Questioning the Author
Understanding that reading comprehension is a discussion-based activity helps us to see the teaching of comprehension should be taught through pupil talk.
My own thinking and beliefs about best practice, when it comes to teaching comprehension, has been influenced by the work of Wayne Tennant, Nikki Gamble, Morag Stewart, Jane Oakhill, Kate Cain, Carstein Elbro, and more recently by the work of Isabel Beck. If you haven’t read Questioning the Author, it really is worth a read!
In Questioning the Author, Beck states that in order for a text to be understood, reading requires that the reader be engaged in the mental process of dealing with information rather than being a mere recipient of a text’s message. Secondly, readers must connect and integrate information as they read.
Beck states that the answer lies in intervening in what students are doing when they are casting their eyes on the text, by the teacher modelling a ‘think aloud structure’. She suggests that stopping them after each sentence to ask them to talk about what they had read will better support a child’s understanding of a text. She also states that when we ask open questions, especially those that refer to the author such as ‘what do you think the author is trying to say?”, we are more likely to tap into a child’s understanding of the text.
If we teach children to ‘take on’ a text little by little, idea by idea, and try to understand, while they are reading, what ideas are there and how they might connect or relate those ideas, then we will be simulating what a competent reader does in the course of reading. While you are reading you are making sense of it as you go along – you do not put comprehension on hold until you have completed a text. In contrast, it is fairly typical teaching practice to assign material to be read and then to pose questions to evaluate understanding. This is basically an ‘after-the-fact’ procedure. Children are left on their own until reading is
complete; this may not lead to productive reading for several reasons. First, children may have questions in their minds as they read or simply finish a text knowing only that they are lost but not sure why. Moreover, there is no way for teachers to know if some children have constructed misconceptions about the passage but think they have understood it. The goal of Beck’s Questioning the Author approach is to assist children in understanding what a portion of text is about at the point of reading that portion for the first time, as well as to support them to see how ideas in previous text fit with the current text.
Building meaning in the course of reading means going back and forth between reading segments of text. In fact, occasionally stopping after a sentence of great importance or a particularly difficult sentence is appropriate. A pupil or the teacher may read the text segment orally and the class follows, or the teacher assigns the children to read the text segment silently. Thus, the activity structure used for developing meaning intersperses reading with discussing what is read. The purpose for engaging children in these interspersed interactions in Questioning the Author departs from what is conventionally viewed as classroom discussion. In Questioning the Author, the intention of interspersed discussion is to assist children in the process of developing meaning from a text. Therefore, the discussion takes place in the course of reading a text for the first time as students share in the experience of learning how to build meaning from the text.
In a Questioning the Author lesson, the interaction of text and discussion is accomplished through queries. Queries are general probes the teacher uses to initiate and develop discussion. Queries are questions, but they are open questions. The goal of a query is to prompt students to consider meaning and develop ideas rather than to retrieve information and state facts. Queries are text based and open. By ‘open’ a query does not provide much directive information about what a correct response should be. For example – What is the author trying to tell us? What have we learned in this section?
The point of Questioning the Author is to get children to grapple with an author’s ideas and, if necessary, to challenge an author’s intended meaning in an effort to build understanding. To accomplish this, we need to hear the child’s voice, encourage their contributions, and urge them to wrestle with ideas. Children need to learn the power of collaborating with their peers and teacher in constructing meaning. Public grappling with text gives students the opportunity to hear from each other, to question and consider alternative possibilities, and to test their own ideas in a safe environment. Everyone is grappling, everyone is engaged in building meaning and everyone understands that the author, not the teacher, has presented them with this challenge.
Director of Training and Research