A simple process can help you enjoy teaching kids to answer questions. Yes, it’s challenging. But your students can do it, and with success comes pride. Let’s take a look at strategies for constructing responses to literature.
Teaching Kids to Answer Questions
Third, fourth, and fifth grade students must know how to construct responses. Why? Standards require it. Let’s take a look at Common Core State Standards:
- RL.3.1 – Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
- RL.4.1 – Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
- RL.5.1 – Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
As you can see, third graders must answer questions and support them by referring to the text. Fourth graders need to refer to details in the text and draw inferences. By fifth grade, they must also know how to quote the text.
Steps for Answering Questions
1. Read Carefully
Reading to answer questions is not pleasure reading. Kids need to read slowly and deliberately. Consider posing the question(s) before reading. Let’s use this excerpt from The Wind in the Willows as an example. Read to answer this question: How did Mole clean his house?
Instruction and discussion work best if all students read the same story. To differentiate, look for stories adapted at multiple levels. Click here for three levels of the passage above. You can use it to try these questions in your own class.
2. Find Evidence
Now it’s time to locate the evidence. Students can mark text with highlighters, pencils, or sticky notes. An alternative is taking notes on a separate piece of paper. The key is finding relevant text. Let’s take a look at evidence in the text for our question: How did Mole clean his house?
This is an easy question. Evidence is all found in one place.
3. Write a Topic Sentence
It’s time to consider the evidence and answer the question.
The first skill is using question parts. They can simply cross off unnecessary parts of the question to make the beginning of the answer. If your students are just beginning this skill, click here for some practice.
Next, the student considers the evidence to answer the question. This is added to the topic sentence stem. Two possible topic sentences for our question are shown above.
4. Support the Topic Sentence
How much evidence should be used to support the topic sentence? In my opinion, intermediate-grade students should look for two, three, and at most four pieces of evidence.
At the beginning of the year, my fourth graders are inclined to take all pieces of evidence, stick some quotation marks around it, and plunk it in the middle of the paragraph. Ugh. What a mess. That’s when I start working on two skills: selecting the best support and paraphrasing.
To break bad habits, I have kids take short notes. No more plunking chunks of quoted text into the answer!
It’s time to carefully consider the evidence. Which points best support the topic sentence? How many are necessary? How can they be best stated?
In this case, seven cleaning tools are listed, but they are clustered into three main points. The first set tells how he got rid of dirt and dust. The second discusses how he climbed. The third lets us know that he scrubbed and painted. Yes, let’s use all of it.
5. Refer to the Text
Each year, kids build sophistication. Third graders simply mention the text. Fourth graders cite with page and/or paragraph numbers. By fifth grade, they learn to select snippets of text to better support their answers.
Concluding is an optional step, but it really polishes a response. In my class, four simple conclusions work well: repeating, summarizing, providing personal insight, or explaining what this means.
7. Put It All Together
If all goes well, the biggest problem kids will have at this point is repetition of the subject. For example, in our answer, we’ve begun every sentence with “Mole.” That makes our answer choppy. How can we solve this problem?
- Replace the word with a pronoun.
- Replace the word with a synonym.
- Add a phrase at the beginning of the sentence.
- Combine sentences.
- Advanced: Move the end of the sentence to the beginning.
Let’s take a look at our finished product.
All of this is hard work [for the student and the teacher]. In my experience, it’s an all-year endeavor. At the beginning of the year, I introduce the process with a brief unit. Using excerpts from The Wind in the Willows, I move deliberately through a traditional learning progression. We begin with direct instruction. It usually goes something like this:
The next day we work together with guided practice. This is followed by three days of independent practice. Every day we discuss peer exemplars, lifting up great student responses from the day before. Finally, we assess and move on.
As the year goes on, I continue to ask my students to construct responses. Each time we focus on strategies and correct common mistakes:
- Common Mistake #1: Kids place the evidence in the topic sentence.
- Common Mistake #2: Kids try to cite in the topic sentence.
- Common Mistake #3: Kids skimp on evidence.
- Common Mistake #4: Kids write poor conclusions or no conclusion at all.
It’s the end of our school year right now. Does every student in my class write perfect responses? Absolutely not. It’s a work in progress. Correction: It’s a worthwhile work in progress.
The Case for Teaching Kids to Answer Questions
Kids in my class used to balk at writing a complete sentence to answer a question. Now I ask them to write an entire paragraph.
At first, I thought it was unnecessary busy work. It seemed as though constructed responses were just a good way for test-makers to assess students’ reading and writing at the same time. Then I tried it. And what I saw changed my mind:
Constructing responses requires students to work at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and build lifelong skills. Yes, teaching kids to answer questions is hard work. But it’s worth it.
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