Helping Students Develop the Ability to Ask Good Questions

April 2013 • Sue Jackson

In last month's tip, we examined the characteristics of good inquiry questions. This month's tip provides suggestions to ensure that students are able to ask their own critical inquiry question. Our focus is: How do I help students develop the ability to ask good questions?

In inquiry-based classrooms, the ultimate aim is for students to pose their own powerful questions shaped by background knowledge, curiosity, and wonder about the world. However, young children and those new to inquiry often require teacher guidance in framing a good question or problem.

Begin by fostering an environment where students feel free to wonder and engage in 'wonder talk'. In her book, A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, Georgia Heard provides many ideas on creating a 'wonder world' where students' questions are featured and explored through whole-group and centre experiences. Heard uses the idea of 'Heart Wonders' versus 'Research Wonders' to introduce students to various types of questions.

Different Kinds of Wonders
Heart Wonders
Research Wonders
- questions you can answer with your heart and mind
- What makes a best friend a best friend?
- questions that you can look up in books, magazines, on the computer, or by observing
- What goes on under an ant pile?

With older students, spend time teaching different types of questions to demonstrate that questions have different purposes and are not created equally. The following chart might be helpful when outlining the kinds of questions and their various purposes.

Kinds of Questions
Factual Retrieval Personal Preference Critical Inquiry
Fact Questions Imagine Questions Interpretive questions
- have only one correct answer
- provide an understanding of the details of a topic
- good for 'mini-inquiries'
- ask for some kind of opinion, belief or point of view- no wrong answers
- good for leading discussions
- rarely make for good inquiry-based projects because internally focused
- have more than one answer but must be supported with evidence - effective for starting class discussions and for stimulating oral and written tasks - good for inquiry-based learning

Using key question words to construct questions helps to show students how questions move from simple 'yes/no' questions (less powerful) to 'why' and 'what if' questions (more powerful) that stimulate more reflective thinking and more creative responses.

Chart showing a range of less powerful questions to more powerful questions. In order from less to more they are: Yes/no, Which, Who, When, Where, What, How, Why, and What if.

Provide many opportunities for students to practice creating and responding to various types of questions. Focus students' efforts on important issues related to school, community, or the world.

Once students have developed a basic understanding of types of questions, guide them to their 'true' questions, the things they really care about, using the 'Asking Questions Activity'. This activity can be used at any grade level to refine questions for inquiry-based learning.

Asking Questions Activity

  1. Model how to find things that you might like to investigate by brainstorming questions that you are interested in.
  2. Explain that we carry around two main kinds of big questions- questions about ourselves and questions about the world. Questions can focus on: a problem we want to solve, a practical job we may need help with, or a topic we are interested in and want to learn more about.
  3. On a chart like the one below, record your questions in both categories. Ensure that your topics are authentic and represent things you are genuinely curious about but also think about things that might be kid-friendly. Be sure to list many different topics, not just a few so that students understand that there are no 'correct' topics.
    Self and World Questions
    - Should I get another pet?
    - Where is the best place for a sun-destination vacation?
    - What services are available for my aging mother to keep her active, healthy, and social?
    - How can I help my community become a more prosperous place?
    - What can I do about global warming?
    - Why should I care about the economic situation in Europe?
  4. Provide students with recipe cards and ask them to list self and world questions.
  5. Next create groups of 4 or 5 and have students share and discuss all of their topics.
  6. Comment on the number of topics each group discussed and then ask about common topics or overlaps. List similar topics for World and Self questions on the board or chart paper.
  7. Ask students to write down the two topics or questions that they are the most curious about.
  8. Explain to students that they are going to have a 'Topic Party' where they will mingle with others and discuss their topics. Provide about 10 minutes for the 'Topic Party'.
  9. Bring the class together and ask for the most common topics heard during the 'Topic Party'. List these on the board or chart paper.
  10. Distribute recipe cards to students and have them list in order their top three choices from among the ones listed on the board.
  11. Collect the cards and in front of students form groups who have the same basic interest or question, or closely related questions, to work together on an inquiry project.
Adapted from Harvey and Daniels, Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009, pp. 247-254

Heard, Georgia and McDonough (2009). A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. Stenhouse Publishers.