Some Questions about Text Dependent Questions

As the school year finally begins to wind down here in New York City, a new term is the air: text dependent questions. I first encountered the term in the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria, which recommends that Standards-based instructional material includes a sequence of “rigorous text dependent questions that require students to demonstrate that they not only can follow the details of what is explicitly stated but also are able to make valid claims that square with all the evidence in the text.” And now Student Achievement Partners, the group founded by several of the Common Core authors, has issued a “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions” along with an ever-growing number of “Close Reading Exemplars” that show this method in action.

These text dependent questions stand in contrast to some of the common kinds of questions often heard in classrooms, such as questions about students’ own feelings or experiences and questions related to strategies or skills, like “What’s the main idea?” I agree that these kinds of questions are problematic and should be used sparingly. The first kind can shift students’ attention away from the text to their own thoughts, while the second can turn the act of reading into a scavenger hunt, as I explored a few weeks ago in my post on basal readers.

But text dependent questions seem problematic, as well. The Student Achievement Partners’ guide says that text dependent questions aim to “help students see something worthwhile that they would not have seen in a more cursory reading.” This is a goal I completely share. But the text dependent question approach relies on teachers directing and prompting students to what they want them to see, not on teaching in a way that empowers students to more independently notice what there is to be noticed through their own agency. And in this way text dependent questions run the risk of creating teacher dependent students instead of strong, flexible readers.

To see what I mean, let’s look at one of the Close Reading Exemplars from the Student Achievement Partners’ Achieve the Core site. Here eighth graders are asked to dip into a passage from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, Written by Himselfwhich begins like this:

Like all the Exemplars, this one asks students to first read the passage silently to themselves, without any introduction or instruction. They then follow along for a second go through as the teacher reads the text aloud in order to offer “all students access to this complex text.” Then the questions start:

This read-listen-then-answer-questions sequence seems to almost guarantee that some, if not most, students will read and listen to the passage passively, waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do. It also seems to mirror standardized tests, where students don’t often begin to think until they hit the questions, rather than the moment they first begin to read.

The questions themselves also seem test-like; you can almost imagine them being followed by a choice of four possible answers. That’s because there seems to be one right answer, and the questions are seeing if you ‘got it’ or not. In this way, the questions are assessing comprehension, not helping students build it, which means that students who are able to comprehend will probably do fine, while those who can’t, will not. And one can only imagine how those answers might be pulled and yanked like a tooth from those struggling students through continued prompting.

But what if, instead, we taught students that every reader enters a text not knowing where it’s headed, and because of that they keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re confused or wondering about, knowing that they’ll figure out more as they both read forward and think backwards? This vision of what readers do acknowledges that reading is just as much a process of drafting and revising as writing is, with readers constantly questioning and developing their understanding of what an author is saying as they make their way through a text. And it supports the idea that readers are actively engaged and thinking about how the pieces of a text fit together, beginning with the very first line.

To make this process more visible to students, Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed our text-based Know/Wonder chart. Depending on students’ familiarity with the chart, we might briefly model how we use it in a way that encourages students to acknowledge their confusion by reading the first two sentences and noting the following:

Students who had noticed the title, might say that the narrator was a slave, which would help answer the first question and also raise a lot more, including how a slave got to be friends with white boys; where, exactly, was this taking place; how old is/was the narrator; and, as they read further on, how did he manage to get a book and was he allowed to take the bread or had he stolen it.  Reading forward on the lookout for answers to these student-generated questions, the students would pick up clues that engaged them in considering the third text dependent question about how Douglass’s life as a slave differed from those of the boys. And those students who hadn’t caught the title could hold on to the question, made visible by the chart, until later on in the passage where they’d encounter more clues. And at that point they’d need to think backwards to revise whatever they’d made of the text so far in light of this realization.

Thus, all this could happen the first time the students read the text with virtually no teacher prompting, because they’d be reading closely from the get-go, fitting details together like puzzle pieces to see the larger picture they revealed. And doing so without any prompting would contribute to an increase in both their engagement and their ability as readers. It would also be an experience they could transfer to the next complex text they read.

Additionally all this drafting and revising would eventually enable students to “make valid claims that square with all the evidence in the text,” in a much more independent way than the text dependent question method permits, because so much more of the thinking is theirs. So let’s not jump so quickly on the text dependent question bandwagon and consider, instead, making the process of meaning making more visible to our students, by offering instruction not directions and giving them time to practice–and perhaps remembering that asking a question doesn’t constitute teaching, nor does answering one always mean learning.

14 thoughts on “Some Questions about Text Dependent Questions

  1. I completely agree! I am a former high school English teacher and still remember back to when I was a student teacher, my cooperating teacher teaching me to help my students learn to “PACE” to grasp a deeper meaning while reading. As they read the text for the first time they were asked to Predict, Ask, Comment and Extend and to write ALL over the text as they did it. The interaction with the text is sooo important!

    • Yes! It’s all about interacting–or transacting–with the text with some degree of ownership and agency, which I fear the Exemplars don’t seem to support. And as a former high school teacher, you probably know as well as I do that when we’re looking for a specific answer or interpretation of a text, all we do is send students scrambling to SparkNotes.

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  3. This is an excellent post that raises a perspective I hadn’t thought of before, which is that of the teacher-dependent student waiting for those text-dependent questions to determine what to do with the text.

    Coleman states throughout those videos that his method is one method of teaching more rigorously with texts, and I think there is some value in his method. I think what has happened is that teachers have moved far away from letting the text speak for itself and letting students learn how to grapple with a text. In my own teaching, I was more apt to give the answer and/or focus students’ attention on my own takeaways from a text than to let them struggle through on their own. The value to me, then, in Coleman’s text-dependent questioning method is refocusing the attention of teachers and students on what the text says, not on what the teacher says the text says.

    The methods themselves are not the focus of the standards; the standards themselves do not say, “You must teach using text-dependent questions.” Instead, experts are interpreting the standards and focusing in on reading strategies that make students more accountable and raise the rigor expectations. Educators must look at all of the methods/strategies being suggested by these experts, compare these with what they are already doing, and ensure are challenging students at a level reflective of the CCS expectations (i.e. teaching students how to struggle with text rather than telling them the answers–after all, no one is going to tell them the answers when they read as adults). When you pair Coleman’s text-dependent questioning method with the work of Gallagher and Frey/Fisher, you can get a more complete picture of common core expectations. For example, pre-reading isn’t off the table, but using methods Gallagher details in “Deep Reading” that do not unlock all the secrets of the text prior to reading the text DOES meet the intent of the CCS. Asking text-to-self questions is also not off the table, but as Nancy Frey says, these questions should be INFORMED by a close reading of the text first.

    Teaching methods abound for reaching the new standards, and your “What we Know/Wonder” strategy is another great idea to add to the toolbox. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments, Christina. While I, too, have noted how many times David Colemen has said that text dependent questions are not the only method, many states and districts, including the NYC DOE, are starting to promote it in a way that I fear curtails the kind of conversations you & I are having, both here with each other and with the readers of our blogs. And Scholastic has now put out a guideline for creating multiple choice text dependent questions (http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top-teaching/2012/05/designing-common-core-multiple-choice-questions?eml=Teachers/e/20120524/twitter///SMO/teachers/TTBlog/Mary/), citing Isabel Beck’s book Questioning the Author in what I believe is a complete miscomprehension of her approach that risks turning the act of reading into yet another test. So let’s keep the conversation going, since I do believe talk, whether real or electronic, is the best way of us making sense of the Standards.

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  6. I think you offer some interesting points in this blog with regard to text dependent questions- you state “But the text dependent question approach relies on teachers directing and prompting students to what they want them to see, not on teaching in a way that empowers students to more independently notice what there is to be noticed through their own agency. And in this way text dependent questions run the risk of creating teacher dependent students instead of strong, flexible readers.” This is funny to me, because a lot of the reading I have done with regard to close readings and text dependent questions is using this approach to keep that from happening… at least that was my understanding of what David Coleman is saying…

    So I started thinking about it with regard to the standards- I think you are right, in a sense that it is very teacher directed- but I think it has to be because, if teachers are truly teaching to the standards, they will have to ask rigorous, prescribed questions that ask the students to go back into the text. They questions designed should be asked for very specific purposes- all going back to the standards. I believe when using text dependent questions, that is the purpose… not that you don’t want students to discover the secrets in writing on their own- but they do need to be shown how to do this though modeling and discussions that are not just about predictions and feelings (just like you stated above).

    As far as the reading it silently the listening to it read aloud- Doug Fisher talks about going through those first reads “with a pencil” asking the students to focus on an essential question as they are reading, making annotations and/or noting things that are confusing to them. Then, teachers can use this as a formative assessment of students for places where modeling of thinking while reading can take place. I believe this will make students less passive while waiting for the questions to be asked.

    Thanks for putting your ideas out there.

    • Thanks, Ann, for such a thoughtful comment. These are such important conversations to have! I’ve been wrestling with a blog post myself that addresses the problem you articulated in your second paragraph–the idea that if we’re to meet the Standards, we need to teach directly to them–and thinking about how to respond to your comment has helped clarify my own thinking.

      I’m reminded of what Vicki Spandel, designer of the 6 Traits writing approach, wrote in her introduction to The 9 Rights of Writers:

      “The problem with standards is not that they aim too high but that often they do not life us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons–to help our children write with passion and touch the hearts of readers–the little things tend to fall into place anyway. We get the topic sentences and details and strong verbs we hoped to see because those little things help the writer reach her loftier goals. What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said she should, but because these writer’s skills took her where she wanted to go all along, to a place where her writing became powerful.”

      I think the same is true with reading. If we teach reading in a way that authentically helps students read closely and transact with texts in an active, inquiring and passionate way, as Dorothy Barnhouse and I describe in What Readers Really Do, students automatically engage in the work of Anchor Reading Standards 1-6–and they do so with more engagement because the questions they’re pursing are theirs, and in a way that allows them to transfer the thinking work from text to text. They also demonstrate the characteristics of College and Career Ready Students, becoming independent in a way that’s not possible when you’re dependent on someone else’s question and valuing evidence not because we said they should but because they appreciate what attending to details lets them do and understand as readers.

      Teaching to the standards to me sounds too much like teaching to the test–and we all know where that has gotten us. So while I completely agree with David Coleman’s assessments of current reading practices, in which too much emphasis was placed on teaching strategies to build the habits of readers, not to build insight and meaning, I disagree about how to address the problem. Fortunately, the Standards give teachers the right to decide how best to meet them, which each and every one of us should think about as deeply as we want students to think about texts.

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