Common Core Lesson Plans: Crafting Great Text-Dependent Questions for your students

This post was written by Posie Wood, LearnZillion’s Director of Professional Learning and Community.

Common Core Lesson Plans, Text Dependent Questions, Common Core

This blog post outlines steps you can take to write powerful text-dependent questions.

Text-dependent questions are one of the cornerstones of close reading. You can see them in action in our close reading lessons, each of which model asking and answering a text-dependent question. But crafting questions that are text-specific, that help your students understand the text more deeply, and that create opportunities for them to master the Common Core ELA standards is challenging and takes practice.

But first things first. What are text-dependent questions?

Text-dependent questions are questions that can only be answered by referring to the text itself. They do not necessitate outside experiences or background knowledge to be answered but they do require students to use evidence from the text to support their answers. But more than that, text-dependent questions are written in carefully sequenced sets with the goal of shepherding students towards a deep understanding of the text. Along the way, text-dependent questions should focus students’ attention on the challenging sections of the text, ideas or moments that warrant more time and exploration, major craft moves, and critical vocabulary words. For more on text-dependent questions, check out Student Achievement Partners’ text-dependent questions guide.

Here are a 6 steps you can take to craft text-dependent questions on your own:

1. Understand your text

Before you dive into writing questions, your first step is to make sure that you understand the major ideas or themes in your selected text. We’ve found it’s important to actually put this into writing to help crystalize the big takeaways that you want to make sure students get from the text. You should also identify key vocabulary words, significant craft moves, and sections of the text that are challenging or worthy of further study. Check out this post on how to analyze and understand your text in preparation for close reading.

2. List your questions (all of them)

By now, you’ve spent a lot of time with the text and are ready to start writing questions. We like to start by simply generating a long list of questions. Initially don’t worry too much about getting the exact wording or perfect number of questions. Rather, focus on capturing your ideas.

3. Answer your questions

Crafting a text-dependent question alone is not enough. Knowing what constitutes high quality response to that question is equally important, but too often, we see teachers skip this critical step. Why does it matter? Frequently, answering your own question will unveil additional layers of meaning in the text or new levels of purpose behind the author’s craft. And forcing yourself to write the answer may reveal that the ideas you really want students to explore are in fact different from, or not addressed by, the original question you wrote. As you answer your questions and get more clarity around what you actually want to ask, you should begin to revise and refine your questions.

Answering your text-dependent questions is also important because it allows you to fully experience responding to the question and will give you a window into what you’ll need to teach. As you write your answer to the question, track your own metacognition by asking yourself, “What are my students going to have to know and be able to do in order to answer this?”

4. Align and revise your questions to the ELA Common Core Standards

Next, it’s time to compare your questions and responses to the Common Core Standards for ELA to determine which standard(s) they address. See our earlier blog post on analyzing the Common Core ELA standards here. As you complete this alignment, you may see that certain questions need to be tweaked in order to really meet the standards for your grade level. You might also notice that some of your questions are too sophisticated or too simple for your grade. That’s okay. While these questions may not make the final cut, you’ll want to hold onto them in order to provide extension and scaffolding to students in the future. Make sure that your list of questions covers a range of standards and includes questions that both focus on specific parts of the text as well as consider the text as a whole.

5. Sequence and narrow your list of text-dependent questions

Great text-dependent questions come in thoughtfully sequenced sets that guide a student through the text and build from simple to complex. The best way to start sequencing your questions is to identify the one or two questions that unlock the text’s big ideas, themes, or takeaways. These should address the culminating understandings you want to make sure students come away with. Next, backwards map your questions from these ending points, cutting a clear pathway of understanding from basic levels of meaning to the abstract subtleties of the text.

6. Evaluate your text-dependent questions 

Once you have your sequenced list of questions, it’s time to do a final review to make sure your questions are text-dependent and high-quality. We use Student Achievement Partners’ Checklist of Evaluating Question Quality for this step. While it’s great practice to review your own questions, it’s even better if you can swap with a colleague to get an extra set of eyes and additional feedback on your work.

Though challenging, writing worthwhile text-dependent questions is a lot of fun and, once you start using them to help your students access complex texts hugely rewarding. To see interlocking text-specific questions in action, check out LearnZillion’s close reading lesson built from the Common Core standards in your grade.