Compelling Students to Read: Why One Question Might Matter

The questions you see in this post are from a preview of a Middle School Guided Reading by Genre: CCSS Aligned, a product  for 5th-8th grade teachers available at Teachers pay Teachers. What I appreciate about the product is that Kiehl (the teacher-author) distinguishes between the genres in the discussions. For example, she clearly notes that each genre leads readers to think in a way that other genres may not and the questions reflect that distinction. Further, the questions provided do offer teachers an effective template from which to work. 

The essential questions, though, the big questions, the ones that would help students understand why we’re asking all of these other, rather random questions, can't be put on this template for obvious reasons. There are just too many possibilities.

However, my fear is that teachers, particularly those who are either too new, too fearful, or too apathetic to personalize the templates purposefully and thoughtfully, will over-rely on the offered questions, using them verbatim and nothing else. Again, don’t get me wrong—the questions will work, and Kiehl is to be lauded for creating a clear, cohesive document.

But what these questions cannot do is inspire any sort of motivation to read other than to answer the questions.  The motivation is the grade that the student will get from answering the questions (possibly for a simple participation grade or maybe for accuracy, depending on the teacher).  

Without any reason to want to answer these questions about a text or a character within it, why should the student bother exercising his or her brain to use the skill?

Without that desire, the questions, much like the ones answered on a standardized test, the goal is just to get the right answer by demonstrating mastery of the critical thinking skill.  But is that all really what we want? Don’t we want more? Don’t we want students to either LOVE reading or LOVE reading the particular novel, short story, text, or poem?  How can we encourage and instill that love for reading in any genre if all we want them to do is plough through questions to demonstrate that yes, Johnny can infer, synthesize, predict, and connect? 

We have to take a crucial initial step.

Let’s use one of the recommended inference questions from the template to create a quick example from Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, a text within the historic fiction genre: 

                What can you infer about Creb based on what Ayla has to say about him in the text?

From the template: What can you infer about (insert character's name) based on what (insert character's name) says about him/her in the text? 

I dearly love this book, and I’ve read it over and over again. I have to wonder, though, what question I could ask before this one that might inspire a student to want to care about what Ayla has to say about Creb. Why should the student care what Ayla thinks about the Mogur?  What question can I ask to get the student to even bother to desire to make this inference and respond to it? 

That compelling question, whatever it is, must be asked first. 

There must be a compelling reason for students to want to understand other than just practicing inferences because it’s something that students have to do because it’s a standard they have to know because we’re being evaluated on how well our students perform on that standard because that’s how our school is graded and plays a part in how much funding we get.  

Are we asking these initial, compelling, driving questions? 

                Does it matter what daughters think about their fathers or father-figures? Why? 

From this over-arching question the follow-up inference question would flow quite nicely. 

Does it matter what children think about their fathers or father-figures? Why or why not?

Based on what Ayla says about Creb in the novel, what kind of a person and father do you think he is? (for the girls)

Based on what Broud says about Brun in the novel, what kind of a person and father do you think he is? (for the boys)

Actually, from that initial question, several others would naturally flow, particularly those under the category of connections.   Further, the distinction of gender provides an even greater connection for students. (You’ll notice that I changed the wording of the template question somewhat, but the meaning and underlying skill is the same.) 

When we offer students a compelling, clearly connective question BEFORE we have them analyze from a text, we can instill a greater intrinsic motivation to analyze, but we also move the emphasis away from the grade and the test and the standards. We make it real. We make the story mean something to them.  Figuring something out has a purpose that might make a difference in their lives. 

Try it once and see. Create that compelling, connective question that will drive the rest of those aligned questions on that worksheet and discuss it with students, first. If you’re really adventurous, try it one class but not the other, and compare the final products.  Let us know what you find out! 

Mindy and some of her former students have collaborated on a book of teaching strategies: Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers.  Check us out on FaceBook, too!

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