Reading strategies: Ask questions from your text

Nora Nagy

What are the most practical reading strategies you can share with your students? We asked ourselves this question and came up with 8 different approaches which we will share with you throughout the year. Reading in a foreign language is both fun and challenging. Students discover new worlds through a new language, and not only does this experience make them feel good, but it also gives them access to new territories. However, reading in a foreign language also poses challenges: these new words often open up new areas of knowledge, and there’s a new logic in the sentences, paragraphs, genres, and narrative structures. In this series, we share some tips you can adapt and use with your students. 

In our second post, we focus on QUESTIONS. 

Asking your way into, and through, a text is the foundation of critical reading, interpretation, and reflection practices. Although we might not always verbalize our questions while reading a novel, a poem or an article, we still create a silent dialogue with the text. We often have different levels and modes of engagement with different types of texts, depending on our reading purpose. Let’s look at some questions our students can focus on when reading both non-fiction and fiction. 

Reading non-fiction texts

We often read articles, interviews, and studies for work or school or out of personal interest. Our reading purpose may be different from text to text, so we will need to adjust our questions accordingly. 

One of the first things to ask when we approach a non-fiction text concerns the text type or genre we are reading. Once we understand the genre, we can create clear expectations (which can be discussed in class) about the tone, structure, and content of the text. Here are some questions to start off with.

Some initial questions about the text:

  • Who is the author?
  • What was his/her purpose in writing the text? (e.g. argument, sharing insights, changing people’s opinion, recounting a series of events, informing the readers)
  • Where was the text published (a journal, a book or maybe an academic website)? 
  • Is this a reliable publication? 

If our purpose is general understanding and revision, we might ask the following questions:

  • What are the most relevant pieces of information?
  • What details do I need to understand?

If we have more specific reasons, for example, exam preparation or having to write a summary, we can ask:

  • What sort of questions might be asked about this text?
  • What questions have been asked in previous exams? 
  • What are the readers of my summary interested in?

If we really want to learn something and prepare for a presentation or test based on the text, we can ask:

  • Which are the most relevant sections for my presentation?
  • Does this text help the development of my point of view/argument?
  • Can I use this text as evidence in an argument? 
  • Can I use this text to dispute the views of others?

We can also focus on the language of the text:

  • What is the style of the text?
  • Are there any technical terms or specific expressions which are interesting/unknown to me?
  • Have I read anything in a similar style before this?

Reading fiction

When we read fiction on the other hand, it is usually for pleasure or because we are interested in a certain era, event, or person. Even when we have to read a novel as part of our course, we are generally encouraged to enjoy the experience. For this reason, reading fiction is less like an academic reading adventure. However, it is always a good idea to give directions to students so that they have access points into the text and they feel supported in evaluating it.

Similarly to non-fiction, recognising the genre is also an important step before reading fiction. The reader can decide whether s/he wants to know (or not) background information on the author. We might want to focus on the narrative without concentrating too much on the author. Or we can decide to find out more about when and why the text was written and learn about its author. These are two very different approaches to reading, and both can have benefits.

Some of the most general questions concern the setting, the characters and the plot:

  • When is the story set? What do I know about that era?
  • Where do the events take place? What do I know about that location?
  • Who are the main characters? What is significant about them?
  • What are the main events in the story? 
  • Are any parts of the story based on real events or facts?

Encourage students to write down questions they have as they read. Here are some model questions:

  • What has happened so far? / What is the background to this?
  • Why are certain characters behaving the way they do?
  • How are the characters related to each other? 
  • Why do certain characters say certain things? What do we learn about them from their word choices?

In general, it is a good idea for students to focus on the parts of a narrative which are unclear or confusing because that way they can start asking questions that will help them with comprehension. 

Apart from concentrating on the details of the plot, setting and characters, it is also important to encourage them to recognize their own personal response to the text and then to interpret it. Here are some questions to guide students through this process:

  • How does this text/scene/dialogue make you feel?
  • How do you think you would behave if you were in that situation?
  • Who is your most and least favourite character?
  • Does this text remind you of anything in your life or previous reading experiences?

Then, you can move on to contextualizing the text. This step needs lots of guidance and scaffolding (and simplification) for younger learners.

  • What social issues are addressed in the text? For example, how are outsiders, women, minorities treated? 
  • How are social differences approached in the text?
  • What philosophical questions does the text address? For example, does the text say anything about what is good or bad from an ethical perspective?
  • You can also discuss the psychological aspects of the story. For example, what does the text say about happiness, anger, love or jealousy?
  • What is the author's point of view?

To sum up, we recommend finding your own questions around a text, choosing any of the main categories listed above. However, we find it important that first you contextualize the text by sharing cultural and historical knowledge about its setting and discussing the genre of the text. Then, you can move inside the text, first to analyze its plot, characters and setting and linguistic choices either by focusing on a short part or the whole text. When you have carried out such close reading, you can move away from the text again and talk about the students’ personal responses and interpretation of the text based on a perspective mentioned above.