“I can’t find the answer to this question!” The irritated tone of voice signals a growing frustration from one of our students struggling to complete an assignment. Indeed, from a student viewpoint, finding answers to questions seems to occupy the lion’s share of what education is about.
Understanding how questions work is a critical component of learning. Many students are unaware of the different levels of thinking that questions may elicit.
As a result they follow a “literal” approach of seeking direct statements from the text to answer questions, and feel betrayed or even give up when this strategy does not work.
Other students pay only cursory attention to their reading, instead relying almost solely on what they already know to get their answers, regardless of what the text might say.
For them, answering questions becomes an exercise in “common sense” rather than a thoughtful consideration of new information encountered in print.
There is a powerful activity for helping students analyze and understand questions. Break Question Answer Relationships (known as QARs) questions into two categories: those which have answers supplied by an author (“in the book” QARs) and those which have answers that need to be developed based on the reader’s ideas and experiences (“in my head” QARs).
Question Answer Relationships help students recognize the kind of thinking they need to be engaged in when responding to questions.
Teaching students to use Question Answer Relationships involves ongoing classroom discourse about what various questions require from a reader. The following steps will help students use QARs as an activity for learning.
Step 1: Introduce Question Answer Relationships with a simple example that clearly distinguishes between “in the book” and “in my head” QARs. A history passage such as the following could be used to illustrate these differences:
“Lewis and Clark followed the Missouri River for several hundred miles as they moved westward in the Spring of 1804. Along with their goal of mapping the new territory, the two explorers were also instructed to keep careful records of their journey. As they traveled, the explorers gained a great deal of information through the difficult process of trying to communicate with the Native Americans they met.
Their journals were filled with words, such as skunk, hickory, squash, raccoon, and opossum, that are Indian terms for plants and animals. After their return in September, 1806, Lewis and Clark reported to President Jefferson and their journals were eventually published.”
Ask an obvious “in the book” question that is directly stated in the passage, such as “What river did Lewis and Clark follow in the Spring of 1804?” As students provide the answer (the Missouri River), have them locate the exact place in the text which provides the information for the answer.
Then ask a question whose answer requires background information in addition to the text. An “in my head” question on this passage could be “Why was trying to communicate with the Native Americans a difficult process for Lewis and Clark?” To answer this question, students must draw on their background knowledge-that different languages were spoken by European settlers and Native Americans.
Step 2: After your example, discuss with students how some answers can be found explicitly in the text and others may require additional information based on what the reader already knows. Students are now ready for a more sophisticated analysis of Question Answer Relationships.
Again, using the sample passage with your students, show how some in the book questions require more thinking than others. For example, the question “How long did it take Lewis and Clark to complete their explorations?” requires students to put information together from more than one part of the passage.
The answer, “about two and a half years,” can only be obtained after putting two pieces of information together, the dates mentioned in the first and last sentences.
Share with students that there are two types of “in the book” QARs: “right there” questions (the river they followed) and “putting it together” questions (the length of their trip). Both answers are in the text, but “putting it together” questions involve constructing answers using several pieces of information.
Step 3: Next demonstrate that “in my head” QARs can also be of two types. The question in our example concerning the explorers’ difficulty communicating with the Native Americans can be answered using clues from the author (noticing that Native American terms appeared in the journals, for example) and general background knowledge (realizing that these peoples spoke different languages).
This question is labeled an “author and me” QAR because answers are constructed partly from the text and partly from the reader’s personal knowledge base.
A second type of “in my head” QAR – “on my own” – relies almost solely on the reader’s personal knowledge. A question such as “Why did Lewis and Clark use Native American terms for many of the plants and animals they encountered?” cannot be answered based on the information in the passage. Students will have to hypothesize answers based on what they know.
Students might offer that because North America contained many plants and animals unfamiliar to European settlers, it was natural for them to adopt Native American terms.
“On my own” QARs can often be answered without even reading the passage, and they may lead to a variety of plausible responses. An “on my own” question such as “How do you think the Native Americans reacted to the Lewis and Clark expedition?” could lead to important discussions regarding the changing dynamic in the American West, but very little in the passage would contribute to this discussion.
Step 4:Provide students with opportunities for classifying questions according to these four categories. Emphasize that recognizing the question type comes first when deciding upon an appropriate answer.
Start by asking students to label questions as well as answer them. An activity organizing students in pairs or small groups can be an effective way to foster classroom discussions about how an answer can be determined. This is especially critical for developing the ability to handle questions that require inferential thinking and reacting to several parts of a passage-the putting it together and author and me QARs.
Step 5: As students become comfortable with identifying types of questions, have them write examples of their own in lieu of responding to your questions. These can be exchanged with their classmates, who then answer and classify these student-produced questions.
Question Answer Relationships address reading comprehension instruction in a number of important ways:
- Students come to perceive that there are several ways to answer questions.
- Students are guided in understanding that valuable responses to reading can range from the literal identification of basic information to very open-ended discussions that have no “set” correct answer.
- Students are prompted to constantly tap into their own knowledge base as they encounter new information in reading.
- Teachers have a framework for analyzing comprehension gaps due to lack of adequate background knowledge rather than from an inability to answer in the book QARs.
- This activity can be employed with students from elementary through high school ages. Even students preparing for the comprehension passages on ACT and SAT tests will find this an insightful learning activity.