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Asking the right questions in reading instruction

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Asking the right questions in reading instruction

Jeff Odell

by Samantha Cleaver

In April, Christiana Cavaliere sat down to plan a text-based lesson for the Chinese folktale, “The Bride with the Horse’s Head.” A common exercise for a teacher—less common for a school leader.

Cavaliere, principal of La Cima Elementary Charter School, in Brooklyn, NY, focused in her lesson on text-dependent questions (TDQs) that would foster students’ understanding. Questions ranged from factual (“At the beginning of the story, why was Ma’Lou Niang’s mother hysterical?”) to inferential (“On p. 11, what caused the horse to break out6 of the stable?”) to critical thinking (“What do we learn about silk and its importance to ancient Chinese culture from this tale?”).

Lesson plans at La Cima haven’t always contained that level of detail. Earlier this school year, Cavaliere sat down with her ANet coach, Haady Taslim, to talk about student progress in ELA, which had stalled.

Photos Copyright © 2011 Insider Images

Photos Copyright © 2011 Insider Images

In that conversation, remembers Cavaliere, “Haady pointed out that we were a year behind what other schools were doing.” The primary concern: rather than developing text-based lessons, teachers were basing lessons around specific skills. Taslim and Cavaliere noticed that few lesson plans incorporated TDQs.

“In a week’s worth of lessons,” remembers Taslim, “you’d see all skills, no questions, and few references to text at all.”

Kids were completing worksheets rather than reading books or articles. Teachers were telling students to “find the main idea” rather than embedding that skill into the study of quality texts. “It was hard for us to wrap our heads around planning with the text at the center,” says Cavaliere, “while still addressing important skills.”

Haady describes
the work at La Cima

In order to teach reading, teachers have to strike a balance between teaching skills and asking good comprehension questions. At La Cima, lesson plans and our observations showed that most teachers’ reading instruction was out of balance: they taught skills and asked few text-based questions. So, for example, a lesson would get kids to read a text and teach them how to take notes on it. The students would never see that text again, and teachers would move on to another text the day after. 

We compared La Cima's lessons to lessons from other schools and noticed that teachers at other schools were intentionally planning rigorous, text-based questions to ask students during the lessons (e.g. "Why did the author use this word in paragraph 6?" "What is the main idea of that excerpt?" etc). 

We then trained La Cima teachers how to write similar text based questions, and modified their lesson plan template to reflect this shift in priorities. 

As part of coaching, I observed ELA classrooms with the leadership team, and collectively we provided feedback to teachers based on how well they were incorporating text based questions as part of their lesson. 

Cavaliere decided her teachers needed professional development on TDQs. But first, she stepped back into the role of a teacher, creating and leading text-based lessons herself. That’s how she found herself writing a lesson plan for “The Bride with the Horse’s Head.” Going through the planning process helped her strategize for professional development. “That’s when it clicked for me,” she remembers, “I knew how I could teach the teachers.”

With the PD, a new lesson plan template that highlighted the TDQ focus, and regular feedback on lesson plans and observations from the leadership team, instruction changed dramatically.

Over the course of the year, common planning time changed from a dry review of lesson plans to lively analysis of texts that sounded like a book club. The time has become more meaningful, says Cavaliere, as teachers discuss the text and their own understandings, just as they want their students to do.

Mid-way through the year, Taslim and Cavaliere saw an increase in TDQs in lesson plans and observations. Cavaliere and her team found that focusing on TDQs drove strong retelling and higher order thinking. And, by the end of the year, the school had a strong bank of lesson plans to build on and improve.

“It’s a process, to change in this way,” says Taslim. “It’s not going to happen with one professional development session.”

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