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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Which questions are the right questions?

This semester, my campus leadership team has been studying what types of questions teachers ask in the classroom and how they ask them. Members of the leadership team, including teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators, were tasked with conducting ten to fifteen-minute observations, counting the number and type of questions being asked: level one, level two, and/or level three. Our purpose has been to determine if teachers are asking higher-level rigorous questions and, in turn, if they are teaching students how to ask their own higher-level questions. 

Based on the data collected, the leadership team determined that our campus is far too focused on lower-level questions and not making our lessons rigorous enough for our students. A committee was organized from within the team to create a professional development training on creating and asking higher-level questions. This session will kick off our 2016-2017 school year. 

Throughout this process, I was in full agreement. Yes, yes, yes. We need to create more rigorous questions. We need to ask better questions. We need! We need! We need! In the observations I conducted of my colleagues, I only heard lower-level questions being asked, predominantly focused on basic recall. 

For the past three years, I have been responsible for teaching our eighth grade reading Student Success Initiative intervention class for those students who fail the first administration of our state exam. This year, based on the work with our leadership team, I decided to look at how my co-teacher and I question the students in this particular student population. 

First, we had to determine our purpose with the students:

from "Classroom Questioning" by Kathleen Cotten
In our planning, I became concerned about how we were going to address higher-level questions with a population of struggling readers. Students who fail the test tend to have basic reading deficiencies. Is asking them higher-level questions beneficial in helping them prepare for a retest? Is asking them higher-level questions without filling in the gaps beneficial to helping them pass a multiple-choice exam?

Upon moving into the intervention class, my co-teacher and I have focused heavily on lower-level questions. If someone comes to observe and count, there will be very few higher-level questions marked on the tally sheet. According to Cotton, "Lower cognitive questions are more effective than higher level questions with young...children, particularly the disadvantaged." Although my students are young teenagers, I work at a Title I school and am dealing with many student who are labeled At Risk. We decided that deliberately asking lower-level questions and scaffolding to higher-level questions would benefit the student population more than focusing on solely higher-level questions. Cotton says that when a classroom setting is appropriate for a higher number of lower-level questions, a "greater frequency of questions is positively related to student achievement."

So we have been slowly climbing the ladder to get where we need to be. For example, we have been moving through the following steps to help students understand main idea and improve their basic comprehension:
  • What is a main idea?
  • Where do we find the main idea?
  • What is the main idea in the paragraph?
  • What is the main idea of the passage?
  • How do we determine main idea in more complex text (ex., paragraphs that consist of one sentence)?
We are currently on day seven, and the kids have expressed that they feel like they are better understanding the texts they are reading. Although it has been a short period of time, we are seeing them contribute more to conversations and answer more questions correctly - while also explaining their thinking. Many are quickly becoming more confident on a daily basis, exclaiming that they are finding the correct answers much more quickly. 

In reading's Cotton's research, my thinking began to change about my school's focus on higher-level questions. "Higher cognitive questions are not categorically better than lower cognitive questions in eliciting higher level responses or in promoting learning gains." Yes, we need to move toward them, but if we skip from level one to level three questions without scaffolding along the way, how can we expect our struggling students to understand how to think about the higher-level questions when they are still stuck on the lower ones?


Cotton, K. (1988, May). Classroom questioning. School Improvement Research Series SIRS. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from: scpd/sirs/3/cu5.html de Jesus, H. P., Almeida, P.,

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