Expert Connection : August 10

Self-questioning in Reading— Sheri Berkeley


It seems like every time I turn around these days, people are talking about self-questioning strategies for reading comprehension. Are there really different ones, and how how do they work?  Can you tell me more about self-questioning and how I might teach self-questioning to my middle schoolers?

—Mark, inclusion teacher, San Bernadino

Additional Info:


Thanks for your question. For an answer, we turned to Professor Sheri Berkeley at George Mason University. Dr. Berkeley has studied comprehension methods in middle school classrooms and is currently working on a project using self-questioning. Thanks to her for helping us with this!

—Peggy & JohnL, co-editors

Expert Response:

What is self-questioning?

Self-questioning is simply a process in which students ask and answer questions while reading.  Strategically asking and answering questions while reading helps students with difficulties engage with text in ways that good readers do naturally, thus “improving their active processing of text and their comprehension” (National Reading Panel, 2003, p.51). 

Good readers are actively involved in the reading process, but poor readers often are not.  According to Bryant, Ugel, Thompson, and Hamff (1999), good readers: 

Before reading,

1.      consider what they already know about the topic, and

2.      use text features (e.g., headings and illustrations) to get a sense of what they will read.

While reading,

1.       monitor their reading,

2.      use “fix-up” strategies to repair meaning when comprehension problems occur,

3.      use context clues to help them figure out the meanings of unknown vocabulary and concepts, 

4.      identify the main idea, and

5.      use their knowledge of text structure to help them understand what they are reading.

After reading,

1.      mentally summarize what they have read,

2.      reflect on content, and

3.      draw inferences to help them make connections to themselves, the world and other texts. 

However, poor readers do none of these things.  Instead, they tend to begin reading by jumping right in, without a purpose and without considering background knowledge they already have about the topic.  While reading, they plow through the text even if they do not understand what they are reading.  This is likely because they don’t recognize how the text is structured and they lack strategies to figure out new words or to repair comprehension problems.  It is no surprise then that by the time they finish reading, they are unable to summarize important points or to reflect on what they have read!

What are different types of self-questioning strategies?

            All self-questioning strategies generally help students understand more of what they read; however, it is important to note that self-questioning strategies can serve a variety of purposes.  For example, one questioning strategy might help prompt students to consider background knowledge before reading, while another might promote students’ self-monitoring of understanding while reading, and yet another might remind students to summarize what they have read after reading.  In addition, self-questioning can be incorporated into other comprehension strategies and is sometimes an embedded component of a broader reading strategy (see Brigham, Berkeley, Simpkins, & Brigham, 2007).  Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) is one example and there is a free IRIS module about it. IRIS Center

What should I consider when teaching self-questioning?

Type of text. Teachers need to consider the type of text that students will be reading when teaching students to self-question.  Different self-questioning strategies lend themselves better to narrative or expository text.  For example, questions related to story grammar (characteristics such as characters, setting, and a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end) lend themselves better to narrative text where these elements are consistently used.  Quite a bit of research shows that teaching students to ask questions related to these story elements helps them understand more of what they read.  Story grammar questions might include the following:

·         Where and when does the story take place?

·         What happens in the beginning? Middle? End?

·         What is the problem?

·         How is the problem solved? The Florida Center for Reading Research has helpful teaching materials for narrative text, including suggestions for using questioning.

However, questions related to story grammar will not help students with comprehension of expository texts, also referred to as “informational texts.”  In fact, the structure of these types of texts varies. Some expository texts, like textbooks, have different text structures from chapter to chapter, section to section, and even paragraph to paragraph!  This makes it very challenging to rely on text structure to create questions unless students are first taught to recognize the different types of text structures.

            Instead, for informational texts a self-questioning strategy that utilizes common text features, such as chapter headings and subheadings, would be more helpful.  One such strategy is called QRAC-the-Code (Question, Read, Answer, Check; Berkeley & Riccomini, 2011).  Students use the headings and subheadings of a textbook chapter to create their own question for each heading (example: “What was important about the Scientific Revolution?” or “Who was Thomas Jefferson?”).  The number of questions generated varies based on the number of headings in the chapter.  Students then read and try toanswer the question they created.  Finally, students check their understanding by asking: “Can I answer my question?”   If they can, they keep reading; if they can’t, they use another learned comprehension strategy to “fix-up” their understanding.

Student skill. Another consideration is whether students are able to generate appropriate questions.  The idea that students should be encouraged to ask and answer questions while reading appears rather straightforward.  However, many students—especially students with disabilities that affect language—have difficulty generating questions independently.  When working with such students, pre-teaching of skills may be necessary.  One of the processes that is important before reading begins is activating prior knowledge about the topic.  Although there are numerous ways that teachers can help students to activate prior knowledge, teaching students to ask themselves questions about their background knowledge is also a helpful teaching technique. However, explicit instruction about how to develop questions about prior knowledge might require pre-teaching of steps such as teaching students to read the title or chapter headings and to preview illustrations and diagrams. Good reading instruction should explicitly model reading the title of material, stopping, dramatically saying, “Mmmm, I wonder what this could be about,” and then developing hypotheses.

In some cases, pre-teaching may not be enough.  Some students will create questions that are so far off topic that they cannot be answered in the reading.  For example, a student may see an illustration of a rocket ship and ask “How long does it take to get to Mars?” but this question will not help him if the passage is really about how to build model rocket ships.  Conversely, another common action by students who struggle to ask meaningful questions is to ask questions that are too specific.  This student might skim ahead to ask a question that he is certain he can  answer because he sees it written word for word within an individual sentence before he ever begins reading.  While this student will be able to answer the specific question, this type of questioning will not help him get the broader meaning of the text. Students who make these types of mistakes will need additional assistance with creating meaningful questions.

Generic questions. One option is to teach students to use a self-questioning strategy that always asks the same generic questions.  An example of this self-questioning strategy is the summarization strategy.  Reading Rockets has some good pointers about summarization including notes about books using the strategy and templates, too. Summarization strategy consists of generic questions that the students ask themselves, regardless of the text structure:

1.      What (or who) is the passage about?

2.      What is happening (to the ‘who’ or ‘what’)?

3.      What is a summary sentence?

Of course, there are limitations to a global strategy such as this.  For example, in an informational passage, it would be difficult to answer these questions. 

Question stems. Another option might be to provide question stems to students.  Question stems can be used with any questioning strategy that requires students to develop their own questions.  For example, question stems that might be used within CSR might include:

  • How were ___ and ___ the same?  Different?
  • What do you think would happen if___?
  • What do you think caused ___ to happen?
  • What other solution can you think of for the problem of ___?
  • What might have prevented the problem of ____ from happening?
  • What are the strengths (or weaknesses) or ____?  (Klingner & Vaughn, 1998, p.34)

A question stem for the QRAC-the-Code strategy might be “What is important about ______?”  The student would then insert a key word from the chapter heading to complete the question. 

Once I decide to teach a self-questioning strategy to my students, how do I do it?

The idea behind self-questioning strategies, like all reading comprehension strategies, is that students can be taught to approach text more strategically than they would on their own.  For some students, the process of creating questions to ask themselves is extremely challenging.  Therefore, simply having students “ask questions about the passage while reading” will not be sufficient.  Therefore, the process that teachers use to teach self-questioning is the same as for the explicit teaching of any strategy:

  • Explicitly state the importance of strategy use and use clear learning objectives (that includes instruction in when to use the strategy in addition to how to use the strategy),
  • Follow a specific sequence for teaching that includes explicit modeling of the strategy as well as guided and independent student practice (tip: checklists of strategy steps are often helpful),
  • “Think aloud” during instruction (thus giving students access to internal thought processes),
  • Monitor student progress and provide explicit corrective feedback to students that includes encouraging appropriate attributions (an example of a positive attribution would be: “I understood what I read because I tried hard and asked myself questions that I answered while reading” rather than the negative attribution: “I understood what I read, so it must have been an easy passage”), and
  • Teach for generalized use of the strategy.  

For more information about best practices when teaching cognitive strategies, such as self-questioning, see Mastropieri, Scruggs, and Graetz (2003).

Comprehension of text occurs because of actions of the reader that are taken before, during and after reading.  As described previously, for good readers, these actions occur automatically, but for poor readers, these active processes need to be taught explicitly.  Teaching students to ask and answer questions throughout this reading process provides struggling readers with a systematic means to engage with text in ways that are similar to the way that good readers engage with it.   I hope you find this information to be helpful.  Best to you in your teaching!



Berkeley, S., & Riccomini, P. J. (2011).  QRAC-the-Code: A comprehension monitoring strategy for middle school social studies textbooks.  Journal of Learning Disabilities.  First published on July 14, 2011 as doi:10.1177/0022219411409412

Brigham, F. J., Berkeley, S., Simpkins, P., & Brigham, M. S. P. (2007).  Reading comprehension strategy instruction.  Current Practice Alerts, 12, 1-4.

Bryant, D. P., Ugel, N., Thompson, S., & Hamff, A. (1999).  Instructional strategies for content-area reading instruction.  Intervention in School and Clinic,34, 293-310.

Klingner, J., & Vaughn, S. (1998).  Using collaborative strategic reading.  Teaching Exceptional Children, 30, 32-7.

Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., & Graetz, J. E. (2003).  Reading comprehension instruction for secondary students: Challenges for struggling students and teachers.  Learning Disability Quarterly,26, 103-117.

National Reading Panel. (2003).  Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implication for reading instruction (2nd Edition).  Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and U. S. Department of Education.

Tags: reading, comprehension, reading comprehension, self-management, self-questioning, Berkeley

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