1 Asking questions as you read

One way to help students deepen their understanding of what they are reading is to encourage them to ask questions of a text themselves while they read.

There are broadly two types of questions that students can ask themselves: factual and inferential. Answers to factual questions can easily be found in the text. These kinds of questions usually begin with words such as ‘what’, ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘how many’ and ‘when’.

Inferential questions ask readers to draw conclusions based on what they have read. Answers to these questions are not explicitly stated in the text. To answer these kinds of questions you need to think more deeply and make connections between what is in the text and what you know about the world. These kinds of questions begin with words and phrases such as:

  • ‘What do you think …?’
  • ‘Why do you think …?’
  • ‘How do you know …?’
  • ‘What if …?’

There are not always right or wrong answers to these questions. These kinds of questions make students become more involved in the text, and make them think more critically. (See Resource 1, ‘Using questioning to promote thinking’, for examples of these types of questions.)

Read Case Study 1 to hear how one teacher uses student-generated questions in a reading task.

Case Study 1: Mr Chakratodi helps his students to ask different kinds of questions about a text

Mr Chakratodi teaches English at a secondary government school. He tried to get his students to question while they read.

When we were doing a lesson from the textbook [Central Board of Secondary Education, 2011a], I read the first line of the passage – ‘Mr Sunday Nana, his wife and four small children live in Koko Village, Nigeria’ – and asked them to think of questions that they could ask about it:

Then I read the next line: ‘The village is like any other African village – picturesque, colourful and noisy.’

I asked the students if any of their previous questions were answered and they said that they now had a little more information about the village. Then I asked them to think of some more questions about the second sentence.

I told students to spend the next 15 minutes reading the passage and noting down questions they had as they were reading it. As they worked I walked around the room and helped any students who were having problems. It was interesting to look at the questions that the students were asking, and it also helped me to see which students had a better understanding of the text.

Activity 1: Helping your students to ask questions about a text

In Case Study 1, the teacher asked students to note different kinds of questions as they read a passage from the textbook. Follow these steps to do this with your students:

  1. Before the class begins, select a lesson or a part of one. It can be any kind of passage, such as a literary text, a travelogue or a factual text. It could be the next lesson in the textbook, or a passage from the supplementary reader.
  2. In class, ask your students to say words or phrases that can be used at the beginning of questions (giving examples if necessary). Write the suggestions on the blackboard in two columns, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1 Examples of words or phrases that can be used at the beginning of questions.
Factual Inferential
What …? How …?
Where …? How do you know …?
When …? What if …?
Who …? What do you think …?
Which …? Why do you think …?
How many/much/often …? Can you tell me more about …?
  1. Tell the students to read the selected text (or part of a text) individually and silently. As they read, they should note down questions that occur to them about the text. Read out the first couple of lines and give some examples, as in Case Study 1.
  2. Give them ten minutes to note down as many questions as they can. As they work, walk around the room and help any students where necessary.
  3. After ten minutes, tell the students to stop writing and ask for some examples of questions. Write these on the blackboard.
    • Read through the questions and ask students:
    • Which questions are easier to answer? Why?
    • Which questions are more difficult to answer? Why?
    • Are any questions impossible to answer?
    • Do these kinds of questions help you to understand the lesson? Why (not)?

Pause for thought

Here are some questions for you to think about after trying this activity. If possible, discuss these questions with a colleague.

  • What kinds of questions did your students write? Were they mostly factual or inferential?
  • Did asking questions improve your students’ engagement with the text?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Students might find this kind of activity difficult at first if they are not used to it. With practice, they will be able to ask many questions, and it will develop their creativity and critical thinking skills.

What you can learn in this unit

2 Using existing knowledge to make sense of an English text