This post is a part our Colony Educators series, written by Rob Ficiur. Rob Ficiur has taught in colony schools in Alberta for over a quarter-century. In his tenure, he’s attended many conferences in addition to contributing to various newsletters and publications. Learn more about Lesson Planning & Colony Resources here.
Why would I try this again?
A few years earlier, I had given the junior high students the task of writing basic novel study questions that would be used by the class. But I quickly realized that student-written questions meant more work me than just writing the questions myself would. It would have been easier to create the questions myself rather than erase, modify, and rewrite the student-created questions.
So why do it all again? Because when I provided more structure, more routine, and more direct follow up, my students created top-notch novel studies. In doing so, they experienced the stories at a much deeper level than was previously possible.
Here are the routines, procedures, and tips I learned as we went through this journey:
- All student writers need direction. Asking them to create novel study questions is a different skill. When I let them lose to write basic recall questions, I set the students up for a bad experience. (Which led to my negative experience having to edit their work.) At the end of this article is a one page question writers’ guide “Writing Who Was Questions” that I used to provide more structure to my students. As we implemented these structures, students created more effective questions.
- Student Writers need feedback. This time, my students knew that my feedback was part of the question writing process. Early on in the process, I looked at their questions and added suggestions for what more could be done. The more I followed up, the more exact their questions were. When I followed up consistently, we ended up with questions that were ready to use.
- Finding the right resource is half the work. There are many student-friendly resources out there, and the principles I’m relating in this article can be applied to any resource. From my perspective, however, the Who Was? book series is the best out there.
- The Who Was? library consists of over a hundred one-hundred page novels. Most of the books are biographies of key people in world history, including Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Roald Dahl, and Babe Ruth. In my article “Resources that Work: The Who Was? Series,” I go into great detail about why the variety of topics in this resource makes it an excellent addition to any school library.
- For prospective novel study writers, the variety of topics allows students to choose a topic they’re interested in.
- The structure of all the Who Was? novels is similar from book to book. This allows the teacher to set up guidelines that will work for all the novel studies being created. Because students are familiar with the basic template of the resource, they begin writing novel study questions with a degree of a familiarity with the text materials.
- The reading level is just right. The content is easy enough for Grade 4 students to work independently (Grade 3 students usually need a bit of help). Vocabulary and content are student friendly, allowing for more student-friendly questions.
Writing Who Was Questions: Guidelines for Students
Writing effective questions takes time. It often takes a veteran teacher 30 to 60 minutes to write eight to ten recall questions for a Language Arts story. For me, I then usually have to go back and change a few things once the students try to do the questions. Every year when we re-use questions I wrote before, we find one or two things to fine-tune.
Since writing questions is challenging, take the time to do it properly. (If chapters come in with weak, ineffective, or unclear questions, you’ll have to rewrite them; it’s easier to do it right the first time.)
The following ideas will make it easier for you to write more effective questions:
- In a 40-minute Language Arts class, you should expect to create questions for at least one chapter and not more than two chapters. If you’re going slower than that, you may not be using the time properly. If you’re getting more than that done, you’re likely going too fast.
- Before you begin writing questions, read the entire chapter. Decide what four items are the most important in the chapter. Go back and write questions based on those topics.
- Be clear with your questions. “How was John in this chapter?” is an unclear question. What are you asking? The following question is a bit better: “How did John feel because his family kept moving from place to place?” It might be even more effective to use two simple questions to make up one chapter question: “Where did John’s family move to? Why was this hard for John?”
- A short follow-up question helps clarify what’s expected: Why? Explain? How come? Add direction for the students who are answering the question.
- Write the answers to the questions in the “answer key” section. Make sure the answer can be found in the book. The purpose of this assignment is for students to find the information they need in the Who Was story. (For other assignments, you might want to use a dictionary or other outside sources, but our Who Was questions should be self-contained.)
- For each question, write down the number of marks available.
- In your answer key, make sure you’ve listed the number of marks. For the sake of simplicity, you may use point form.
- Review and correct students’ written questions. Writing questions is a different skill than answering them. A student writer can expect to edit their original questions at least five times in the creation process. Even when the teacher has experience writing novel study questions, there’s a need to edit and clarify.
- Remember that writing questions is hard work. Originally, writing Who Was? questions was strictly a junior high writing assignment. But when Grades 4-6 students were asking to write, I determined that they should do their own novel studies. Once student have answered a minimum number of Who Was? questions, they can venture off into writing questions themselves.
- A general goal is to have three to four basic recall questions for chapter of the books. Higher-level questions are great, but that’s a different assignment. The Who Was? novel studies are designed to help engage the students in the subjects of the books. At the end of their novel study, there will be higher-level questions that will allow them to apply the information they’ve learned. (At the end of this article, I’ve included book review questions about Mother Teresa. Each of my book review sections contain similarly worded questions).
- Most of our novel studies are written on paper, not with a computer. The following pages are the simple templates we use. And here are some tips we’ve learned along the way:
- Insist on neat writing.
- Have students use pens that will photocopy easily. Pencil and some colours of pens don’t photocopy clearly.
- Have students write the answer key as they write the questions.
- Aim for about four questions for most chapters. About once or twice for each novel, I insist on adding more questions.
- Write down the number of marks available for each question.