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5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

My first year teaching a literacy coach came to observe my classroom. After the students left, she commented on how I asked the whole class a question, would wait just a few seconds, and then answer it myself. "It's cute," she added. Um, I don't think she thought it was so cute. I think she was treading lightly on the ever-so shaky ego of a brand-new teacher while still giving me some very necessary feedback.

So that day, I learned about wait/think time. And also, over the years, I learned to ask better and better questions.

Many would agree that for inquiry to be alive and well in a classroom that, amongst other things, the teacher needs to be expert at asking strategic questions, and not only asking well-designed ones, but ones that will also lead students to questions of their own.

Keeping It Simple

I also learned over the years that asking straightforward, simply-worded questions can be just as effective as those intricate ones. With that in mind, if you are a new teacher or perhaps not so new but know that question-asking is an area where you'd like to grow, start tomorrow with these five:

#1. What do you think?

This question interrupts us from telling too much. There is a place for direct instruction where we give students information yet we need to always strive to balance this with plenty of opportunities for students to make sense of and apply that new information using their schemata and understanding.

#2. Why do you think that?

After students share what they think, this follow-up question pushes them to provide reasoning for their thinking.

#3. How do you know this?

When this question is asked, students can make connections to their ideas and thoughts with things they've experienced, read, and have seen.

#4. Can you tell me more?

This question can inspire students to extend their thinking and share further evidence for their ideas.

#5. What questions do you still have?

This allows students to offer up questions they have about the information, ideas or the evidence.

In addition to routinely and relentlessly asking your students questions, be sure to provide time for them to think. What's best here, three seconds, five, or seven? Depending on their age, the depth of the material, and their comfort level, this think time will vary. Just push yourself to stay silent and wait for those hands to go up.

Also be sure to vary your tone so it genuinely sounds like a question and not a statement. When we say something in a declarative way, it is often with one tone and flat sounding. On the other hand, there is a lilt in our voice when we are inquiring and questioning.

To help student feel more comfortable and confident with answering questions and asking ones of their own, you can use this scaffold: Ask a question, pause, and then invite students to "turn and talk" with a neighbor first before sharing out with the whole group. This allows all to have their voices heard and also gives them a chance to practice their responses before sharing in front of the whole class.

How do you ask questions in your classroom? What works well with your students? Please share with us in the comment section below.


Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
Blogger 2014

Hi Laura,

I am not a special education expert though I say give it a try. An accommodation you could make would be to write the questions large on poster paper or on the white board. Another accommodation might be to let students answer a question with a partner, and to provide the pair with sentence starters:
I think that ____________________
I also believe ____________ because _____________

Let us know how it goes!

Rebecca Alber

Mark Collard's picture
Mark Collard
Playful adventure educator, author, founder of playmeo.com

Great example of learner-driven learning, as distinguished from teacher-driven learning. Sure, there are times when a teacher should simply impart knowledge, but the most powerful strategy for life-long learning is to draw the learning from our students through a process of discovery. And these questions do that well.

A simpler version I use with my work as an adventure educator is the What? So What? Now What? series of questions:

1. What? Asking what type questions simply asks my students to observe what has happened. It gets them talking, and it's safe because no one has to apply any meaning or feelings yet.

2. So What? - this is where the conversation goes a little deeper, and facilitated by a series of 'what does this mean?' type questions, the students are able to draw learning from the experience, connected to their feelings and interpretation of the events.

3. Now What? - the final and most critical step in terms of causing a change (which is what education is about, right?) - asking a series of 'what are we going to do with this info' type questions. It's about applying this new found knowledge to something useful, relevant or topical.

For further conversation on this model, go to http://www.playmeo.com/how-to-run-a-debrief

Mark Collard - playmeo.com

KillionLaura's picture
Pre-Service Early Childhood and Special Education Major

[quote]Hi Laura,

I am not a special education expert though I say give it a try. An accommodation you could make would be to write the questions large on poster paper or on the white board. Another accommodation might be to let students answer a question with a partner, and to provide the pair with sentence starters:

I think that ____________________

I also believe ____________ because _____________


Let us know how it goes!


Rebecca Alber[/quote]

Thanks for the reply Rebecca ! I think that I am going to try using the sentence starter idea this week when I work one on one with a student struggling with reading. I am hoping that I will be able to get her to share her thoughts and help her come to her own conclusions as we read.

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music
Blogger 2014

To answer your question @Killion, these questions feel like manna from heaven on my brain. Ah... the clarity! I don't have learning disabilities, school was easy, but I'm ADHD. Ask me the wrong kind of questions and I'm all over the map. These listed questions are wonderful. I'm guessing they would work well for ADD individuals of all ages also.

To answer "what questions do you ask?"

Asking boys what they "think" and girls how the "feel about" opens the most doors in my experience. Precise wording can make all the difference. I have two sets of questions I use, different for males and females. This sweet trick also helped me raise two boys with very little grief.

I write songs for kids--all ages. Whichever student I'm writing my new song for is always included in the process. "Do you think the melody should could here or here?" "Do you like this word or is this other word better?"

Sooner or later, my students are brave enough to write their own songs. Questions do seem to open more creative doors than "here's how it is done."

Dr Mike's picture
Dr Mike
Christian Academy Administrator in Central Missouri

Q #4 -- Please! Try to avoid foolish questions that can be answered with a "Yes/No!" Teachers do not get the information that is wanted without asking another question. Also, it implies to the student that the teacher thinks perhaps he/she does not know. Instead, it would be so easy and proper to ask, "What more can you tell is about that?" I have been teaching inquiry seminars for 40 years, and it is so difficult to get educators to understand this.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

@Cathy Stakey - Thanks for linking to that poster. It is awesome. We actually didn't create it but having someone design a great poster like that for this blog is the best form of compliment you can get.

As you found out on Twitter, Lance Fuhrer, Assistant Principal for Curriculum & Instruction at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, IL, created this poster. More about Lance: lancefuhrer.weebly.com.

Link to the poster: https://twitter.com/shannonclark7/status/404336242625892354/photo/1/large.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Assistant Editor (Contractor) and Blogger
Blogger 2014


Rebecca...you're crazy good at synthesizing. Terrific post! - Todd

Andy XU RUNYUN's picture
From Shanghai, China. A volunteer in Walnut Valley Unified School District.

Sometimes, simplicity can be accepted. In my opinion, these five simple questions are rather effective to both faculties and students. Since we are educators, it will never be our duty to "interrogate" our students, we should ask useful and somewhat simple questions to teach them how to "reflect" on the knowledge which they have learned!

Melanie Eisen's picture
Melanie Eisen
Assistant director of professional development, YUSP

I have always had these questions posted in my classroom because a wonderful group of teachers teaching Every Day Counts, about 16 years ago taught me that this is how my students would learn. The more I asked the questions, the more my babies had to reflect on their knowledge, both prior and new knowledge. My babies were in Kinder- imagine how these questions could validate the thinking of all your students.

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