By Cheryl Sandora and Sara DeMartino

Institute for Learning

Comprehension work is an essential piece of any text-based task. If students don’t get the gist of the text or grasp an author’s ideas, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to do deeper analytic and interpretive work. It is especially important for emerging readers and emergent multi-lingual (EML) students to be able to access the big ideas of a text while building their comprehension muscles.

In previous articles, we’ve advocated for the use of student-facing task sheets or landing pages and student-centered routines to scaffold students’ reading and writing around complex texts and tasks. Now we’ll introduce you to one method of scaffolding a comprehension task around a complex text—Questioning the Author.

Scaffolding text comprehension means that teachers work with students to break complex texts down into segments, allowing students to pause and respond to queries and ask questions that help them make sense of new information and connect it to earlier parts of the text. Scaffolding does not remove the heavy lifting for students; they should always be expected to explain their thoughts on the text, and to include text-based evidence that supports their responses to high-level comprehension questions. 

Questioning the Author (QtA) is a discussion-based approach to studying complex texts, developed by Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown. It begins with a teacher guiding students through a reading of the text and includes planned stopping points where students respond to specific queries or questions.

The approach is designed to keep students focused on the content of the text without removing the rigor of the work. It helps them build a mental model of how experienced readers engage with complex texts by encouraging them to pause when they need to take stock of what they read and noting where new information connects to what was read previously.

Student responses are public during QtA lessons; they share their thinking in pairs or trios and in whole group discussion. Students are encouraged to respond to their peers when they agree and disagree about what is been said. Making student’s thinking public allows them to grapple with rich content together, working to clarify misunderstandings early in the reading of a text. QtA offers opportunities for teachers to address words that are critical to understanding the text in the moment, using student friendly definitions and highlighting cognates.

Questioning the Author as a Scaffold for Emergent Multi-Lingual Learners Comprehension

QtA provides EML students with opportunities to process English language texts in small chunks, discuss vocabulary in context, and to hear and practice their use of English. EML students benefit from the in-context vocabulary instruction that can happen through QtA.

While initial QtA lessons are facilitated by the teacher, the responsibility of leading discussions is gradually released to students. This shift in facilitation happens after students have participated in several QtA discussions modeled by the teacher.

As the responsibility of leading the QtA discussions shifts to students, students work in small groups and with the whole group to read portions of the text aloud and pose questions to their peers using a pre-designed lesson guide. Students work together to move the discussion forward by asking follow-up questions and facilitating the meaning-making. Students take notes as they follow along and then work from those notes to respond to a high-level, open-ended, text-based comprehension question.

We are sharing a sample QtA lesson plan for “Abuela Invents the Zero” by Judith Ortiz Coffer. As you review the QtA lesson, you’ll notice the text is segmented in a way that stops the reader when new information is learned about the characters, where important events may shift the course of the story, and where new information is learned that adds on to what students have already discussed in the short story.

Are you interested in trying QtA with your middle grades students? Try out the linked QtA lesson for “Abuela Invents the Zero” by Judith Ortiz Coffer. 

Each query is open-ended, allowing students to process the text and explain what they know, rather than being overly directive and keeping them focused on discrete ideas or facts. This lesson uses follow-up queries to help students target important information that may have been missed in response to the initiating query for each segment.

As you move through the lesson, you’ll notice that queries begin to build on each other, helping students to process the text as a whole. We encourage you to study the QtA lesson with your peers to consider how you might use QtA with your students as you work with engaging and complex texts.

If you are interested in learning more about QtA, please check out Robust Reading Comprehension with Questioning the Author: 15 Years Smarter by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Cheryl Sandora.

The IFL would like to congratulate Isabel Beck on being awarded the Pitt Education 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award!