Friday, July 19, 2013

Question Types, and why I don't like QAR

I learned about QAR first through a colleague.  Then, I taught a series of lessons using the QAR framework to help students understand question types.  It came up in my Reading program a few times, and I read an article and some of Taffy Raphael's book about the subject.  So, I don't think I'm "dumb" about QAR.  Yet, when teaching it for the first time, I couldn't help but get the four question types mixed up.  And if I was doing it, you can believe that my students were doing it.  In my frustration, I asked myself, "Do they really need to know the differences among so many different question types?  Is this worth the teaching and re-teaching that it takes to clarify all of these differences?"

I think the answer is no.

Briefly, in QAR, there are four question types:
  1. In the book, "Right there" questions - These are questions that you can point to in the text.  They are factual, short-answer questions.
  2. In the book, "Think and Search" questions - These questions require connecting separate parts of text, making inferences across texts, or otherwise require more "searching" than "Right There" questions.
  3. In my head, "On My Own" questions - These questions are prior knowledge, what you know before you read questions.
  4. In my head, "Author and Me" questions - These questions connect what you already know to the author, or to bigger things (?).
I have a hard time explaining this because it doesn't feel logically consistent for me.  I don't think the distinction works or makes sense.  You are reading the book - you can't make connections without referring to the text and yourself.  The whole "Author and Me" question type makes no sense.  How do you connect without talking about the text?  When I explain this to students, I feel forced to make such incomprehensible statements as, "With Author and Me, you're talking about the text in general, not specifically, like you are in Right There and Think and Search."  But what about inferential questions about a character?  Is that Think and Search, or Author and Me if you are making broader inferences based on connections to other characters or real people?  It doesn't feel like it holds water to me.  

I don't like these fuzzy and artificial distinctions, but I like teaching the difference between "right there" and other question types.  I want my students to recognize and employ the difference.  So, the next step for me was teaching the difference between fact-based and more idea-based or more "out there" question types.  I tried teaching students to recognize fact-based questions, just as a general test-taking and comprehension strategy.  The problem with that approach was the fuzziness of the "out there," non-factual questions.  There are just too many things that fall under that umbrella, some of which are useful, and some of which are not.  

Enter the three question types.  I don't remember where I found this idea, but I think one of the clearest articulations of it comes from Tompkins.  Here's a passage from her book, Language Arts:
Questions can be divided into three levels: literal, inferential, and critical.  Literal or "on the page" questions have a single factual answer and can usually be answered with a few words or "yes" or "no."  When the questions refer to a story or other book that students are reading, the answers are directly stated in the text.  The second level of questions is inferential or "between the lines."  To answer these questions, students synthesize information and form interpretations using both their background knowledge and clues in the text.  The answers are implicitly stated in the text.  The third, most complex level of questioning is critical or "beyond the page."  These questions are open-ended.  They require students to go beyond the text and think creatively and abstractly about global ideas, issues, and concerns.  At this level, students apply information, make connections, evaluate and value the text, and express opinions.  (p. 349)
I think these three question levels do everything that distinctions among question types should.  There are clear and important differences among all three question types, and understanding the differences is much easier and much more valuable.  I want students to be able to answer factual questions, but I also want them to see these as less valuable than either of the other two.  And I would like them to be using the third question type to be thinking about how they can use what they read, or how adults use what they read.  

This three-level question framework also more easily lends itself to analogy and graphic organizers.  I've seen some good tree organizers - factual questions are the roots, inferential questions are the trunk and branches, and critical questions are the leaves.  

Let me try some examples with my old standby, Harry Potter:

Literal - What are the names of Harry's parents?

Inferential - Why is Hogwarts the only school of magic in Great Britain?

Critical - What message does the series try to support about discrimination and prejudice?

I think this approach is much more useful and much clearer for students, and I think it also establishes a clear hierarchy of complexity and difficulty.  I think we want students to work toward critical questions, and I think teaching them this framework helps them see that as a useful goal.  


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