Teaching Students to Answer Questions

A simple process can help you enjoy teaching students to answer questions. Yes, it can be challenging. But your students can do it, and with success comes pride. Let’s take a look at strategies for constructed response to literature.

Teaching Students to Answer Questions Cover

Ms. Sneed Begins Teaching Students to Answer Questions

As a new teacher, Ms. Sneed relied on her mentor for advice. “For annual testing, third, fourth, and fifth grade students must know how to construct responses,” said Mrs. Brown. “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.”

“Wow, that’s a lot to take in,” replied Ms. Sneed.

“Sure is. Additionally, your fourth graders will use this skill to describe characters and compare folktales. Let’s take a closer look at teaching students to answer questions.”

Steps for Answering Questions

1. Read Carefully

“Unfortunately, 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. We’ll read to answer this question: How did Mole clean his house?

Teaching students to answer questions? Try these differentiated reading passages from The Wind in the Willows.
Are you feeling “pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this post.

“Instruction and discussion work best if all students read the same story. I found this unit with six passages from The Wind in the Willows. Since every passage is differentiated for three reading levels, I can teach the same lesson to everyone. And two questions come with each part of the story.”

“That’s great,” said Ms. Sneed. “But doesn’t it get a little boring? I can’t imagine answering question after question.”

“Yes, kids can really burn out. Fortunately, the author provides lots of fun alternatives.”

Ms. Sneed smiled tentatively.

2. Find Evidence

“Now it’s time to locate the evidence,” Mrs. Brown continued. “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.” She picked up a highlighter and marked the page.

When teaching students to answer questions, model the process first.

“This is an easy question. The evidence is all found in one place,” she said.

3. Write a Topic Sentence

“Now 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.” Mrs. Brown wrote as she explained.

Begin with a topic sentence that uses question parts and answers the question.

“Next, the student considers the evidence to answer the question. This is added to the topic sentence stem.”

4. Support the Topic Sentence

“How much evidence should be used to support the topic sentence?” asked Ms. Sneed.

“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!” Again, she jotted down some ideas.

Teaching students to answer questions includes supporting detail sentences.

“Now 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

“I don’t want to start off too hard,” said Ms. Sneed. “How will I know what to expect in the beginning?”

“Each year,” her mentor replied, “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.” She pulled a sheet of paper from her file. “Here you can see some ways fourth and fifth graders might cite.”

Remember to site the text.

“Alright,” sighed Ms. Sneed. “I think I get it. First, read carefully. Second, find evidence. Next, answer the question in a topic sentence. Finally, support with evidence from the text. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to cite.”

6. Conclude

“You’re getting it!” exclaimed Mrs. Brown. “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.” She listed some examples as they chatted

A conclusion is the icing on the cake.

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 or synonym.
  • Add a phrase at the beginning of the sentence.
  • Combine sentences.
  • Advanced: Move the end of the sentence to the beginning.”
When teaching students to answer questions, don't forget to edit. Kids should avoid repetition, as well as cite and use transitions to make writing flow.

Mrs. Brown marked up their sample answer.

“Let’s take a look at our finished product,” she said.

completed response

“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 the answering questions 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:

  • #1: Kids place the evidence in the topic sentence.
  • #2: Kids try to cite in the topic sentence.
  • #3: Kids skimp on evidence.
  • #4: Kids write poor conclusions or no conclusion at all.

It’s always a work in progress.”

Putting It into Practice

Over the next few weeks, Ms. Sneed tried her mentor’s suggestions during her ELA block. To keep kids interested, she tried to make constructed response fun. First, she let them collaborate. Next, she tried constructed response burgers and cubes. In time, she even held contests. After teaching students to answer questions, they were writing good responses – and seemed no worse for the wear.

Ms. Sneed wrinkled her nose. The corners of her mouth turned up just a bit. No, answering questions in complete paragraphs wasn’t that bad after all. She finally accept the process as a critical part of her fourth grade literature curriculum.

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