George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Reframing Questions for Student Comprehension

November 15, 2016 Updated November 14, 2016

I recently conducted a quiz with my middle school students. It was a simple fill-in-the-blank, open-note quiz designed to check understanding and (mostly) to ensure students were taking accurate notes for a particular unit. I expected stellar grades, but was shocked by the number of low scores.

While grading the quizzes, I noticed that the students who performed poorly did not struggle with the content – they struggled with the questions. For instance, when I asked “Thomas Paine wrote the influential book: ________________________” many students raised their hands and asked what information I was actually asking for. They couldn’t interpret the question. So, I looked through the other questions and noticed that the questions that most students struggled with were the ones where I deviated from the traditional, straight-forward “What is the name of…” style.

Clearly I needed to stop what we were doing and take some time to introduce students to the array of assessment vocabulary words and terms they were going to face in the years to come.

Test Action Verbs

There are many test-taking action verbs out there that students don’t encounter regularly in life and, therefore, don’t really understand. So, when they do see them on an assessment, they have no idea what is expected of them. Here are some examples:

  • Analyze
  • Discuss
  • Evaluate
  • Interpret
  • Justify
  • List
  • Outline
  • State

The meanings are clear to us – we’ve seen and used these words for years. But, for most students, the meanings are a mystery and can make the simplest of questions a mind-boggling maze. It is not a bad idea to review the meanings and usage of these verbs to ensure students understand precisely what you, and their future teachers, are looking for.

One way to help students understand assessment verbs is to simply put them out there for students to see during the assessment. You could include a list of verbs and their definitions in your tests for students to refer to. Or, you could create large anchor charts and post them around your room. Some people might see such charts as a crutch. I prefer to think of them as keys to better unlock my content – which, in my case, is U.S. History.

The Switch Glitch

Beyond understanding the meaning of assessment verbs, other concerns for language learners include the switching of a word from the form of a verb to a noun, or the switching from one tense to another.

“Define the following words…” versus “What is the definition of the following words…”

“Locate Washington D.C. on this map…” versus “Find the location of Washington D.C. on this map...”

“List the causes of the Civil War…” versus “Provide a list of causes of the Civil War…”

Some language learners may struggle with these kinds of switches, even though they may fully understand the meaning of the root word. Whenever possible, I pause lessons when a word pops up that might cause some confusion based on a new tense or other change in usage.

Question Style

There are many ways to ask for information. Students are familiar with the basic question structure, but when you mix things up a little, confusion can abound.

Here is an example of a straight-forward question:

What is the name of the influential book written by Thomas Paine?

Students get this question. It has a question mark. It has one of those question words at the start. It’s a complete (interrogative) sentence. But, if you flip the words around or play around with the style and suddenly students can get a little uncertain:

  • Name the influential book by Thomas Paine: _____________________
  • The influential book by Thomas Paine: __________________________
  • ______________________, the book by Thomas Paine, influenced many people in the 13 Colonies.
  • The book, ___________________, was an influential book written by Thomas Paine.
  • Thomas Paine wrote the influential book:_______________________.

It might be necessary to introduce your students to the various ways we can switch words around without changing meaning. One way I do this is by writing a very basic question on the board and then challenging students to come up with a variety of ways to solicit the same information.

Just a head’s up that students in your class will scoff at the idea that anyone could be confused by the original version of the question I put above. And they will easily suggest many different ways to ask for the same information. But that doesn’t mean that everyone in your class actually gets the concept – especially during the heat of a test, when stakes are high and anxiety is higher.

Language Objectives vs. Content Objectives

My wife, Kristi Leitch, is an elementary English Language Learner Specialist. When I told her about this post, she gave me a document based on Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model by Jana Echevarria, MaryEllen Vogt and Deborah J. Short. The SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) strategy argues that all teachers, regardless of their content area, are also language teachers. Students cannot succeed in any content area if they do not understand what they need to do. So, teachers in all areas should include both content objectives and language objectives in their lessons. In this way, students “will learn and/or demonstrate their mastery of the lesson by reading, speaking, writing, or listening.”

The SIOP model suggests that teachers divide their verbs into these two categories. The Verbs for Content Objectives connect to the following broad areas:

  • Knowledge (list, identify)
  • Comprehension (recall, reproduce)
  • Application (predict, compare)
  • Synthesis (build a model, combine)
  • Evaluation (choose, recommend)

The Verbs for Language Objectives, on the other hand, connect to broader domains:

  • Listening (tell, listen)
  • Speaking (name, discuss)
  • Reading (preview, read aloud)
  • Writing (list, record)
  • Vocabulary Development (define isolated words, define words in context)

What’s nice about this separating out of language goals is the universality. If students can master these broad language verbs, they are more likely to find success in a wider array of content areas throughout their academic career.

The WIDA Can Do Descriptors

WIDA (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment), an organization that promotes academic language objectives for the benefit of both educators and ELL students, classified academic language along four lines, called Key Uses, that are based upon the purpose of the communication:

  • Recount
  • Explain
  • Argue
  • Discuss

Within each of these Key Uses, WIDA identified the following achievement levels:

  1. Entering
  2. Emerging
  3. Developing
  4. Expanding
  5. Bridging
  6. Reading

WIDA has created a Can Do Descriptor rubric that can help any teacher, language specialists and otherwise, pinpoint exactly what level their language learning students are operating in, within particular communication purpose domains. Imagine how much easier it will be to “differentiate curriculum, instruction, and assessments designed in English” with that kind of information. You can check out the descriptors and the rubric in more detail at

Language plays such a huge role in the classroom. For teachers, language is central to delivering learning content to students, communicating expectations, creating assessments, and delivering feedback. And for students, in order for them to succeed in our classrooms, students need to be able to recognize, understand and work with all of the information we use in the above processes. We need to appreciate the significant role of language and ensure our students understand the language we commonly use –especially test vocabulary and various question styles. And, to achieve this goal, we need to make sure our lessons feature both language objectives, as well as content objectives.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. You can contact me through

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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