Questioning in the Classroom

In the past few years, we’ve seen increased emphasis on questioning in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to include questions in their lesson plans. Administrators evaluate strength of teaching through the lens of questioning. Many professional development sessions proclaim that increased questioning is the key to critical thinking and depth. Most research indicates, however, that as much as 80% of classroom questioning is based on lower-order, factual recall questions. How do we ensure that our questioning helps push student thinking?

Here are key points to consider when analyzing questioning in the classroom:

Purpose of Questions

When adding questions to a lesson plan, consider their purpose. Are you asking a question to gauge understanding? Are you asking a question to hook student interest? What is being achieved by asking a question at this point in the lesson? Once you’ve identified the purpose, look across a day in your classroom. Are you mostly asking one type of question? When are you asking the strongest questions? How can you strengthen your questioning across the school day?

Depth of Questions

Use a resource like Bloom’s Taxonomy to bring more complexity to your questions. If you’re mostly asking questions to gauge understanding, use the taxonomy to reexamine and reframe the types of questions you’re asking.

Open-Ended Questions

We also encourage you to ask open-ended questions that may not have one right answer. For example, asking your students “why might the character have done that?” instead of “why did..” will allow for more dialogue in your classroom and make room for multiple perspectives.

Anticipating Student Response

When writing questions in your lesson plans, anticipate possible student responses, both correct and incorrect. What kind of follow-up questions will you ask to further engage students? Include possible follow-up questions that span a range of levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

For support on deepening the level of questioning, see Writing Objectives Using Bloom’s Taxonomy from The Center for Teaching and Learning. This resource includes question stems for each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Jenny Koons

Questions/Comments? Email or leave a comment here.




LitLife’s Literacy Top Ten

In preparation for our company retreat this fall, the LitLife consulting team decided to reflect on our core values and beliefs around our work in literacy education.  One goal was to develop up-to-date consensus on what we feel is essential to a highly effective Language Arts Literacy program.

Through the magic of Google collaboration tools, everyone contributed and evaluated many ideas.  The results were compiled and presented at the retreat as a Top Ten list of non-negotiables for high-quality K to 12 literacy instruction.  We plan to use this list as a way to help clients understand at a glance what LitLife supports and as a guiding checklist on Discovery Days when we visit schools to gather data on how we might best support them.


LitLife’s Top 10 Tenets for Literacy Learning

  1. Teachers collaborate with each other on lesson planning and delivery

Teaching teams that meet regularly to learn, share ideas, troubleshoot and plan together get much better results across the board than teachers who teach in isolation from each other.  LitLife works with schools to build and support a culture of open, respectful professional collaboration.

  1. Classrooms have a supportive tone and environment

Students thrive in a setting where they feel valued and respected by their teachers and peers and where expectations are high that everyone can and will learn.  Rigorous standards for all are essential, and they are best met in a learning environment that conveys a consistent tone of kindness, respect, hope and joy.

  1. Teachers plan and facilitate student-centered instruction

In a student-centered classroom, young learners have the best opportunity to acquire lifelong literacy skills.  A student-centered classroom regularly shifts the focus from the teacher to the students.  This allows students ample opportunity to practice what readers and writers actually need to do in life such as: choosing what they read and write, conversing with each other, working collaboratively, asking questions, managing their time, solving real problems, and thinking critically.

  1. Assessments are purposeful, relevant, and results are used to drive instruction

Effective literacy teachers understand and value how data helps them plan and prioritize their teaching and evaluate their effectiveness. LitLife helps educators gather data, interpret results, plan targeted instruction, and eliminate assessments that are redundant or unnecessary.  Yes, in today’s text-centered environment, it can be challenging to strike a productive balance between assessment and instruction.  While assessment is important, we remind ourselves to focus most strongly on providing high-quality, engaging instruction and learning experiences for students because these are what lead to high achievement.

  1. Teachers read regularly to students

Reading aloud may be the most effective and efficient way to help students build a wide range of literacy skills within one activity.  As students listen, view and interact during a read aloud, they experience and absorb the sound of the genre and the structure of the text.  Being read to frees students to think deeply and build their comprehension “muscles” in a low-pressure environment.  Students acquire high-level and content-specific vocabulary and language structures that increase their capacity to read, speak and write on their own.  Students of all ages enjoy and benefit from this incredibly powerful practice.

  1. Students engage in accountable independent reading on a regular basis

Like learning a sport, learning to read requires coaching and practice.  Students need regular opportunities in school to independently read texts that match their interests, purposes, and reading level for extended time periods.  This gives them a change to actively try out the skills and strategies their teacher teaches them, build their attention span, and to just enjoy reading.  Unlike in unstructured “free reading,” teachers assign a specific focus for reading related to the daily lesson and hold students accountable for sharing the results of their reading work.  They also check in regularly with students to gauge progress and coach them.

  1. Teachers utilize a whole-small-whole model of instruction that promotes independence

Strong literacy teachers employ an apprenticeship model that parallels how people learn any new skill—an expert models a skill, coaches the learner and gradually gives the learner independence to try the skill on their own.  A literacy lesson begins with the teacher leading the WHOLE class.  The teacher models something that expert readers or writers do for her students providing guidance and coaching until she is confident they are ready to try it independently.  Next, the class works in SMALL groups or individually to practice the teaching objective on their own.  The teacher continues to coach and guide. This time helps to ensure students become independent and will be more likely to use their new skills on their own in real contexts.  Finally, the class reconvenes as a WHOLE group to reflect and share what they learned during the independent practice time.

  1. Students have direct access to a wide variety of texts for independent reading

Having lots of texts to choose and use helps students find plenty of reading material to suit and expand their interests and satisfy their learning needs.  These texts should be easy to access and readily available for students to borrow and use.  This helps students achieve the most important thing growing readers can do: read a lot!  Reading material may include books but also should include digital and online texts, magazines, info-graphics, visual and audio texts, reference materials, and functional texts (manuals, menus, guidebooks, etc.).

  1. Students write independently on a regular basis

Just like reading, students become better writers by writing, lots of writing.  (See #5 and apply points made there to writing.)

  1. Teachers provide explicit instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening and language skills and strategies.

While several of the previous tenets focused on the importance of student choice and practice, we cannot understate the importance of the role of the teacher.  Literacy learners need explicit instruction in the skills of literate individuals.  As the literacy expert in the classroom, a teacher provides daily “how-to” oriented lessons on objectives chosen to help students meet their grade level expectations and individual learning goals. This is the foundation of successful literacy instruction.

— Carolyn Greenberg

Questions/Comments? Email Carolyn Greenberg is an experienced literacy consultant, teacher, and school administrator and is LitLife’s National Director of Content and Operations.

Take a Virtual Field Trip with these 10 Apps and Online Resources

Finding the time and resources for on-the-ground field trips can be a challenge.  Here are ten terrific apps and websites that can help students explore museums, artifacts, and information from anywhere:

  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (online search tool)
  2. Power of Poison Exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (companion app)
  3. Gettysburg Battle App (virtual battlefield tour)
  4. Museums of the World (app with access to multiple museum exhibits)
  5. The Getty Museum (artifact exploration)
  6. Smithsonian Museums and Zoos (location search)
  7. Timeline: Art Museum (timeline app with artwork)
  8. Shadow Puppet EDU (search museum archives and create slideshows)
  9. Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Faking It (art exploration app)
  10. MOMA Art Lab (creation and exploration app)

Here are two other lists of resources to explore:

— Monica Burns

Questions/Comments? Contact Monica Burns –
For more tech tips, visit Monica’s website:

Facilitating Discourse for English Learners

Discourse, the language teachers and students use to communicate, might appear new due to its rise in popularity in professional development, the Common Core State Standards pertaining to Listening and Speaking, and its inclusion in quality reviews (in NYC, it is Quality Review indicator 1.2b and c).

However, discourse has been studied since before the 1930s and there are several key points to consider when facilitating discourse for all students, especially for students who are acquiring a new language alongside learning new content, such as English Learners.

Discourse: Student or Teacher?

Discourse not only involves the questions that teachers ask, but also our students’ response. By limiting discourse to input, which is characterized by student listening, we are not leveraging the power of conversations as informal word learning opportunities (Blachowicz and Fisher, 2006).

Unfortunately, studies such as the 2003 National Center For Education Statistics study on classroom talk showed that most of the talking is done by teachers.

This example shows limited discourse.

Initiation Teacher initiates talk
Response ONE student responds
Evaluation Teacher evaluates the response

Clearly, most of the thinking is done by teachers. So, here are a couple of ideas to scaffold discourse.

Simultaneity: Everyone participates. When learning new words or directions, leverage the power of simultaneity. Simultaneity is simple and engaging and it simply means that every student is involved in repeating directions, new words, or sharing new ideas. When I use simultaneity, students are eager to add their voice to the collective sound. I share simple rules: 1. We all talk. 2. We stop when I clap. 3. We are quiet because it makes us sound in tune, like when yelling at a pep rally and taking turns yelling part of a chant.

Procedures: You have probably heard of the 10:2 rule, that for every 10 minutes of teacher talk, students should talk for at least 2 minutes. I actually believe that we can increase student talk beyond that ration. When I go over a procedure chart, such as how to pick a right book, I have students TELL me their ideas. I still want to guide them to what I believe is the most beneficial response, so I have students share their ideas to each in pairs and then select their best collective idea and share it with the class. This simple task involves evaluative thinking, students have to judge their own ideas (metacognition). Once we created our chart, we take turns teaching each other.

The University of Montreal (2015)  recently added more research verifying this language learning strategy: repeating to others boosts our verbal memory when done in the context of a conversation. So when we have class rules and procedures, have students take turns teaching those rules to each other. When the class is becoming rowdy, have students create an anchor chart in groups that reviews the rules and then invite them to teach the class. This strategy can be done with content as well.

Pronunciation: As an English Learner myself, I had to often take time to listen intently to others pronounce words so I could try to emulate their speech. I had to do this even in high school. In m Advanced Placement English class, I had to pay meticulous attention as to how to pronounce our vocabulary word ‘macabre’. This was before I could go to and listen to its pronounciation.

Our students need a safe zone to mispronounce words, to learn that mistakes are part of the learning process. This helps build their growth mindset. When teaching my students my last name, Mrs. Perot, I often use simultaneity by having them pronounce my name in unison. I often hear students pronounce “Perot” as “Peru”. Before having them talk to each other in a conversation while using my name to boost verbal memory, I have them practice saying “Perot” a couple of times together, giving them anonymity within the whole classrooms’ simultaneous pronunciation. This technique helps the shyest student practice in the anonymity of whole class instruction before small group discourse groups.

Sentence Frames and Sentence Starters help students learn and internalize syntax. Sentence frame provide more syntactic support as opposed to sentence starters, offering us, teachers the opportunity to differentiate our instruction to our English Learners, who are a heterogenous group of students.

I recommend starting the year with sentence frames and sentence starters for almost all classroom discourse, including how to ask to go to the restroom. This approach helps us treat all students as scholars and set our expectation of using complete sentence when speaking, such as: Mrs. _____ may I please go to the _____. Before setting the expectation of speaking in full sentences, I used to have students say: “I need to go” or “restroom”.

Entering/ Beginning English Learners

Provide more syntactic support to ensure accurate response and so students acquire sentence structure.

Example: Sentence Response Frame with options

 My best friend __verb +s  ______ to school _____how often?________.

                       walks                    every morning

                       rides her bike         sometimes

                       gets a ride          on Fridays

Intermediate/Advanced English Learners

build foundation for various types of writing:

    • personal narrative (I remember…)
    • fictional narrative (I imagine…)
    • informational writing (I observe…)
    • questioning (I wonder…)


Blachowicz., C. and P.J. Fisher. 2006. Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 2003. Highlights from the TIMSS 1999 video study of eighth-grade mathematics teaching. Retrieved March 26, 2006, from

University of Montreal. (2015, October 6). Repeating aloud to another person boosts recall. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 8, 2015 from

— Ilce Perot

Questions/Comments? Email:

First Reading and Writing Units (with a special invitation inside..)

For many school districts, the beginning of September brings many challenges such as classroom setup, learning new students, and the inevitablethe truncated first few weeks.

There a few basic things all teachers want to accomplish like setting up routines, but most struggle with what topics or content should come first. If teachers are hesitant of starting a full unit because of holidays and schedules, providing an opportunity to teach students independence and how to make good book choices is a viable option.

Based on work from Pam Allyn and Jaime Margolies, here some ways to bridge writing and reading during the first month of school.


As we thinking about investing students in independent reading, we can begin the process by showcasing stories that emote feelings like happiness or bringing people together. After a read aloud, model where you keep your books and how you protect and care for the book. You can begin teaching of routines through whole class, independent, and partner reading. Depending on the age group and experience of students, you can track and monitor the amount of independent reading timepossibly increasing independent reading by increments of 5 or 10 every few days. A great investment strategy is invite guests from the community to talk about how books have influenced their goals or careers. Next, teach students the importance of quiet voicesmodel a read aloud using a one-inch voices.

During this time, students would practice sharing with a partner how words or phrases make them feel, begin touring the classroom library, and creating goals sheets on ways they would like to expand as readers.

As students begin to read more independently, model active reading strategies like how to sharing ideas with partners, rereading, and annotating. Other skills that can be taught are what to do when you finish a book and turn and talk.

Ultimately, we want to celebrate and knowledge the achievements of our students as often as we can. Provide dedicated time for students to reflect on their reading goals  and shout out students for their reading achievements or growth.

Reading Unit Goals:

  • Works well with partner to share reading
  • Identifies reading goals
  • Makes reading selection on their own


Have student generate a combination of webbing or life maps think about their lives and topics that interest them. Use these lists to show the  connection between your students lives and popular central ideas in literacy. Building this connection will excite and help clarify why their stories and lives are important. At this time, let students free-write based on what they have learned about central idea. Students should be exposed to different types of writing that shows how writers write about their unique passions. These should be used a mentor texts for students as they begin to develop writing folders.

Decide on which text type you would like your students to begin their writinginformational, narrative, or argument. If narrative is chosen, lessons about sequencing (exposition, setting, rising action, climax, resolution) are key to ensure the stories are developed.

We recommend showing the purpose for writing folders through examples of drafts ad finished pieces. Select a small writing task that will serve as a baseline for the beginning-of-the-year sample. Routines around partner talk will be reinforced in writing and teachers can start to modeling procedures for student-peer revising.

Similar to the reading section, you want to save time for students to be able to showcase their work either through gallery walks or students who select to read their writing samples. Another consideration is to break the class into small reading circles and trade stories to share.
Writing Unit Goals:

  • Writes for sustained periods of time
  • Generates ideas and topics independently
  • Understands how to manage writing folder

Taking the time at the beginning of the year to build community and investment in reading and writing will prove to have positive benefits in your classroom.

If you’d like more information on best practices in teaching reading and writing, or want to collaborate with other literacy professionals, attend the Rockland Literacy Professional Conference on October 24th! It’s sure to be an informative, productive and inspiring day.

Questions/Comments? Email

Determining Text Complexity

You’ve combed through your library. You’ve done your research. Finally, you have texts that will help push forward your unit concepts and be of high-interest to your students.

Now what?

Determining how to break open the wonderful world contained in a book can be a daunting task. Your book is full of many great lessons, literary features and ideas that you want to expose to your students. This easy-to-follow guide will give you several ways to break down a text so you can deliver the most meaningful instruction possible to your students.

There are three main ways of looking at text complexity. The quantitative, qualitative and reader and task considerations all determine how useful and appropriate a book or text is for your unit objectives. This post will focus on qualitative measures, as these seemingly ambiguous factors are often the most useful in determining what aspects of the text to teach and how.

There are four aspects that make up the qualitative measures of text complexity. Meaning and Purpose, Structure, Language and Knowledge Demands all must be considered when determining what parts of the text to teach to students and how to break down your lessons to ensure a full understanding of the book or text at hand.

  1.          Meaning/Purpose

The first thing to consider when determining how to access and teach a book is the layers of meaning present in a fiction text, or the author’s purpose in a non-fiction text. Determining if the author’s message is straightforward or obscured is the first consideration, as otherwise students wouldn’t access the essence of the text. If meaning or purpose might hold students back, consider delivering a few lessons around breaking down hints at the author’s meaning throughout the text so students can fully access the rich ideas found within the text.

  1.            Structure

                    Structure refers to the author’s craft moves of layout, timeline and information. If a story follows a straightforward, chronological order there wouldn’t be a need to have a teaching point or lesson around the structure. However, if a story jumps forward and backward in time, this structure would typically need to be previewed for readers. Similarly, if a non-fiction text has simple headings and subheadings that are easy to follow, your readers can likely access the text. However, if the non-fiction text has many footnotes or diagrams that contain information not found in the main text, you would likely direct your readers attention to these differences in structure.

  1.            Language

Determining vocabulary words and accessibility can sometimes feel overwhelming. How to choose from all the awesome, rigorous words in your properly-leveled text? Pay attention here to language that impedes meaning as well as Tier 2 vocabulary words. If a reader can figure out a complex word based on context clues, allow the reader to do this. If there is a complex word that isn’t easily defined by context clues, but also isn’t a useful word for students to know, consider defining it in the moment. The remaining meaty words are the words to choose from for vocabulary activities and lessons.

  1.            Knowledge Demands

Knowledge demands refer to the prior knowledge a reader would need to access the text. Sometimes, the inclination is to give background information on all aspects of the text. However, you must ask yourself: can my students glean this information without my telling them or setting them up? If the book provides enough details about the culture or topic that it’s about, or the information isn’t essential to the central idea of the text, there isn’t a need to conduct lessons around that topic. However, if there are cultural elements in a fiction text or content specific concepts in a non-fiction text that the text does not explain, consider devising a lesson or two around the knowledge demands of the text.

In the era of the Common Core, we are choosing rigorous, meaty texts for our students to dive into. This breakdown of text complexity will help ensure that our students are getting the most out of each text they encounter, and that we are teaching with purpose and meaning in mind. The below question bank is taken from our curriculum guide, Be Core Ready by Pam Allyn. It details questions you can ask yourself to determine the measures of text complexity. 


Contact: – I will always get back to you!

– – Talia Kovacs

Levels of Meaning / Author’s Purpose


  • What are the levels of meaning in this story?
  • What themes or lessons exist in this story?
  • Are the levels of meaning simple, or do they require some deeper analysis to access?


  • What is the purpose of this piece?
  • Is the purpose obvious to the reader or is it hard to figure out why it was written?
  • Who is the intended audience for this piece?



  • What is the structure of the story?
  • Is the story told in a simple, chronological format?
  • Does this story use a more complex structure such as non sequential storytelling or take liberties with manipulating time?


  • Is the information presented simply, without regard to specific formats unique to certain disciplines?
  • Is the information presented according to the complex structures of specific disciplines?
  • Is the structure common to the subgenre of informational text it represents?
  • Are multiple structures included?
  • Are the graphics easy to access or do they require more complex knowledge?

Language Conventions and Clarity

  • Is the language in the piece casual and easy to understand?
  • Is the language in the piece more academic or professional in nature?
  • Is the vocabulary in the piece complex or simple?
  • Is the language in the piece more literal, or are there heavy doses of figurative language?
  • Is the language in the piece modern or archaic?

Knowledge Demands

  • What tasks are required for interacting with and fully comprehending the text? Are they straightforward or do they require more analytical thinking?
  • Does the text assume a high level of cultural knowledge?
  • Does the text assume a high level of literary knowledge?
  • Does the text assume a high level of content knowledge?
  • Is the text rooted in common, everyday experience or does it rely on fantasy or imagination?

Three Strategies to Increase Engagement

Student engagement is a key indicator of the planning and thoughtfulness a teacher puts into the classroom. With the demands of teaching, it can be difficult to reflect and change our practices to increase student engagement and participation. Focusing on engagement gives students more opportunities to express their academic opinions and ideas. Once we have the attention of students, we can truly execute great lessons in a warm and positive environment.

According to research from Yazzie-Mintz, two out of three high school students report boredom at least every day in a class; only 2% are never bored in class. These numbers aren’t shocking, but provide an opportunity for teachers to actively plan out engagement in their classrooms.

We have provided three strategies that teachers should use as they revise or create lesson plans. These skills can be used throughout the lesson and are great practices from all ages of students.

Three Strategies for Engagement
1. Cold Call

Arguably, one of the oldest techniques and most commonly known, but the “cold call” is often used incorrectly. In order to effectively use cold calling, students must have your trust. Additionally, it can not be used as a classroom management technique. Students who are off-task should not be called on to respond to text or questions. This creates a message that sharing or speaking is punitive. Instead, use it to increase anticipation by pausing after posing a question. The opposite of cold call is pre-call where students alerted that they are going to be called on next or have time to gather their answer. Often used for differentiation or students with delayed processing issues.

2. Right is Right

This strategy is about pushing students towards the complete answer. As teachers, we often respond to partially correct answers from students and we add details to make it completely correct. In holding out for accurate answers, we set high academic parameters. A simple way to execute this is by asking students to repeat an answer with the appropriate academic language which expands comfort and vocabulary.

Phrases to use:

“I like the majority of that…”  

“Expand on that thought…”

“Chris, you’re 90% correct. Can you make your answer 100%?”

“That’s a great answer, but I want to know the next step.”

3. Call and Response

Call and Response is an efficient way to make sure students participate and recall key information in class. There are several variations that can help students achieve. Student are more likely to remember when an answer is repeated. If an individual child gives an answer, it is a good practice for the whole-class to repeat it. Call and Response can be great for review as well.  For instance, “Who is the main character in Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Call it out on three. One..two…three…” This practice is great after independent practice as well. Read out questions or problems from the in-class assignment and have the whole class answer. “The main idea in the short story is…All together on two.”

A combination of these strategies will definitely help increase retention and behavioral control in your classroom. Remember, these strategies can often be pre-planned in your lessons!

What are some strategies you use to ensure student engagement?

Questions/Comments? Write below or email We will always get back to you within a week.