Making Knowledge [Actually] Rich
We’re currently in the midst of an exciting shift in how reading is being taught. Backlash after decades of teaching to the test with skills and strategies has brought renewed enthusiasm for cohesive curricula that deliberately develops depth and breadth of student knowledge.
What is less clear, however, is how to most effectively teach all this content, and how to make it coherent and memorable for students. In other words – there is confusion over how text is best read, explained, and interacted with by students to further comprehension.
At present, the norm in most classrooms and curricula is to use “question driven” and “after-the-fact” procedures during or following a reading. That is, provide students with text-dependent questions after an uninterrupted, contiguous read to check understanding and encourage multiple re-readings.
While question-driven lessons can provide useful evaluative information, they are not particularly helpful to students in building meaning and comprehension as they read.
In their book Questioning the Author, Beck and McKeown (2006) write “comprehension doesn’t falter after reading but during reading…students may assume that questioning is a different and perhaps unrelated exercise from reading…isn’t it a more accurate message that readers are always questioning as they read?” (p. 36).
A multitude of issues arises with the typical after-the-fact, question-driven lesson:
- Students get into the habit of reading a text to finish it, yet will often have no idea of what they just read – reading on autopilot.
- Students may hear and write down other students’ correct answers after a discussion, but never fully understand why *that answer* was right. Reading becomes a process of answering questions correctly.
- It is very difficult for teachers to know if students are constructing large misunderstandings while reading, and even harder to reteach when the teacher doesn’t know where exactly understanding broke down. We’re checking for understanding when it’s too late.
Even with a perfectly-sequenced, knowledge-rich curricula, after-the-fact and question-driven lessons appear insufficient for developing rich comprehension. Also, it must be stressed that these procedures do not reflect how readers make sense of text as they read.
A better set of guidance for active questioning and meaning-making while reading is greatly needed.
What is QtA?
In contrast to more typical, after-the-fact approaches to text comprehension, Questioning the Author (QtA) builds meaning by allowing plenty of opportunities for students to summarize and connect text ideas during an initial reading. Beck and McKeown (2002) write “Questioning the Author teaches students to grapple with ideas while they read, to dig in and make sense of ideas as they initially encounter them in the text.”
QtA is informed by the text-processing perspective, which posits that comprehension takes place when the reader connects and integrates information while reading through a text. In the text-processing perspective, new text information and background knowledge are continually being woven together to generate greater meaning.
“Text-processing models take the perspective that the mental processes in reading focus on the development of coherence based on organizing the meaningful elements of the text.
From a text-processing perspective, a reader moves through text identifying each new piece of text information and deciding how it relates to information already given and to background knowledge” (Beck, Blake and McKeown, 2009).
Fundamentally, each new chunk of information must be processed and arranged by the reader for comprehension to occur – reminiscent of Willingham’s reminder that “students remember…what they think about.”
In the text-processing perspective, good readers are better able to connect and integrate new information with what they already know (background knowledge) to create meaning and draw inferences. Poor readers struggle to connect text information, and draw conclusions/inferences unrelated to or beyond what has been read.
“Making sense requires the reader to select relevant information to attend to and then connect it to one of two possible sources – either information from preceding sentences or relevant background knowledge.” (p. 21)
Beck and McKeown (2006) also emphasize the crucial role teachers play in helping students develop meaning while reading complex text. QtA recognizes how students cannot simply get information from the teacher reading the material, instead “a more expert reader must reveal to a young reader how to crack open a text’s meaning by engaging with it until it makes sense” (p. 28).
Teachers can help readers crack open a text’s meaning most effectively by using open-ended queries to initiate authentic discussion while reading. These queries are meaning-centered and purposefully centered around the author:
- What is the author trying to say here?
- What does the author mean when they say…?
- How does this relate to the previous section?
Queries are focused on the author because this a) reminds students that someone wrote these ideas and it the reader’s job to understand them b) recognizes that authors are indeed fallible and sometimes write things incoherently c) gives students greater confidence to grapple with meaning versus worrying about answering questions correctly.
“We deliberately put the author at center stage as a way of signaling to students that the text is neither fixed nor perfect…that the author – not the teacher – is a more interesting sources of answers.” (p. 63)
Beck and McKeown (2006) clearly differentiate between queries and questions. They describe how queries help students wrestle with text as they encounter it, whereas questions assess comprehension after reading. Queries facilitate discussion, whereas questions find the correct answer.
The result of query-driven, meaning-making discussions is greater interaction – between teachers and students, and students responding to each other’s interpretations and ideas. This aligns perfectly with Rosenshine’s (2012) “Principles of Instruction” highlighting the importance of frequent checks for understanding:
“The more effective teachers frequently checked to see if all the students were learning the new material. These checks provided some of the processing needed to move new learning into long-term memory. These checks also let teachers know if students were developing misconceptions.”
Lastly, QtA is notably distinct from strategies-focused lessons in that instruction is focused entirely on content and meaning-making – not on cuing up specific strategies while reading (e.g. inferring, generating questions). Beck, Blake and McKeown (2009) write that while strategy instruction is considered useful, the research is limited because it doesn’t give clear direction to teachers on how or why it works:
“Our review of the literature demonstrates that how strategies should be taught is not easily derived from the research. Among the problems is that strategy labels do not represent a consistent set of activities, and there is little description of how students interact with strategies in the course of reading ” (p. 245).
Having outlined the theoretical grounding of QtA in the text-processing perspective and briefly covered the importance of using open-ended Queries to help students derive meaning, the final section covers the three-step planning process for a QtA lesson and six discussion moves that teachers can use to keep discussions focused.
Planning and Implementing
To plan a QtA lesson, Beck and McKeown (2006) lay out three key steps:
- Identify major understandings. Read the text and identify crucial ideas the reader should take away, along with potential misunderstandings may arise.
- Segment the text to chunk information. Plan stopping points where meaning-making will be developed through discussion.
- Develop Queries to encourage development of major understandings. For each stopping point, plan a prompt to initiate discussion.
Once major ideas, stopping points, and queries are planned, Beck and McKeown (2006) provide a suite of useful “Discussion Moves” which can be used at teacher discretion to keep discussions focused on meaning-making:
- Marking. Highlight an important idea raised by a student by restating or asking students to focus on that point to develop further meaning.
- Turning Back. Bring students’ attention back to the text (“Is that what the author said?”) or to a student’s response (“What does that mean…can you more?”) as a way of focusing and extending thinking.
- Revoicing. Rephrase a student’s muddled response to include greater language complexity or precision.
- Recapping. Summarize crucial ideas that have been read or discussed so far. “Recapping encourages a mental organization of the ideas students have been struggling with and signals that the efforts have indeed produced a coherent understanding” (p. 97). With time students can on greater responsibility for recapping material while reading, but at first teachers should provide plenty of modeling and guided practice.
- Modeling. Briefly react to the text, or make public the inner meaning-making that takes place while reading.
- Annotating. Provide additional information the author has left out which might be crucial for developing greater comprehension.
Lastly, since so much discussion of a text’s key ideas, details, craft, and structure take place while reading in a QtA lesson, I’ve found students are well-equipped to respond in writing to much more complex prompts after the lesson. For example, rather than asking students to retrieve key details, we can spend more time writing concise summaries of the entire text, or writing about larger themes or “big questions” from from the entire unit.
Even with a cohesive, knowledge-rich curriculum and a classroom of fluent readers, comprehension is not guaranteed. Furthermore, spoon-feeding answers to “comprehension questions” at the end of readings will in all likelihood be of little help to struggling readers. What students need are plenty of opportunities to construct and integrate knowledge while reading. QtA provides a useful process for planning and implementing meaning-centered discussion.
- The text processing perspective views comprehension as an active, in-the-moment process with readers processing new chunks of information in working memory, simultaneously connecting that information to what is already known and what has been previously read.
- Reading discussions should be centered on discerning and unlocking the author’s key ideas through the use of deliberately-planned stopping points, open-ended queries, and discussion moves. A narrow focus on comprehension questions can stifle discussion and lead to evaluation as opposed to understanding.
- Query-led discussions are excellent formative checks for understanding that can pinpoint exactly where in the text comprehension breaks down for students.
Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2002). Questioning the author: Making sense of social studies. Educational Leadership, 59(3).
Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2006). Improving comprehension with questioning the author: A fresh and expanded view of a powerful approach. New York, N.Y: Scholastic.
Beck, I. L., Blake, R. G. & McKeown, M. G.(2009). Rethinking reading comprehension instruction: A comparison of instruction for strategies and content approaches. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(3), 218-253.
Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American educator, 36(1), 12.
Shanahan, T. (2013). Letting the Text Take Center Stage: How the Common Core State Standards Will Transform English Language Arts Instruction. American Educator, 37(3), 4.
Willingham, D. T. (2003). Students remember what they think about. American Educator, 27(2), 37-41.