Achieve the Core has published an excellent “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions for Close Analytic Reading,” urging teachers to focus on identifying, evaluating, and creating text dependent questions as a first step toward implementing the Common Core Standards. The authors rightly extol the importance of using text dependent questions to develop students’ abilities to read closely and, by high school, to “cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.”
Achieve the Core’s guide defines a text dependent question as one that “can only be answered by referring explicitly back to the text being read. It does not rely on any particular background information extraneous to the text nor depend on students having other experiences or knowledge; instead it privileges the text itself and what students can extract from what is before them.”
Given the emphasis in the Common Core, however, on text analysis, close reading, and developing students’ abilities to ask and answer questions about text, our question is:
Do All Text Dependent Questions Demand Analysis?
Imagine a 9th grade class reading Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” As a text dependent question, a teacher might ask, “Why does the narrator kill the old man?” To answer this question, a student can easily turn to the second paragraph of the story and read:
“I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.”
This student could respond that the narrator kills the old man because of his strange vulture eye and deliver an answer that is based on evidence drawn from the text.
This question, although text dependent, does not engage the student’s analytic skills. It simply draws on the student’s ability to recall information and provide a factual answer to a text dependent question. There are many classrooms where both the teacher and student would walk away from the interaction perfectly satisfied. However, the Common Core State Standards ask us to do something more rigorous. The Common Core consistently makes rigorous demands for teaching students to justify, reason coherently, and support analysis using text evidence.
A better text dependent question for the teacher to ask would be, “Why does the narrator insist that he is not a madman?” With this text dependent question, the reader is forced to scour the text in search of a plausible interpretation. The fact is (no pun intended) that the text never explicitly states why the narrator makes this claim. Rather than skimming for a quote that explicitly states an answer, students must employ critical thinking skills to break down the text in order to construct an analysis that can be supported using text evidence. Students, for example, could draw upon the number of times that the narrator iterates that he is “smart” or “clever” and thus must not be “mad.” A student might offer the following evidence in response to our text dependent question: “The narrator insists that he is not mad because he is wise. The narrator says,
- ‘Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded.’
- ‘Ha! Would a madman have been so wise as this?’
For our second question, students must still refer explicitly back to the text to find evidence in support of their answers, as they did in the first example. In other words, the question “Why does the narrator insist that he is not a madman?” is a text dependent question, and teachers should not “allow” purely speculative answers that draw upon background information extraneous to the text. This text dependent question goes beyond asking students to find explicit evidence in text, however, and meets the analytic demands of the Common Core.
In this example, students are required to use analysis and critical thinking skills to develop and defend their answers, filling in the blanks regarding why their reading of the specific text evidence supports a particular answer. Simply pointing to citations in the text is thus insufficient, as these quotations alone do not directly answer the question. Unpacking how these citations are interpreted is the key to making it analytic.
This text dependent question has necessitated text dependent analysis!