Helping ELs to Learn to Ask Questions During Reading

This blog is Part 3 in my series about teaching English learners reading comprehension strategies. Because good readers ask questions throughout the reading process, I will discuss how to help ELs acquire the skill of asking questions before, during, and after reading a text. This strategy helps ELs to become actively engaged in the lesson, to  develop a purpose for reading, and  to monitor their reading or check to see whether they are comprehending what they’re reading.

Learning to express “I wonder…” questions
Let’s peek in Ms. Clark’s 4th-grade class and observe as she discusses the title and illustration on the cover of the nonfiction book If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad. Throughout the school year, Ms. Clark has taught ELs to ask the following:

“I wonder what……..”
“What will this book be about?”
“What does this sentence mean?”
“Is this important?”
“Do I need to read this again?”

During this lesson, Ms. Clark modeled “I wonder” questions by asking students “I wonder where the Underground Railroad went?” Maria, an EL, wrote in her journal, “I wonder how a railroad could really be underground.” It was apparent that she knew the meaning of the words “underground” and “railroad” but had a lot of difficulty with the concept. Other ELs in the class asked questions such as “Why is this family running away?” “Were the people afraid?” “Where would they go?”

Activities during and after reading

In order to support ELs to ask questions, teachers need to teach unfamiliar vocabulary that is essential to comprehension before students read. Scaffolding the questions that ELs need to ask themselves as they read helps them participate in a lesson. Ms. Clark had students write down their questions in their reading notebook and see if they could answer them as they read the book. They labeled their questions (t) if they were answered in the text; (i) if they inferred the answer, and (n) if the question was never answered. They included the page number with the notation for every question.

Through scaffolding with picture and nonfiction books on their reading level, Maria and the other ELs in Ms. Clark’s class were not only able to understand the concepts in the book but they were also able participate in the discussions about the book.

Developing background knowledge

Hyung Jae, an EL in Mr. Henley’s 5th-grade social studies class, read an entire book about the American Civil War in Korean at home. This background information gave him a springboard for asking questions in class. Although his language was still quite limited, he developed the schema that he needed to participate in the social studies lessons on the Civil War. With scaffolding and sentence frames, he was able to ask questions as he read.

The important point is that the ELs in both Ms. Clark’s and Mr. Henley’s classes were able to read about academic information at their own language level or in their own language and ask questions that were on their English language levels. They were able to follow much of the class discussion and pose simple “I wonder” questions about their topics.

Questioning improves ELs’ capacity to comprehend text

ELs may not be able to ask questions about the author’s language or purpose in the same the way that proficient or native English speakers do. However, they can begin to make a habit of questioning, and this habit will improve their capacity for understanding and thus support their becoming more proficient readers of English text. It is important to emphasize with ELs that they need to voice what they don’t understand and use reading strategies to figure out answers.

Here are some strategies to help your ELs get started.

  • Ask students to predict what the story will be about based on the title and/or a picture on the cover. This is a strategy that can be used at all grade levels.
  • Explain that a prediction is a guess. It doesn’t have to be correct. It just needs to make sense. Model to students the kinds of questions they can ask themselves to predict the ending. Help students to become aware that their predictions might change as they read.
  • Help ELs identify “stopping places” in the text where they may have questions or should make predictions. Ask them to mark these places with sticky notes or write about them in their reading notebook. This will help ELs to become better readers and supports their reading comprehension.

Do you teaching your ELs questioning strategies? Please share your ideas with us.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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