The Power of Questions

This teacher asked herself, “What do I need to know to better support this student?” The answer led to more questions.

During reading workshop with my third-graders, I looked over and saw Natalie—not reading, but whispering with her friend … again. 

Natalie was an average student; she wasn’t disruptive, but she had a habit of talking to her peers during reading time. I had tried different ways to keep her on task, such as seating her with less talkative peers, moving her to a different reading spot, and using eye contact and other nonverbal cues. Though these strategies worked for the short term, I still noticed her frequently talking or staring around the room.

It was time to address the issue. I wanted to do it that day, but I didn’t know what to do. Require her to read during recess? Give her a talking to? Call her family? Write her an infraction slip? Forgoing all those options, I decided to talk to Natalie one-on-one during recess. 

She arrived in my room a bit nervous and unsure, and I asked her to have a seat at one of the student tables. I sat down next to her and started the conversation with a smile and some small talk about her long weekend. She went into detail about how her grandfather’s family came down from Boston, and they had a big family dinner. Then I asked, “How’s school going for you? What do you like?”

She replied, “It’s good. I like writing because you get to write stories and essays.” I shared my observations of how she seemed to enjoy writing workshop.

Then I asked, “How about reading? I notice you talk to your peers during reading time. What is that about?”

She thought about her answer for a moment and then said, “I want to read the book they’re reading. When I choose books for my book baggie, I look at the cover to pick them. But when I sit down to read them, they’re not interesting.”

At that moment, it dawned on me that I did not know what kinds of books Natalie liked. “What books are you interested in?” I asked.

To that she replied, “Fairy tales and folk tales.”

“What can you or I do to help you pick books you like?” I asked.

She replied, “I can read a couple of pages to make sure I like the book.” 

“Would you like to pick out new books now?” I asked. “I just got a new Vietnamese Cinderella folk tale you might like.” Natalie nodded. I found her the folk tale, and we talked about why she might find it interesting. 

I cannot predict whether Natalie will read during our next class, but I do know that our future conversations will take on a different tone. That day was one of the first times I had ever spoken to Natalie one-on-one. From that short conversation, I learned more about her than I had in the previous couple of months. Trying to control or discipline her would not have taught me anything about her or about her needs. Now that I know what she is interested in, I can find new ways to keep her engaged in class.

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship,” said Dr. James Comer, and this quote reminds me that the teacher-student relationship is about mutual learning and teaching. By asking questions, sharing objective observations and using a nonthreatening tone in a private meeting, I was able to preserve Natalie’s dignity and maintain a positive relationship. I learned that being proactive rather than reactive forces me to be intentional in my interactions with students and gives me the opportunity to influence rather than control.

In the future, I hope to ask myself, “What do I need to know to better support this student? How should I approach this student in a way that improves rather than detracts from our relationship?” I plan to use these questions to talk to students:

  • What are your interests outside of school?
  • What do you like about school?
  • Tell me about your ______________.
  • What are you really good at?

By leading with questions and curiosity, I hope to become a better learner as I help my students do the same.

Huynh is a third-grade literacy teacher in Philadelphia who is passionate about social justice in the classroom.