Asking Just the Right Questions and Other High-Impact Reading Comprehension Strategies

This post was contributed by Kathy Barclay, Ed.D.

A female, Asian preschool or kindergarten teacher in the classroom, sitting in front of a group of multi-ethnic children, reading a book. The boys and girls are raising their hands to answer a question. There is a large, blank whiteboard in the background for copy.

During a reading of Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss, after reading about Yertle sitting atop a nine- turtle stack and one little turtle at the bottom of the stack saying, “How long must we stand here, Your Majesty, please?” the teacher paused to ask, “What do you think Yertle the Turtle is going to say or do?” While many children stared blankly at the teacher, several children offered predictions: “He’s going to get mad,” “He might look down to see who is talking and fall off,” and “He’s going to tell them they have to stand there until it gets dark because he has to go to bed.” From their responses, we can tell these children are engaging in metacognitive thought during the read-aloud experience—but what about those children who didn’t respond? Were they engaging in productive reasoning, but for one reason or another simply did not verbalize their thinking for the class? Or is it possible that they had not yet come to the understanding that the role of the listeners is to think about and respond to what they are hearing in the story?

At about age three, children develop the ability to think metacognitively; however, the ability to think metacognitively about the characters, actions, and events in the books they are hearing read aloud doesn’t automatically follow. In addition to reading aloud to children during the preschool and primary years, we must help them understand that good listeners and readers think about what they are hearing and reading, and we must use strategies to help them better understand the text. Asking the right questions can foster this understanding and can lead to self-questioning and comprehension monitoring.

Good readers are able to use questions to focus their attention on important components of the text. They ask and answer questions as they seek to construct and clarify meaning, make and justify predictions, and seek evidence in the text to prove their predictions. We can help beginning readers learn to ask good questions through modeling of a predictable sequence of questioning. For example, when asking questions about a narrative story, we want to model questions about the characters, setting, problem/goal, and sequence of events leading to the story conclusion. When reading an informational text, we ask questions about the topic, about what we think the author might tell us, and about what we want to find out. Whether reading from fiction or nonfiction texts, we demonstrate for our students how we actively seek information to answer our questions, and we share new questions that occur to us as we read.

Explicit teaching of self-questioning is key to student engagement in before-reading, during-reading, and after-reading behaviors. For example, let’s say we are going to read aloud the section “Ocean” from National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Animals. We might tell children we are going to think aloud, so they can hear the types of before-reading questions that we ask ourselves when we read. Then, we share the first question, “What do I already know about oceans?” and a response. Next, we might pose the question, “What will the author tell me about oceans?” We could turn quickly through the pages in this section and read just the headings that appear in big, bold type: bottlenose dolphin, green sea turtle, short-head seahorse, sea otter, giant Pacific octopus, humpback whale, blue-striped grunt—then decide to read first about the humpback whale. Again, we could ask “What do I already know?” and then model a response: “I know that whales are mammals, that they are really big and live in the ocean, and that there are other kinds of whales, such as the beluga whale and the great white whale. I wonder how the humpback whale is different from other whales?” It’s important for us to point out to the students that we just asked ourselves a question about something we want to find out. Then, we’ll want to ask them to share something they want to know about this ocean animal.  To help children understand how readers engage in self-questioning during reading, as we model, we will want to pause periodically to ask ourselves questions about what we are reading. Continuing with the example from above, we might point out that the heading on the first page reads, “Humpbacks do not have teeth” (Hughes, 2010, p. 45). After pausing to model a question, such as “How does the humpback whale chew its food?,” we can continue reading to find out that the humpback whale has baleen instead of teeth. Naturally, we’ll then want to ask, “What is baleen?” In this text, there is a photograph showing baleen, and its purpose is discussed; however, the author doesn’t provide any other information to help the reader understand what baleen is. This presents an opportunity to discuss that sometimes readers have questions that are not answered in the text and what we might do to find answers to those questions.

Asking and answering questions is just one of many strategies good readers employ to support comprehension. For the past three decades, researchers have focused on the strategies good readers use to comprehend text, and how readers who struggle to comprehend can be helped to employ the strategies used by good readers. Through this expansive research, we have learned that good readers engage in a number of practices before, during, and after reading to support text comprehension. These skills and strategies include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Using prior knowledge
  • Making inferences
  • Visualizing information
  • Asking and answering questions
  • Comparing and contrasting text and pictures
  • Determining key ideas and details
  • Interpreting information from graphs, charts, and diagrams
  • Using references and resources
  • Summarizing and synthesizing
  • Monitoring comprehension and using fix-up tips

In our book, The Everything Guide to Informational Texts, K–2: Best Texts, Best Practices (2014), my colleague and co-author, Laura Stewart, and I refer to these as “high-impact” skills and strategies and outline a detailed plan for teaching each. Although this list is not exhaustive, solid research evidence exists to support the efficacy of these for reading comprehension. Though each comprehension strategy may be taught separately, they are seldom used in isolation. Rather, readers use strategies flexibly and in combination, based on the demands presented by each text.

Much has been written about the steps teachers might use in planning strategy instruction; however, regardless of the exact steps used, three elements have been found critical for teaching comprehension strategies: (1) direct explanation of strategies, (2) teacher modeling, and (3) discussion of strategy use during reading. Strong research also suggests the importance of teaching students how, why, and when to use each strategy. And, finally, plenty of practice opportunities are needed to enable students to independently apply strategies to new texts.

The strategy of asking and answering questions works well in tandem with all of the other strategies. Carefully constructed questions can prompt students to detect key ideas and details, apply their prior knowledge to make an inference, compare and contrast text and pictures, and more. Just the right question posed at just the right time can serve to propel readers further into closer examination of the text.

To learn more about these research-based strategies and how to effectively introduce them to the youngest readers, I invite you to watch the NCEA webinar, Teaching High-Impact Comprehension Strategies in K–2 Classrooms, hosted in partnership with the Superkids Reading Program.


Barclay, K., & Stewart, L. (2014). The everything guide to informational texts, K–2: Best texts, best practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.

Hughes, C. (2010). National Geographic little kids first big book of animals. Washington, DC: National Geographic Children’s Books.

Seuss, D. (1958). Yertle the turtle and other stories. New York, NY: Random House.

About the Post Contributor:

Kathy Barclay, Ed.D., is professor emeritus of reading at Western Illinois University and professional development manager of reading for the Superkids Reading Program at Zaner-Bloser. She is co-author of The Everything Guide to Informational Texts, K–2: Best Texts, Best Practices (Corwin, 2014), from which the above information was drawn.