Are you asking the right questions?
By Darren J. Butler (c) 2023
ARE YOU ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS?
The second step in my RIP close reading strategy is “Interpret.” The word “interpret” prompts us to ask questions about what we’ve read so far.
I advocate for students to read passages in smaller chunks. If they follow the “read” step to the letter, the brain is more likely to remember where important information is in the overall passage. Think of it like the GPS on your phone. You can drop a pin on a location you want to go back to. When a student close reads with expression, observes the punctuation, and makes the reading process “active,” the brain will automatically drop pins to remember the location of stand out details.
This is where the “interpret” step fails if you don’t complete the “read” step properly. Several years ago, I was asked to come into a high school and help a group of thirty-eight high school seniors who couldn’t pass the state’s graduation exam. They had two shots left to pass, or they wouldn’t graduate in May. I was apprehensive and a little anxious. I felt lots of pressure to help these students, and at the same time, I wasn’t even sure they wanted to be helped. And then, I met them. They were an incredible group of young people that had dreams and aspirations of college, careers, and so on. But, they were stuck in this dilemma. I am a problem solver, so I set out to diagnose the problem. Why couldn’t they pass the reading section on their graduation exam?
It boiled down to this — close reading. They were reading the text quickly and with zero expression. By the time they finished the passage, they had very little knowledge of what they had read and no understanding of subtext. To find details, they had to start over reading the passage again and again and again… That was the first class.
In my second class with them, I implemented the RIP close reading strategy. I broke the cycle of reading from beginning to end and made them break up the passage into smaller chunks. I coached them to read with expression. Everyone moved their lips whether they were reading aloud or in their minds. I made them observe the punctuation - especially the periods. The first question after the passage asked something deeper, something hidden in the words using subtext. “Who knows the answer?” Every single hand went into the air. They looked around at each other in surprise and excitement. One student said, “Wow. That hasn’t happened before.”
Of course it hadn’t. You can’t answer questions if you don’t understand what you’ve read.
In step two - “interpret,” I instruct students to ask the simple “who, what, when, where, why, how” questions. I sometimes call them “reporter” questions. There is surface level, basic information in what we read, and in text-dependent writing, the questions will ask you a few of those. But - what about deeper meaning? What about subtext and inference?
We must teach our students how to ask powerful questions that dig deeper into the meaning of the words. For instance, did the author use a metaphor, a simile or another literacy device to get a point across. Here is an example:
Abbie walked down the sidewalk with a frown on her face, dragging her feet all the way home.
Question: As Abbie is walking home, what is her mood? How do you know? Explain.
On a surface level, we see the word “frown” and that can tell us Abbie is sad, angry, or just generally unhappy. That’s fine. But, the phrase, “dragging her feet all the way home” gives us more information, doesn’t it? It tells us that perhaps she has had a bad day. There are many ways a student could answer this question, but “Abbie was sad.” isn’t enough. A student should’t receive full points for that. They have to express a bigger picture of the moment in the text. “In the passage, the author describes Abbie’s mood by using the phrase ‘dragging her feet all the way home’ to show that she may have had a bad day, and this is why she is frowning.” This response shows that the reader truly interpreted the text and has a deeper understanding of how Abbie is feeling and why she feels that way.
Teaching our students to ask questions is a key element in the close reading process. People will say, “Oh…all of that takes too much time.” No it doesn’t. I’ve clocked it many, many times with students of all ages. By using this strategy, students SAVE time. Why? It saves times because they understand what they read the first time, and they don’t have to read the same words over and over again trying to understand them. As they ask questions while they read, the brain continues mapping where vital information is located in the text. By the time they reach the follow-up questions, they know exactly where the answer is located in the text.
By the way - all thirty-eight students passed the graduation exam that year. One student said it perfectly when I asked her how she did, “Mr. Butler, I RIP’ed it like you told me to, and I passed. I passed, Mr. Butler. I get to graduate.”
Darren’s RIP strategy is featured in Weekly Writer under the section “RIP & WRITE.” The platform features one fiction and three non-fiction grade appropriate passages every four lesson. These activities are a great way to practice close reading comprehension in preparation for state based assessments.