Planning Text Dependent Questions

Embedded within the Common Core’s instructional shifts for literacy, which focus educators on building coherent knowledge, demanding text evidence, and working with sufficiently complex texts, is an emphasis on close reading and text-dependent questions. So what are text-dependent questions, and how can teachers develop them?

What are Text-Dependent Questions?

Text-dependent questions direct students’ inquiry into the text, rather than outside of it, and can only be answered with evidence from the text. Text-dependent questions can be used to check students’ understanding, but a strong text-dependent question does not invite students merely to participate in a scavenger hunt. That is to say, text-dependent questions are not low-level, nor do they prompt students to produce literal or recall answers.  A strong text-dependent question should invite students to interpret theme, analyze syntax and text structure, support students’ understanding of vocabulary, and analyze the effects of specific word choice.

Start with a High-Quality Text

To explore text-dependent questions, we use Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” which is a text suitable for the 9-10 grade band of text complexity.

The process of developing text-dependent questions begins with reading the text and [Step 1] identifying the central ideas and core understandings that you want your students to develop. In this case, “The Story of an Hour” presents marriage as potentially repressive, limiting to a woman’s self-assertion and freedom, and core understandings relate to the text’s theme, tone, and irony.

With central ideas and core understandings identified, [Step 2] begin planning your summative assessment, as your questions will scaffold students’ inquiry into the text. A high-quality summative assessment will involve writing and should allow students individually to demonstrate mastery of one or more of the standards.

Next, [Step 3] target vocabulary and text structure. We have published a vocabulary list for “The Story of an Hour” on Visual Thesaurus. This short text contains thirty nine “Tier 2″ words that might be unfamiliar to students; rather than see dense vocabulary as a deterrent to reading the text with a class, text-dependent questions will specifically target words that might otherwise be a barrier to their comprehension. As a last step in planning text-dependent questions, [Step 4] identify what makes the text difficult. “The Story of an Hour” is a difficult text because its central message hinges on the reader picking up on the author’s tone, which is ironic. Additionally, that tone is revealed through imagery and symbolism rather than a more straightforward means.

For “The Story of an Hour,” we have developed approximately thirty text-dependent questions which support close reading of this short text over four or more days, examples of which follow:

  • Assess Vocabulary (Denotation & Connotation): “But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come…” What is a procession? What other words do you associate with procession?
  • Analyze Semantic Choices: How would the meaning of this sentence change if the author had chosen “line of years” instead of the word “procession”?
  • Analyze Syntax: The story says Mrs. Mallard “had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not.” What is the effect of including the word “sometimes” at the end of this sentence?
  • Analyze Text Structure: Why does the author introduce Mrs. Mallard’s first name more than 2/3 into the story?
  • Analyze Theme: What is the “crime” that Mrs. Mallard perceives in her “brief moment of illumination”? What is the effect of describing this as an epiphany?

With text-dependent questions articulated, the next step in planning is to group questions [Step 5] to structure coherent instruction. Rather than present them randomly, teachers can sequence text-dependent questions to help students gradually unfold their understanding and perform rigorous analysis, learning to stay focused inside of the text to construct meaning.

Any good instructional planning begins and ends with standards. Before finalizing the summative assessment, [Step 6] step back to review the standards being addressed in the series of text-dependent questions to determine if any other standards should become a focus for the text. Important tip: When you are working with text-dependent questions to establish rigorous classroom discourse and providing students with routine writing tasks to support comprehension and analysis, you are activating most of the standards for Reading, Writing, and Speaking & Listening most of the time.

Last, but not least, [Step 7] finalize your summative assessment, ensuring that the culminating activity fully aligns with the text-dependent questions and focus standards that you have identified.

Non Text-Dependent Questions

It is also useful to look at a series of non-text-dependent questions, all gleaned from available study guides:

Non Text-Dependent Questions What’s Wrong with This Question?
“The Story of an Hour” is considered an important work of feminist fiction. What important changes in women’s roles have happened from the 19th Century to today. This is an evaluative question which drives students outside of the text, constructing their answers based upon historical research as well as their own values and beliefs.
Discuss what society expected of the typical nineteenth-century American woman. This is a research question and does not require students to have read the story at all.
Have you ever felt guilty for getting some benefit or happiness from the misfortune of another person? This question takes students entirely outside of the text; answers rely exclusively on personal experience. This is, however, a potentially good hook question to invest students in reading the text.
Would you recommend this story to a friend? Why or why not? This is an evaluative question and does not contribute to students’ analysis of the text.
Do you find the characters likeable? Would you want to meet the characters? This question takes students entirely outside of the text and does not contribute to their analysis of the text.
Did the author, Kate Chopin, face problems similar to those of Mrs. Mallard? This question is biographical; the answer is not supported by text evidence.
How do you think Mr. Mallard would feel if he knew what his wife felt? This is a speculative question and cannot be answered using text evidence.

The simple but important distinction we can see here is that text-dependent questions focus students to think to analytically about the text itself, highlighting and probing various pieces of text evidence that might be useful in developing an understanding – and ultimately a claim – about a particular text. Non text-dependent questions, on the other hand, allow students to speculate about questions for which there may be no substantial text evidence or draw them entirely outside of the text. Questions that draw students outside, rather than into, a text are unlikely either to require students to have read the text or to reinforce their comprehension of it.

About Julie

I am an experienced, results-oriented education reform leader who designs educational programs and rigorous curriculum materials and establishes strategic vision to address complex problems and perceived barriers to school performance.
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