepr/files/teaching-higher-report.pdf?m=1454988762
- Choi, J., Dolfin, S. and Richman S. (undated). “Transforming Teachers’ Practice: The Impact of EL Education’s English Language Arts Curriculum and Professional Learning on Teacher Practices,” Mathematica Policy Research Reports. Mathematica Policy Research. Retrieved from https://eleducation.org/uploads/downloads/Final-In-Focus-Brief-to-EL-10-19-17.pdf
- Brookins Santelises, S., & Dabrowski, J. (
2015). Checking in: Do classroom assignments reflect today’s higher standards?. The Education Trust. Retrieved from http://edtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/CheckingIn_TheEducationTrust_Sept20152.pdf