The Concept Question Board Part 2: Questions

While the first step, Part One: Soliciting Artifacts may not be easy at first, it can be a piece of cake compared to soliciting meaningful questions from students about the unit theme. This month I hope to provide some assistance on how to elicit meaningful higher level thinking questions from your students.

1. Activate Prior Knowledge (and add a little new knowledge)

You can’t go in to class and ask a question like, “So does anyone have any good questions about Machines in Our Garden today?” and expect to get many meaningful responses. I know, I’ve tried it.

You need to collect visuals, realia, and multimedia for each of your unit openers. I check the web site before starting each new unit to find what I can use from there. I like showing short films or powerpoints whenever possible. By providing something for students to see or touch they can more easily generate authentic questions.

This is true for units that have more challenging themes like “Mystery to Medicine” but equally true for seemingly simple units like “Animals.” Even though students know a lot about dinosaurs, before the “Fossils” unit I showed students a clip of Walking with Dinosaurs and asked them to write down questions as they watched. The quality of their questions was far better because they had had a virtual experience with dinosaurs from which to draw from.

3. Adding questions to the board

Questions about the unit will arise naturally through your discussions of unit selections and concepts. I used to have a hard time getting students to write down these questions because I felt it would interrupt the flow of our conversation. What I do now is record questions that come up on post-its if I feel it’s going to interrupt our conversation or if the questioner is not able to write it himself (as in the lower grades).

Immediately following handing off discussions is a good time to have students write questions, as well as during Independent Work Time. If you are able to show a short film or provide additional realia at an inquiry center for students, this will help them to write additional questions without much prompting from you.

3. Keep It Real

You want questions to be authentic, that is about things students really want to know about. So if a students asks a question that they really don’t care about or they already know the answer to, you don’t have to accept it, particularly later on in the course of a unit.

I hate questions like “What is Sharing Stories?” “Who tells stories?” and I try to refocus these questions by thinking aloud and asking a student if he’s ever wondered who wrote the story of Little Red? Why there are so many wolves in folktales? Why the good guys usually win? etc….

If all your questions are simplistic and meaningless (and they might be at the beginning of your unit) this is a good assessment tool for you; if students are connecting to and learning about a theme in some meaningful way then there questions should reflect that. If students are not understanding your theme, this may be painful but then your challenge is to find a way to make the unit more meaningful.

4. Questions should be about the unit, not a particular story or artifact (plan ahead)

This is a difficult hurdle for some teachers to get over. The way around this is through planning. You need to decide what each theme means to you and what you want to teach related to it. The teacher’s manual makes several suggestions, choose one of those or decide on your own.

For our Courage unit my focus has been that heroes are not people who don’t get scared but people who get past their fear to accomplish great things. So when students ask why Molly is scared in Molly the Brave and Me when she is supposedly so brave, I refocus the question by saying, “Hmm, I wonder if people who seem really brave might get scared sometimes? Is that what you’re wondering?” Our study of famous Americans then lends itself as an answer to the question when students thing about Jackie Robinson or John F. Kennedy and whether or not they were ever scared in their lives.

Planning out your unit concepts helps you seize upon it for the concept question board when it comes up as well as facilitate handing off discussions. You also need to allow students to add to or change the theme.

5. IWT and the CQ Board

Many teachers complain that it’s difficult to get students to use the Concept Question Board during IWT. I have certainly experienced this myself. My best advice is to stop IWT five minutes early and take a look at the CQ Board as a class. If you make a big deal about new additions and clarify confusing questions/questions, it helps to stimulate new material. When I forget to do this, I do find that because of the lack of accountability, students do not often make their best contributions. I also use this review time to remind students to add question marks when necessary and fix no excuse word mistakes.

6. Answering Questions (and Concepts)

You want students to answer some of the questions on the board and not just leave them there until the next unit. If someone happens to answer a question that I know is on the CQ Board in the middle of one of our discussions I might have them go over and answer it but most of this work is done during IWT. Not all of the questions will get answered and that’s okay but if none of them are answered, what are students learning? When students answer a question, I have them attach their answer and then move both the question and answer to the concept side. But we don’t stop there.

I teach students to review not only questions for answers but concepts as well. Similar to community edited encyclopedias (wikipedias) on the internet, inaccurate information on the concept side should be spotted and weeded out by clever concept question board hunters. Even if questions are already answered, students can add additional comments to them or correct incorrect information. The board is more of a living and breathing entity if all parts of it are being examined and reexamined at all times. For research based units, students can cite sources on answers to questions.

This is our Concept Question Board

Please use this blog as our online concept question board and post your questions and concepts below on your use of the CQ Board.


Open Court powerpoints, films, and unit opener ideas

Concept Question Board Page

© 2007 by Mathew Needleman, Open Court Resources

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4 Responses to “The Concept Question Board Part 2: Questions”

  1. Ms. Madison Says:

    I am a teacher with 23 years experience. I have done Open Court since its
    inception. Your site is wonderful and really keeps the series alive and

    Again thank you and you go Mathew! I am proud to know that you are an LAUSD

  2. Creating Lifelong Learners » Blog Archive » The Concept Question Board: Part 1 Says:

    […] Go to Part Two: Questions… […]

  3. Ms. C. Perez Says:

    There’s no mention of first grade concept/question board. There’s no example of the first unit with pictures about Let’s Read, except for a sentence framed example of the 5 W’s. In first grade the students of my community don’t know how to ask questions. They are absorbing the poetry read to them, but they are not worried about questions or if they don’t understand them. Our lit coach doesn’t help much, but let’s us know that responding to the poetry isn’t the concept/question board. Our community experiences poetry in first grade for the first time, so they’re learning to be good listeners for the first time. how can you get help for the first grade level? And help first grade with unit 1 poetry concept/question board? thanks for allowing the reply.

  4. Mathew Says:

    @Ms. Perez,

    I only have pictures when people have submitted them. As soon as they’re sent in I’ll gladly put them online. Everything I wrote above applies to first grade as well (I taught first grade for three years).

    I would disagree that first graders don’t know how to ask questions. By first grade, all students have gone through a stage of asking tons of questions. However, they may not have any questions to ask about this unit.

    Your coach is right that the questions for the board are not about the individual stories (in this case poetry) but about the overall theme. For this reason, you have to make sure that your unit is about something and not just a collection of stories. It’s helpful if you have some questions worked out ahead of time that you would expect students to ask so that you can guide their discussion toward those questions.

    For example, through this unit I want students to become aware of authors and the fact that all print comes from someone writing. So I might guide their discussion of environmental print (cereal boxes, wrappers…artifacts students have brought in) to Who are the authors of cereal box writing?

    The next level might be about authors forming ideas so maybe someone will ask “How do authors come up with ideas?”

    Again, this is just an example but hopefully it shows how you can get beyond some basic questions (who reads? what is reading? what are books?) that students already have answers to to some higher level thoughtful questions.

    However, if it’s just reading poetry, what kind of questions are there to ask about that? As adults, what would we ask? If we don’t have any questions, how will the children?

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