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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Examples of Close Reading Questions

February 2, 2015
As a principal, I want my teachers to teach student how to read a text closely. After going through your Powerpoint, reading the questions you suggest and the responses, I think professional development in developing questions would be required to ensure they were actually asking the right kind of questions.
One of the biggest implementation problems with Common Core that I see is that teachers (and curriculum designers) don’t understand close reading well enough to ask appropriate questions. The point of the questions is to guide students’ to think about the text in effective ways.
To help this principal (and others) to provide the professional development noted above, I have provided what I hope will be a useful example. But let’s start off with a bit of explanation. 
First, the questions should be about important issues raised by the text. Some people are taking close reading to mean “precise” reading or “thorough” reading. If you are asking about a story, you should ask about details that would be important in a summary of the story (e.g., character motivation, key plot details, theme). “Close” is not a synonym for “trivial."
Second, the questions should be text dependent. That just means that it shouldn’t be possible to answer the question without reading the text. The focus of close reading should be on what the author presents, and not on anything else. That’s the reason why it’s a good idea for students to explain or support their answers with text evidence (proof — from the text)
Third, the questions should help the readers to accomplish three interpretive goals. Specifically, they should help the reader to think about what the text said (key ideas and details), how the text worked (craft and structure), and what it means (integration of knowledge and meaning). Unlike in other questioning schemes, these questions do not try to get kids to exercise particular thinking skills (e.g., inference, higher order reasoning, comparison); they focus on interpreting the text rather than on exercising particular cognitive muscles.
I have attached an old basal reader story (from the 1955-1965 period), The Railroad Cat, and below I have listed questions that I might ask a group of second- or third-graders about this story. I have separated my questions out into three sets — one set for each major interpretive goal, but they don’t have to be asked in that way; they can be interspersed with each other.
I do think that it is a good idea to ask your questions in an order that helps students to follow through the text in an “orderly manner,” particularly with regard to a first read or the key ideas and details questions. It is not enough that kids get practice reading texts, but they should come away knowing more about their world. If the questions/discussion/task takes you through the content in a well-organized way, students will be more likely to come away with content knowledge. Thus, you could have the students read this story three times, and each time use a different set of questions; or you could simply intersperse the second two sets of questions into the first wherever you think they fit best. In each list here, I have gone through the story in the same order that the author presented the pertinent information.
Of the three sets of questions, the “craft and structure” questions are the most characteristic of close reading (the other interpretive goals are important too, but they are not unique to close reading). That means that most of us need more practice with “craft and structure” — something largely or entirely neglected in the video that I recently critiqued in this space.
You may notice that I did not go through and try to have a balance of “right there” and “think and search questions” or that I didn’t fool with Bloom’s taxonomy. The reason is quite simple: my focus is on — and should be on — the text during close reading. If a text is very explicit, then I’ll ask a lot more comprehension or “right there” questions. If the text is more oblique, then we’ll end up with more inferencing practice. The point isn’t the inferencing practice, however, it is to get students to think closely about the meaning of the particular text we are reading now (that's one of the reasons close reading questions are hard — because they follow each text, not some questioning scheme).

Questions about key ideas and details: what did the text say?

  1. What was special about Tom?                                                        
  2. What did Tom do when the men were loading the train?                      
  3. Why did he pretend to sleep?                                            
  4. What did Tom do that got his picture in the newspaper?                      
  5. How did his life change after he got in the newspaper?             
  6. What happened when the chipmunk showed up?                                  
  7. Why did Tom follow the chipmunk?                                              
  8. When he was in the railroad car what was Tom’s problem?      
  9. When Tom got out of the car where was he?                               
  10. Who found Tom?                                                                             
  11. How did the engineer know that Tom wanted to go with him? 
  12. Why did the engineer take him?                                                    
  13. When the engineer and Tom left what was their problem?       
  14. When Tom yowled, what did the engineer think he wanted?    
  15. What changed the engineer’s mind?                                             
  16. What did the fireman think Tom meant?                         
  17. So what did the engineer do?                                                         
  18. According to the engineer, why was it so important Tom yowled?
  19. How did Tom know the bridge was out?                                       
  20. What happened after Tom saved the train?                                

Questions about craft and structure: how did the text work?

  1. What does the author mean when he writes that Tom “had never seen a kitchen nor climbed a back yard fence”?
  2. What is a “conveyor belt”?                                                                                    
  3. What’s “freight”?                                                                 
  4. On page 1, the story says that Tom was a "hero." What does that mean? (What made him a hero?)
  5. On page 2, the author puts some words in quotation marks (“Oh, boy!,” “Fish at last!” “thank you”). What is he trying to show by doing that? Can Tom talk?
  6. What kind of story is this (fantasy or realistic fiction)?   
  7. On page 4, it again calls Tom a “hero.” How is the meaning of “hero” different here than on page 1?
  8. Why does the author tell us about the chipmunk again at the end?

Questions about integration of knowledge and meaning: what did the text mean?

  1. The author used the word “hero” in two different ways. Which meaning is the right one?
  2. What’s the difference between being a hero and being famous?
  3. Is it better to be a hero or to be famous
  4. What was the point of the story? What did the author want you to learn from Tom?



That's it? What about asking students what the story meant to them? Your last question, "What was the point of the story?" is a good one, but why are we suddenly afraid to take meaning of a story outside of the text? Ask students to relate to the character and share whether or not Tom inspires them to be heroes. Would they ever want to read another story about Tom again? Why or why not? This is called "reading beyond the text," and yes, it was probably overdone for a while, and yes, children have a habit of looking inward for easy answers rather than taking an extra moment to look back at the page they'd just read to justify an answer, but there needs to be a happy medium. Nobody reads a book just for the exercise of reading a book. And a book isn't a mine to be stripped or a crime scene to be investigated. It's more like a still life to be examined and appreciated, a painting of such moving details that one lingers over it for a while to soak it all in. A great painting moves us, and often in ways we can't express in words. A book is the same way. A book, or short story, hasn't done its job if it doesn't have your imagination kicking into high gear. (That's why writing is a great thing to have follow a book ... but not text-based questions ad nauseum--real writing, the kind people care about.)

Perhaps you missed the title of Mr. Shanahan's piece: Examples of CLOSE READING QUESTIONS. The questions you suggest are obviously more reflective in nature. I'm sure if he was creating an entire lesson based on the book, Mr. Shanahan would include reflective questions as welll. There is a time and a place for different types of questions, and Mr. Shanahan is simply addressing a particular type. It seems you missed that, Dave.

Thanks for sharing the model questions. I have a hard time trying to create my own questions. I need Tim to do about 10 more of these and I will have enough "close reads" for the school year.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller