Designing Questions for Deep Understanding in Close Reading

September 22, 2016

By Jill Echevarria

This article is third in a series exploring how to approach close reading. If you’d like, go back and read the previous articles on how to get started teaching close reading and how to find a “goldilocks” close reading text.

Planning for close reading lessons is a lot like planning to build a house. Blueprints must be drafted with careful consideration of how the house will be constructed. Just as inadequate blueprints will yield a shoddy shack rather than a durable dwelling, your students will walk away with limited understanding of the text if adequate time and consideration are not given to the planning stage.

Once you’ve selected the “just right” text for your students to read, it’s important to consider how your students will actually read the text in each session, keeping in mind that close reading includes repeated readings of a text. Think about whether you want students to read independently or with classmates, or if you want to read all or some of the text aloud.

Now it’s time to develop the questions you will ask about the text. The questions provide the framework for your close reading lessons. When I drafted the blueprint for a series of lessons, I would imagine how each component would lay out, picturing what I would be doing and what students would be doing. Thinking through each step helped me ensure that I had all of the materials we would need for a successful lesson.


The Importance of Text Dependent Questions

Let’s focus on the question-crafting part of your planning. Most of the questions you ask students should be text dependent. This means that they must draw evidence from the text rather than relying on their experiences. While it is sometimes appropriate to ask about personal connections to a text, doing so does not require your students to do much cognitive work to demonstrate understanding.

1. What Does the Text Say?

In her presentation “Does All Critical Thinking Lead to Deeper Understanding?” at the Critical Thinking LIVE Conference in California, Dr. Karin Hess recommended that teachers start with questions that require students to access only a part, or chunk, of a text in order to come up with an answer (Hess, 2016, August 3). These are the questions that lay the foundation of understanding that students need to build on and may include the who, what, when, why, where, and how questions that most teachers are familiar with asking.

For instance, when I taught fifth grade, I used a speech by the Chief of the Powhatan tribe for close reading lessons. After their first reading of the speech, I asked my students a question such as According to Chief Wahunsonacock, what would be better than being hunted by the English? Students would have found evidence to answer this question in the third paragraph of the speech.

Pose questions like these to help students discover what the text says:

  • What did (character/author/speaker) do or say in the passage/text?
  • When and where does the passage/text take place?
  • Why is _________important to_________?
  • How does (character/author/speaker) respond to _________?

2. How Does the Text Work?

Once your students have an understanding of what the text says from their initial reading, you can ask questions that explore how the text is constructed after subsequent readings. How does the text work questions explore structure and craft, including organization, word choice, figurative language, and literary devices.

Back to my fifth grade classroom . . . . After our second reading of Chief Wahunsonacock’s speech, I asked my students: Why did Chief Wahunsonacock choose to include a series of “why” questions in his speech? We would have integrated evidence from the end of the speech, in which the Chief presents an imperative statement, to conclude that he asked questions early in the speech to cause his audience to think about the issues before laying out his demands at the end.

Pose questions like these to help students discover how the text works:

  • What organizational structure does the author use?
  • What sequencing/cause-effect/problem-solution language does the author use to describe/explain________?
  • Why did the author use the word/phrase______?
  • How does the author explain________?

3. What Does the Text Mean?

After exploring what the text says and how the text works, it’s time to ask your students what the text is really all about. Exploring what the text means will lead your students to think beyond the two-by-fours and nails of the text to determine themes, connections to historical contexts, and comparisons to texts on similar topics.

When my students and I concluded our third reading of the speech, I asked them questions such as: Why did the Chief feel the need to give this speech? How did the time period impact the speech? What other texts have we read that relate to it? I followed up by having students read a related text about Jamestown.

Pose questions like these to help students discover what the text means:

  • What is the theme/central message of this text/passage?
  • What is the author trying to tell us about_______?
  • How would this text/passage be different if it was written by_______?
  • How is this text/passage like/different from _________?

As you prepare for your close reading lessons, think through each of these layers of questioning—what the text says, how the text works, and what the text means. Taking the time to draw up detailed plans for each phase before executing your lessons will help ensure a sturdy structure of understanding for your students.

More on Close Reading

This article is third in a series on close reading. Learn more about how to plan close reading lessons for your classroom by digging into the series:

About Jill Echevarria

Jill Echevarria is an ELA Writer at Mentoring Minds and a National Board Certified educator with twelve years’ teaching experience in New York City and Los Angeles public schools. Jill’s goal is to help teachers support students as they develop a love of reading. When not working, Jill enjoys going to the library with her two beautiful girls and volunteering with the PTA at her daughters’ school.

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