Research School Network: Asking the right questions in secondary education How can we use questioning to support students’ comprehension of complex texts?, asks Johnny Richards
Asking the right questions in secondary education
How can we use questioning to support students’ comprehension of complex texts?, asks Johnny Richards
by Greenshaw Research School
Improving our students’ reading ability can seem a daunting task, particularly in Secondary Education.
Students will encounter complex texts in all subjects, so it’s important we all find ways to support students with developing this vital skill.
Supporting students with comprehending complex academic texts is highlighted in part three of the EEF’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools Guidance Report (2021).
The report identifies five reading strategies all teachers can use to model and practice with students when reading texts:
- Activating prior knowledge
The Simple View of Reading separates reading into two core components:
- word reading and
- language comprehension.
At Secondary School our focus is mostly on developing the latter, students’ language comprehension, which is a complex process comprising a number of interrelated components. These include:
- background knowledge
These are all aspects of reading that we as expert readers may well take for granted and therefore may not think about. But as teachers we must consider how we can boost these skills in our students.
This is where ‘questioning’ plays a key role – we can use it during reading with a class to support some of these different skills and develop students’ comprehension, particularly in relation to improving their ability to make inferences.
At Greenshaw High School we have introduced Check Link Connect (CLC) questioning as a way of supporting students’ reading comprehension. It structures the process of making meaning from texts and helps students to see some of the hidden moves more expert readers do naturally.
We will now explore each of the three elements of the ‘Check Link Connect questioning’ model.
‘Check’ questioning ensures students can identify basic factual details in a text.
These questions can be targeted towards students who we know may struggle with comprehension: this helps to ensure they stay with us and don’t become ‘lost’ as the reading progresses.
Take these opening sentences from a travel article:
Let’s assume the students have been given a ‘situational model’ of a dog sledding and we have activated the necessary prior knowledge before reading.
After reading the first sentence, I might ask ‘How many miles has the writer travelled with dogs?’ After completing the paragraph, I might ask ‘How many dogs did the writer own?’ and ‘How does he feel about his dogs?’.
These questions aim to Check students’ understanding of the basic details within sentences, and are important building blocks for developing deeper levels of understanding that take place across sentences and within the text as a whole.
‘Link’ questions help students connect different parts of a text together to form larger units of meaning, effectively supporting them to make inferences during reading.
It can often be tricky for less confident readers to track the subject of a piece of writing. For reasons of expediency and style, writers often use different pronouns, linking phrases and connectives to refer to the same thing. This can be confusing.
As teachers, Link questions can help make these authorial sleights of hand explicit, highlighting to students how different words and phrases are referring to the same person or idea within and across sentences.
Alternatively, we might question students about certain linking phrases to identify causality between sentences, such as ‘this work’, ‘therefore’ and ‘hence’.
In order to make the link between the basic facts in each sentence highlighted in the ‘Check’ questions, I might ask ‘Why is the writer telling us how many Canadian Eskimo dogs he owns?’.
I might ask about the pronouns on lines 1 and 5‘What is the word they’ve referring to?’ and line 5‘What activity is it’s referring to?’ to ensure they understand the focus of these paragraphs.
Asking ‘Why would something go wrong?’ highlights the link between sentences, but also how the writer is setting up the impending accident.
Of course, we have a choice to make with regards to the quantity of questions and maintaining the fluency of the text.
Once I am confident my class are ‘into’ the text, I will reduce the frequency of these questions and focus elsewhere. Over time, I want students to be able to make these kinds of connections themselves.
‘Connect’ questions support students to make connections between their knowledge inside the text and their knowledge from outside the text.
These will often refer back to details and knowledge triggered when we activate prior knowledge before reading a text, and help them apply this knowledge.
To support students’ mental image and to think beyond the text, I might ask ‘What kind of conditions would mushers (dog sledders) experience in summer and winter’?
Asking questions such as ‘Why are there fewer than 300Canadian Eskimo dogs left?’, ‘Why would the sea ice give way?’ or ‘Why are the currents so powerful?’ would not be appropriate in an English lesson, but may be appropriate in Geography as they draw links to environmental knowledge (I am not a Geography specialist).
Here, the aim is not just to develop students’ thinking outside of a given text, but to make connections across lessons, weeks, and months of learning. Therefore, we are not only supporting students in reading the one text in the lesson, but building their knowledge of the subject, making connections between different parts of the curriculum. This, in turn, will make our students better at reading in our subject.
These are often the questions that teachers ask first, without first checking students’ basic understanding, or ensuring they have linked all the relevant information in the text to form meaning. In such instances, the questioning tends to fall flat.
Questions like, ‘What was Shakespeare’s intentions here?’ or ‘How is this conflict similar to the battle we studied last term?’ place too much cognitive demand on weaker readers and do little to support the developments of students’ reading comprehension.
Once we have explored the guidance available, and thought through the skills pupils must build on in order to develop reading comprehension, we can step back and think through the processes we need to introduce.
For us at Greenshaw High School, ‘Check Link Connect Questioning’ has been key in supporting students in their comprehension of complex texts. We have seen pupils’ skills develop and would recommend outlining and implementing a similar considered process.
It will take time but we have been rewarded in both pupil participation and comprehension.
To find out more, join our free Getting Evidence into the Classroom Twilight Programme: Improving Literacy starting next week.
Assistant Director of Greenshaw Research School and Deputy Head of English at Greenshaw High School.
Example text used in the blog:
Related EventsShow all events
More from the Greenshaw Research SchoolShow all news
In the news -
Speak like a scientist
As the EEF launches its Primary Science Guidance Report, Katy Bullard explores how we can develop pupils’ scientific vocabulary.
Books as rocket fuel
Matthew Courtney explores how we can use children’s literature to develop language
In the news -
Getting Evidence into the Classroom Twilight Programme 2023 – 24
Join our FREE series taking place throughout the year offering evidence takeaways and insights