By Tim Shanahan
Common Core advocates make a big deal out of the idea that questions should be text dependent. This means you shouldn’t be able to answer a question without reading the text. By all means, ask questions that require reading.
However, this is a very low standard. Many text dependent questions simply aren’t worth asking.
Last week I met a teacher who was trying to generate every literal question she could—long lists of questions. She was interpreting close reading as “thorough reading” and she was making sure that her first-graders missed nothing; no detail was too trivial for her text dependent questions.
However, close reading does not necessarily require this kind of intensive, thorough, literal reading. Close reading asks readers to understand what the text says, how it works, what it means, how it connects up with other texts, what value or quality it has, but none of this requires the reader to come to terms with every fact in a text.
The key is to ask questions that are not only text dependent, but that guide the reader to accomplish those interpretive goals. To do that, the questions have to emphasize what is important in the universe of the text.
For example, in some literary texts the names of the characters really matter. In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the brothers’ names are Caleb and Aaron and their initials correspond with those of another set of rivalrous brothers, Cain and Abel. It is a literary allusion, and recognizing it is essential to interpretation. Likewise, in Moby Dick all of the characters share names with Biblical figures; again, allusions. And it matters that the betrayed wife in The Great Gatsby is called Daisy, since nature serves as a key symbol in that book.
But character names don’t always carry deeper meanings. It doesn’t really matter much that Tom Sawyer is named Tom or that Becky Thatcher is Becky. If they were Bill and Lizzie, it wouldn’t change much. The same is true for Bigger Thomas in Native Son.
Thus, asking about the names in East of Eden, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby would make sense because there is some chance that these questions would encourage the readers to notice these key interpretative details. On the other hand, asking about the names of the characters in Tom Sawyer or Native Son would emphasize text dependent, but trivial information.
Ask questions that are text dependent by all means, but make sure they help students to accomplish the key interpretive goals, and that they focus on important ideas.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Tim Shanahan is a member of the CDL Professional Advisory Board.