Let Them Write! Creating and Answering Text-Dependent Questions in the Primary Grades

Jeannette Russell, School Support Teacher, Milwaukee Public Schools, and Associate Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, russellj @ uww.edu

Abstract. Russell provides strategies for constructing text-dependent questions and for assisting students when answering these questions.

Preparing students to become avid readers and writers is something a teacher cannot only dream of, but foresee happening right in the classroom. As a third grade teacher, I saw my students transform from robotic readers and writers into critical thinkers who read with purpose and expressed their thoughts on paper. After providing my students with engaging text, posing high-level questions about the text, and requiring them to voice their opinions, they were able to become both readers who built stamina and proficient writers who answered text-dependent questions, those that “focus on information that can be found explicitly and directly in the text” (Boelé, 2016, p. 218).

Answering questions with careful attention to the text in order to construct meaning is a practice discussed in schools across the U.S. According to much of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), instructional strategies that support textual analysis benefit all students, for paying close attention to the information presented in the text allows readers to answer text-dependent questions.

The progression of text-dependent questions depends on four phases (Fisher, Frey, Anderson, & Thayre, 2015):

1. Literal text-dependent questions involve key details and key understandings (What does the text say?);

2. Structural text-dependent questions focus on authorial craft and purpose, vocabulary, and structure (How does the text work?);

3. Inferential text-dependent questions include making inferences, stating opinions/arguments, and making intertextual connections (What does the text mean?);

4. Interpretive text-dependent questions refer to inspirational effects (What does the text inspire you to do?)

Students focus on deeper meaning when they make inferences, interpret the text, and focus on what is not explicitly stated in the text (Boelé, 2016; Fischer, Frey, & Hattie, 2016).

In this article, I will provide strategies for developing text-dependent questions and for assisting students when answering these questions. Developing text-dependent questions and applying a constructed-response strategy to answer these questions was a common instructional practice in my third-grade classroom and may also benefit middle school students.

Creating Text-Dependent Questions
When creating text-dependent questions, again consider the four phases detailed above by following three steps. First, when creating a literal question, ensure that students understand the key ideas or themes of the text. Students may need to engage in discussions around the character, setting, events, and other central ideas. Second, when creating a structural question, teach vocabulary and structural elements such as use of punctuation, headings and subheadings, and complementary illustrations, all essential to understanding the meaning of the text. Third, evaluate the question using the following criteria:

1. requires the student to read the text;
2. gives an opportunity to determine the meaning of academic vocabulary;
3. allows students to make inferences from the text;
4. aligns the question with the standard; and
5. enables students to acquire knowledge as a result of the question.

Engaging Students in Answering Text-Dependent Questions
Fisher and Frey (2012) state that “Teachers should model for students how they think about texts and how they look for evidence in the text when responding to questions” (p. 4). Therefore, teachers must introduce and model how to answer text-dependent questions. A common practice in my classroom involves answering all four types and including them in the daily lesson plan (see Chart 1).

Chart 1: Daily Lesson Plan

russell table

For example, if the text-dependent question contains an unfamiliar vocabulary word, we complete a vocabulary building exercise by using the Frayer Model (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001)–a four-square graphic organizer prompting students to think about and describe the meaning of a word or concept–and we complete a Do Now activity that includes that vocabulary word before we engage in the reading. The actual reading of the text begins with clear instructions and a question or comment. For example, “As you read, pay close attention to the text details and illustrations. Describe the characters and explain what that tells you about their personalities.” Students annotate the text as they read and write statements that refer only to the question I posed before they started reading. Five to seven minutes later, we discuss our annotations as a group. Depending on the purpose or how much of the text is planned for my students to read that day, I pose three to four more questions while they annotate. The annotations and discussions among the class build a case for students to answer the text-dependent question at the end of the lesson.

Constructed-Response Strategy
Before my students can thoroughly answer the writing prompt independently, I model means of answering text-dependent questions by using a constructed-response strategy, that is, by using an assessment tool requiring students to “construct” or develop their own answers without the aid of suggestions or choices. I commonly used the RACE strategy:

Restate the question

Answer the question

Cite text evidence


My 3rd graders needed clarity on how to answer text-dependent questions, so incorporating a constructed-response strategy provided structure to our daily routine. The Do Now activity and annotating the text before responding to the text-dependent question supported them during a time when they needed to work independently. For that reason, students may need assistance with restating (R) the question and using the question stem to start their answer. The answer (A) portion of the RACE strategy requires students to use facts from the text to make a statement or give an opinion. Citing (C) text evidence requires the use of specific examples from the text, such as direct quotes, to validate their answers. And when explaining (E) the answer, students must include background knowledge and experiences and must make connections in order to answer the text-dependent question thoroughly. My goal is to spend at least one week working on each component of the RACE strategy with the help of a comprehension strategy like Close Reading (Lehman & Roberts, 2013). Analyzing a Close Reading in my classroom prepares students for more complex texts that they would read and write independently. Once they understand the RACE strategy after several weeks of modeling, they are able to write their answers independently.

For example, here is a prompt I used after we read a section of Dahl’s (1964) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: After reading chapters 18-20, do you think Mr. Wonka is a kind or uncaring man? Use text evidence to explain your answer. This prompt definitely required the students to read the text, determine the meaning of academic vocabulary (uncaring), make inferences (as aligned with CCSS), and acquire knowledge of the character:

Writing Sample 1
russell 1

Writing Sample 2
russell 2

Last, allow students time to discuss their answers with their classmates when they are able to work independently. Allowing them to have discourse in groups creates independent thinkers able to make meaning of the text because they can debate and state their opinions while using textual evidence to prove their statements. My students showed great enthusiasm during the literacy block because they were able to discuss their answers to text-dependent questions at the end of the reading block.

Text-dependent questions empower students to take a stance and challenge the author’s overall message. My students enjoyed being able to write a response to a text-dependent question that demonstrated substance and meaning.

Boelé, A. L. (2016). Text-dependent questions: Reflecting and transcending the text. The Reading Teacher, 70(2), 217-220. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1493

Dahl, R. (1964). Charlie and the chocolate factory. New York: Knopf.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012, April). Engaging the adolescent learning: Text-dependent questions. International Reading Association. Retrieved from http://www.reading.org

Fisher, D., Frey, N., Anderson, H., & Thayre, M. (2015). Text-dependent questions: Pathways to close and critical reading, grades 6-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy: Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning, grades K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Lehman, C. & Roberts, K. (2013). Falling in love with close reading: Lessons for analyzing texts–and life. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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