Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Matt on Comprehension

Matt Balaban

Blog post for July 7, 2015

During our jigsaw conversations today about comprehension, I was struck by an intriguing theme that seemed to come up more than once: not answering questions.  Indeed, inquiry is a tool that provides among the most meaningful and rewarding educational pursuits, but how to respond to inquiry, as a teacher, is a topic worth visiting.  After all, a question might be thought of as only half a coin, the response being the other half.  I’m intentionally using the word “response” rather than “answer”, because there doesn’t seem to be any room for growth with an answer, but a response…I guess it could be anything.  And that’s what came up today.  In order to foster the most meaningful comprehension, how do we, as teachers, respond to questions?

One way could be responding with another question.  This could be a method that intentionally redirects the train of thought in a productive way, maybe such as responding with “Do you see any context clues?” if a student asks about the meaning of a word.  Or maybe “Do you remember what we mentioned about [blank] in the previous paragraph?”  Something like that.  Moreover, responding with a question seems to provide the opportunity to continue exploring new questions that wouldn’t have otherwise been thought of.  Maybe as a response, a question could take the form of something like “Can you think of a similar question that involves [blank]?”

Another way to respond to a question without exposing an immediate answer is to solicit responses from classmates.  “Who thinks they have an idea about how to answer that?” for example.  This seems like a good tactic to get more people involved and get more ideas flowing.  In my mind, whatever keeps the discussion alive seems to be the best choice.  A straightforward answer, while satisfying, seems like it could cut things short.

My favorite way to respond is exemplified in the Close Reading article from today, where the teacher is explaining a possible thought process to understand the meaning of the word “revile” from a sentence about waiting in a checkout line.  Simply asking about what the word “revile” means prompts so much if we’re willing to delve in.  Notice what the teacher responds with:

I don’t want to get stuck on the word reviled, so I need to think a bit more about it. I see that it has    -vile inside of it, so I think it’s something bad because I know the word vile is like “disgusting” or “gross.” Re- is “again,” but I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense to think that this is “gross again.” I’ll reread the sentence. The author says that it would be even more frustrating if there wasn’t some technology advances in the grocery store line. So I am thinking about the lines I have waited in, and I’m thinking that, yes, they were frustrating and that maybe that word means “bothersome.” I also noticed that some of you circled bottleneck or tally. Can you talk with your peers to see if you can unpack the meaning of those words, even if you didn’t circle them? 
I love this.  It’s unbridled thought, and simply exposing it seems like a suitable technique to build similar strategies for students, sort of like a model.  It goes through morphology thinking, and is honest about how that doesn’t seem to provide the most fruitful perspective to get where we want to be in this case.  It brings in past authentic experience outside the classroom to provide insight that gets us to the next step.  It appeals to the context of the sentence and ends with another question about other words that could serve as clues, and ends with a question that prompts more discussion and interaction.  

It seems that responding in these ways much of the time is actually the opposite of simply answering.  The goal is to guide students to create valuable answers themselves rather than have an answer be placed in front of them.  This seems like a recipe for more personal ownership of the content, skill-building that can be applied in the future, and more discussion and questions to follow.  I guess the value of a question is just as valuable as how it’s responded to. 


  1. Matt, this is an incredibly insightful post. I am glad you have clearly defined answering versus responding. You are right to say that an answer cuts the conversation short. In fact, none might occur at all. The type of responses and questions you gave as examples can occur in all classes, even in a math class where the focus tends to be on answers.

    On another note, I am glad that you appreciated the explicit thinking the teacher modeled for her students. I am hoping to share a video with you tomorrow that I think is brilliant regarding a think aloud. I am really interested in what you think. If you want to watch it sooner it was listed on today's blog page (Day 4).

  2. Open-ended questions pose the most challenging and interesting, as they demand attention to some kind of thought process, which leads us to ask further questions. I like how you mention, "the goal is to guide students create valuable answers themselves rather than have an answer be placed in front of them." While this can sometimes cause frustration (not having an answer) it is an important goal of learning: to seek, and make meaning of. Enjoyed reading your reflection.

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  4. Your post on comprehension is an interesting one. First of all, one of the things that caught my attention is the way you put the fact that teachers should respond and not answer inquiry questions. Perhaps I have always believed this myself but never really explained it this way. If as teachers we are to answer our students, I think that learned is killed so to speak. Comprehension is absolutely promoted when students can be guided to make conclusions rather than being given the conclusions. Responding to students by asking questions as you well put it can open other discussions that hadn’t originally been brought up. Well, yes, but, most importantly, the student’s original questions will be answered which probably at the time is what they are mostly interested in. As teacher, I think we should be careful when asking other students “Who thinks they have an idea about how to answer that?” We will for sure be encouraging discussion with the whole class but is it not the same situation if the answer to the question is given by a student and not by the teacher? Thanks for your post Matt!

  5. From Nate......I like to read when you write because I can hear your voice coming through the text. I have to say that I am a big fan of using Socratic questioning (or answering all questions with questions) as a tool in class. Forcing students to think about the answers to their own questions or having to justify their thinking can open parts of the brain that students often don’t use. Almost like being the devil’s advocate or the inner conscience , this style of teaching is really effective in offering multiple perspectives without having to directly say it to the student. They have a feeling of accomplishment when they can come to an understanding through their own discovery. I remember the first time I read Plato’s Republic and I saw the first chapter where Plato tells a story of Socrates speaking with a young student in this method. I didn’t know what Socratic questioning was before I read this. I remember after I read it, I just felt ‘this is stupid, it was just a trick. Socrates is acting like he is so smart but the student is the one who explained everything’. Later, I realized what had happened in that passage and I was really impressed. I recommend all teacher employ this method whenever possible, the results bring a lot of satisfaction to the teacher. That being said, the questions you use, and the way in which you use them is important. The goal is to guide the student but not give him the answers directly. If the teacher asks an unrelated question or a superficial one, it can ruin the method by distracting the student from their train of thought.