'Plan all my questions? You've got to be kidding me!' Planning effectively for Group Reading

Often I have observed teachers sweating profusely over a text trying to develop questions to match the Bloom's Taxonomy approach to ensure they are ticking open ended questions that develop the right comprehension skills. I have seen countless questions being built using this question stem or another that never even get asked. Many times this is the ask of the powers that be and as always teachers get bogged down with the pedantic pre-occupations of paper trail and auditing which is a burden that not only drains the fun out of the teach but distracts teachers from truly connecting with their young readers. Enough is enough!

What if I told you that in over three years of delivering reading sessions in small groups, I have never planned more than three questions? And, that I do not make sure I ask a zillion things in a session? In fact it is possible to teach a 30 minute session of deeper reading based on three questions alone that can stretch children's understanding beyond the surface of any text while on another occasion up to 15 different questions can be asked - all challenging yet effectively deepening comprehension. Comprehension is unique to the individual. In other words what one child may understand may be at opposite poles to another while in some instances thoughts may run in unison. Getting children to express these thoughts is the key to demonstrating what they understand and the art of questioning is about opening up the realms of discussion to in effect show what they know or monitor their comprehension.

It is important that teachers understand that their role in a group reading session is not to be a quiz master (although sometimes it is ever so tempting in my case when working with able children) but to be an enabler. In other words, as the enabler - think out loud while reading a text. Question the choice of words, the author's intent and challenge the parameters of the story line. By modelling questioning and answering , your questioning becomes more effective. Take for example this quote from Berlie Doherty's Street Child:

Barnie gives me that look, all quiet. “Just tell me your story.” My story! Well. I creep back to the fire for this. I hug my knees. I close my eyes, to shut out the way the flames dance about and the way his shadow and mine climb up and down the walls. I shut out the sound of the fire sniffing like a dog at a rat-hole. And I think I can hear someone talking, very softly. It’s a woman’s voice, talking to a child. I think she’s talking to me. “Mister,” I says, just whispering so’s I don’t chase the voice away. “Can I tell you about my ma?”

What questions come to mind as an intrinsic reader? Despite being the teacher, you naturally question a text as you seek your own understanding. You may ask what was 'that look'? Why was Barnie so keen on knowing Jim's story? Why did Jim hug his knees and go back to the fire before opening up to Barnie? Why is he trying to 'shut out' the flames and 'shut out' the sound of the fire? How can a fire 'sniff like a dog'? Who is the woman that Jim hears?

These are all questions that grow naturally from the mind of a reader and as a teacher you already have the enabled mind to see where questions will naturally arise. Use your role wisely and plan for these moments that will undoubtedly give rise to misconceptions in understanding. There really is no need to write these down. Sticky notes on key parts of the text is all you need as a prompt that this is a tricky piece of text. An essential part of group reading is reading aloud and enjoying the text as well as questioning to progress comprehension. I implore teachers to listen to their inner read and make it outer during sessions. Ask yourself these questions aloud and model how you discover the answer.

For example when asking 'Why did Jim hug his knees and go back to the fire before opening up to Barnie?' delve into the author's use of description by asking further questions to model comprehension discovery such as , 'Hmmm... when someone sits and hugs their knees, how do they feel inside? Oh I know! Nervous, possibly tense because they are curled up, like a ball and not relaxed at all. Why do people sit closer to a fireplace? Of course - he wants to feel the warmth! Could that mean Jim was seeking comfort?' (At this point seek affirmation from your students - in other words include the learners in your discovery so they walk the journey of comprehension with you and get them to explain why your thoughts make sense). Then finally - conclude your comprehension. What have you understood overall? That Jim was clearly uncomfortable with what he was about to reveal implying in his past there was a negative memory.

I take pleasure in being an 'on the ground' consultant - which means I walk with my colleagues and actively teach while train. It keeps me grounded and everyday I learn what stumps my most able readers. The pleasure is to 'unstump' them through leading questions to which you must already know the answer. So is it necessary to pre-read an entire text before teaching it? No and no! A chapter ahead is all I recommend. Why ruin the book for yourself by knowing way ahead everything about to happen? Why ruin your own Aha moments?? Enjoy the journey of comprehension and be prepared a chapter at a time. Note the higher level vocabulary on your plans you may want to embed but sticky notes work great for flagging texts with subtle deeper meaning you may wish to use in discussion, then make it flow - naturally along with your children as their misconceptions will lead your questioning. As they become more proficient in recognising thinking out loud through your enabling, give them the chance to question and answer themselves or each other. The enquiry is key to understanding not the everlasting lengthy plan!

Rant over.

Reading Rogue

Kala Williams is a Primary based Education Consultant specialising in the teaching of reading for able children who works across schools in Coventry, UK developing a rigorous approach for the teaching of group reading developed uniquely from years of successful practice while training professionals to deliver group reading using enriched teaching practices geared to move children to achieve Greater Depth in comprehension. Her company Bright I's is a fast growing consultancy born out of passion, research based approach and what actually works!