Tackling the Misconceptions of Text-Dependent Questions

I’ve worked with many school leaders over the past year who list text-dependent questions (TDQs) as their major strategy for improving literacy achievement. (Reading Anchor Standard 1 of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasizes reading text closely, drawing inferences from it, and supporting conclusions from text.) Any time an idea becomes a “buzzword,” I fear that we will lose sight of what that word or idea really means. I started asking leaders to define text dependent questions, and asking them to show me examples of effective TDQs. I found their responses often fell into one of the following two misconceptions.

Misconception One: Taking TDQs Too Literally

The first group of leaders had an extremely low bar for TDQs: “questions where you can point to the answer in the text,” or “questions that don’t ask you what you think, they ask you what the text says.” While these scavenger hunt style questions are technically text-dependent, they won’t get students any closer to being prepared for college. They also create a false sense of rigor.

Fixing The Misconception: Writing Effective Text-Dependent Questions

Reading expert Tim Shanahan argues that students must understand that text dependence alone is a very low standard for an effective question. Instead, Shanahan argues, TDQs should target details only when they have greater meaning, such as the names Caleb and Aaron serving as an allusion to Cain and Abel in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, or when a seemingly minor gesture gives insight into a character’s motivation.

The most important things a teacher can do to write effective TDQs is read the text themselves at least twice, annotating parts that they find confusing, important, or surprising. These are likely the sections of text that will generate good text-dependent questions.

Fisher and Frey created a helpful categorization of the different types of TDQs, and how they can function in a progression from interpreting a single word, to tracing an argument across texts. This process developed by Student Achievement Partners is also helpful. In addition, the grade-level specific Craft and Structure standards (Standards 4, 5, and 6) are a great source for generating good questions.

Misconception Two: There’s One Right Answer

The second category of leaders understood that while TDQs required students to focus on particular words, sentences, and paragraphs, students should then use this evidence to analyze and interpret the larger meaning of the text. The example lesson plans they shared appeared rigorous, but when we visited classrooms together, there was little authentic discussion. The teacher was the all-knowing “question asker,” and the students were the “question answerers,” trying to find the one right answer the teacher had in mind. Such teaching will not create students who are prepared for college or next-generation assessments, regardless of how rigorous the TDQs seem on paper.

Fixing The Misconception: Tackling Teacher-Dependence

In their book Notice and Note and this video, authors Beers and Probst worry that many approaches to TDQs position the teacher in the role of the question asker, using text-dependent questions to guide students to the one right answer. They argue students should also be able to use evidence to develop their own interpretations of text, and should be empowered to use text-dependent questions themselves if we ever want them to transfer this skill to the real world. Students need lots of opportunities to ask their own questions and develop their own interpretations of text.

More Ways to Use Text-Dependent Questions

Using TDQs Within Close Reading

Situating TDQs within a thoughtful approach to close reading can also help address the misconceptions mentioned above. Though a close read is more of an outcome than a procedure, some good examples include the one I introduced in my previous blog and this video by NASSP. Students first read the text to figure out what the text says, annotating sections they find important and confusing, and then asking questions. The teacher then uses students’ own ideas to shape the TDQs they pose during a second read focused on how the text says it, analyzing craft and structure to determine how the text works. This ensures that students aren’t guided to ideas they could have found independently. Concluding with a discussion of what it all means, students use their analysis to write an argument about the larger themes or significance of the text positions as active constructors of meaning.

Follow-Up Questions

Follow up questions can spark robust discussions. Rather than evaluate the response, teachers can push the thinking out to students, allowing them to respond and build off of one another’s ideas. The Great Books Foundation’s approach to shared inquiry includes the following suggestions for follow-up questions:

  • Ask about the specific words in phases within the portion of text students cite in their response
  • Ask students to identify where they found their evidence and read the passage aloud, or have everyone go back and reread that section
  • Ask students to comment or build on evidence cited by another student
  • Suggest a passage and ask if it supports the point a student is making
  • Ask for something else in the text that would support their idea
  • Ask students what someone who disagrees with their position would say, or push them to find exceptions

Taking these steps and avoiding these misconceptions can ensure your students are becoming more text-dependent and less teacher-dependent. Respond in the comments section about how you use TDQs to push student thinking.

Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.

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