Checking Reading Comprehension? Ask Better Questions!

“Ms. Gottschalk, don’t you get it?” The young English learner (EL) asking me this question was genuinely concerned. He was perplexed because I kept asking him and his classmates questions about a picture—questions whose answers I obviously already knew. In other words, I was asking students display questions, like:

  • “This girl is sitting. What is she doing?”
  • “This girl is standing. What is she doing?”
  • “Is the balloon on the elephant?”
  • “Is the balloon behind the elephant?”

And so on ad nauseam. In the middle of the year, I’d been required to change my sessions with young ELs to use my district’s newly adopted direct instruction intervention program. The highly scripted curriculum had many drawbacks, but my student’s question to me indirectly pointed out one of its biggest—the lack of authentic communication.

It was apparent to this young EL because I had spent the first part of the school year asking many referential questions in class—questions whose answers I didn’t already know. Questions like:

  • “Which of these books I’ve read aloud did you like the best? Why?”
  • “What was your favorite illustration in this picture book we’ve just read together? Can you describe it clearly enough so I can find it in the book?”
  • “I missed meeting with you yesterday because of your field trip. Which animals did you see at the zoo?”

There’s a place for display questions in your teaching toolkit, but asking individual students display questions during a group discussion is an inefficient way to assess reading comprehension. Better to save the display questions for simple online or paper quizzes. You can also give students lists of display questions to ask and answer in pairs or small groups. It’s not authentic communication, but it allows you to check basic comprehension while giving students speaking practice.

What’s more important for you as a reading teacher is to give students opportunities for real communication. That means asking students more referential questions as well as having students ask more referential questions of each other. The following table shows examples of display and referential questions. Notice how referential questions have one main thing in common—the questioner doesn’t know the answer. They also require students to draw on their own opinions or experience.

Display Questions Referential Questions
“What was the main idea of this passage?” “What is one thing you remember most from this passage? Why?” (open-ended)
“What does frustrate mean?” “What is something that frustrates you? Why?” (requires the student to use the target vocabulary word in the open-ended response)
“What is the past tense of catch?” “When was the last time you caught a cold? How did you catch it?” (puts the vocabulary word into context and follows up by asking for more information)
“Who is the main character in this story?” “What is one trait you have in common with the main character in this story?” (elicits knowledge of the main character as well as a personal response from the student)
“What is the setting of the story?” “You said the story was boring. What makes you say that?” (asks for clarification)

Too often, students don’t get a chance to answer thoughtful, referential questions after they’ve read something. Their responses can tell you whether they’ve deeply comprehended what they’ve read. Answering referential questions is also more engaging because students can apply their knowledge and share information about themselves in speaking or writing. These questions are also easy for students to address in small, student-led discussions.

Asking referential questions—teachers and students alike—is an easy way to promote speaking practice as well as more deeply assess reading comprehension.

About Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk
Barbara Gottschalk is a veteran educator. She has taught English language learners from first graders to graduate students in five states in three very different parts of the United States plus Japan. Gottschalk has written many successful grants and served as a grant reviewer for TESOL, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. She is the author of "Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas That Work" and "Dispelling Misconceptions About English Language Learners: Research-Based Ways to Improve Instruction."
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3 Responses to
Checking Reading Comprehension? Ask Better Questions!

  1. Yeira Cervantes says:

    I agree with that! I think the opportunity we have to communicate during reading lessons is quite unique. We are all together in the classroom; our students have the chance to share ideas, past experiences, express themselves and listen to others. However, if we only use display questions, we are pretty much wasting that chance.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Horacio Edgard Poblete Gomez says:

    I believe you are totally right, referential questions allow students to use their knowledge or experience into life, and since then after a thinking process their connection with the story.

  3. Lê Văn Canh says:

    Quite a useful idea. Thanks for sharing

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