A lot of the advice teachers receive about formulating good questions is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. According to Bloom’s, ‘creation’, ‘evaluation’ and ‘analysis’ questions – the higher-order questions – sit at the top of the pile. At the bottom sit their lower-order brethren, the ‘remember’ and ‘understand’ questions. The theory goes that if teachers ask more high-order questions and fewer lower-order questions, then their students will be encouraged to think more critically and deeply. And woe betide any teacher who expects his students to answer a knowledge recall question. He is merely encouraging flimsy rote learning.
Even though Bloom’s and similar questioning hierarchies are not without merit, they suffer from two obvious flaws. First, they are based on the assumption that knowledge and critical analysis are separate entities. In fact, they are completely enmeshed and often impossible to disentangle. Analysis always needs something to analyse. Second, they are too generic. Different subjects require different types of question. Indeed, a skilled questioner adapts the style and form of the questions she asks according to the topic she is teaching and the children she is teaching it to. Questioning in maths lessons remains fundamentally different from questioning in English lessons.
Over the past few months I have been putting together an exhaustive list of what I call ‘analytical question templates’. These are generic question structures that provoke analytical and critical responses to texts. They are useful to English teachers but probably not to anyone else. Analysis and evaluation questions are difficult to design because they can easily become too vague or require too much guesswork on the student’s part. Often questions like ‘Why do you think the writer did this?’ or ‘Why do you think this might be significant?’ are too loose and not specific enough for a strong answer.
Therefore, I have tried to choose questions that usually lead to focused, accurate and interesting responses. These have been partly inspired by the ‘text-dependent questions’ explained by Doug Lemov, Colleen Drigg and Erica Woolway in Reading Reconsidered. Because text-dependent questions are so tightly worded, students are compelled to read the text closely and to use textual evidence in their responses. The student cannot respond with a tangential comment – they must speak about the text. Nevertheless, I have also included some questions that might be less text-dependent, yet encourage the child to enter into the emotional context of the text.
The questions cover five foundational literary concepts: language and literary devices; characterisation; form and structure; contextual features; authorial intention. They can be used to provoke class discussions or as writing prompts. As students become accustomed to them, they could also design their own questions using the structures as prompts. Ultimately, however, the question list that follows is most useful as a planning tool.
Finally, please remember that the structures need to be reworded depending on the text.
So … ‘The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/ technique ________. What does this suggest about ______________?’
Becomes … ‘Priestley uses the adverb ‘coldly’ to describe Mrs Birling. What does this suggest about her relationship with the rest of her family?’
Or … ‘How does _______ connect to your prior knowledge of the text’s context? ‘
Becomes … ‘How does Stevenson’s description of the night-time streets connect to your prior knowledge of Victorian London?’
And: ‘The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/technique ___________ to _____________. Why do you think he uses _____ rather than ______________?’
Becomes: ‘Dickens use the simile ‘as solitary as an oyster’ to describe Scrooge. Why do you think he chose the adjective ‘solitary’ rather than, say, ‘cosy’?
You get the picture.
Finally, this is a work in progress. Please share any suggestions or alert me to any obvious omissions. The questions are below but you can download a Word copy from here. Oh, and do make sure you read Reading Reconsidered.
Language and linguistic devices
- Which words/phrases/sentences/techniques does the writer use to imply that _______________?
- The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/ technique ________. What does this suggest about ______________?
- Can you find two examples of __________? Which is the most interesting? Why?
- How does the word/phrase/sentence/technique___________ suggest that ___________________?
- The writer uses the word/phrase/sentence/technique ___________ to _____________. Why do you think he uses _____ rather than ______________?
- What do we usually associate with __________? What might the writer have be been implying about _____________ by using this description?
- What feelings are usually connoted by _____________. How do you think these images help the reader to ___________?
- Where have we seen the writer use _______ before? Why do you think the writer has chosen to use it again?
- The writer uses ___________. Why do you think he chose to use this technique at this point in the text?
- What kind of imagery do we see in the text? How does this help the reader to understand ____?
- What would you do if you were in the same situation as the character? Would you have behaved similarly or differently? Why?
- What attributes and qualities best describe the character? Where have we seen evidence to support this?
- What changes has the character undergone? Why have these changes happened? How do these changes transform the reader’s opinion of that character?
- What is the character’s hierarchical position in relation to the other characters in the book? Does this change depending on how we measure it?
- Is the reader positioned for or against the character? How does this reinforce the writer’s view about __________?
- Does the character conform to – or break – the social conventions of the time/place being written about? What evidence from the text supports this?
- Does the writer use the character to embody or symbolise any attitudes/ideas/central conflicts?
- How might two readers respond differently to the character and their actions? On what aspects might they agree and disagree?
- What do we learn about ________ from reading about this character?
- How would the story function without that character? What would be lost from the story?
Form and structure
- Can you summarise the sequence of events/ideas in the text?
- What does __________ at the start of the text make the reader think/feel/believe about ___________?
- What does ____________ at the end of the text leave the reader feeling about ________________?
- Why do you think that the writer chose to place ____________ before ___________?
- What are the major differences between the start and the end of the text? What do these imply about _________?
- What kind of narrative device is employed? How could you describe the ‘voice’ of the narrator? Why do you think the writer chose to use this device? How does it differ from other texts you have read?
- How are the internal structures of the book – chapters and paragraphs – organised? Why do you think that the writer made these decisions?
- Where does ____________change? How does this affect the reader’s attitude towards ______________________________?
- What does ___________ tell us about what it would have been like to have lived in the time and place the text is set?
- How does _______ connect to your prior knowledge of the text’s context?
- Which factors from the writer’s biography may have influenced aspects of the story?
- Which aspects of the writer’s contemporary society did he/she support/criticise?
- Do you believe that the writer created an accurate portrayal of the time in question? Were any aspects exaggerated or underplayed? Why do you think the writer chose to do this?
- What are the differences between how __________ would have been received in the writer’s time and how we receive it today?
- How does the text compare to other works from that period/by the same writer? How does it compare to works that came before and after?
- Who were/are the writer’s target audience? How do you know this?
- What was the writer’s main purpose in writing the text?
- What is the writer’s attitude towards _____________?
- What do you believe that the writer wanted the reader to feel about _____________?
- How far do you agree with the writer’s attitude towards _______________?
- What do you think that the writer wanted to teach the reader about the human condition?
- If the writer could be with us today, what do you think she would have thought about ______________?
- If ___________ had been different, how might it change the reader’s attitude to ______________?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the writer’s argument about _____________?