How do you hook your students into each literature unit? More importantly, how do you measure a student's qualitative growth at the end of the unit? Using essential questions to create an inquiry-based classroom will help engage students and lead to meaningful, relevant understanding.
An essential question frames a unit as an investigatory journey rather than a one-way acculumation of factual knowledge. The question allow students to consider real-world issues as they read the book. A good essential question is timeless, has no right or wrong answer, and are worth exploring and discussing over time.
Essential questions are especially effective because they link real-world knowledge and experience with the literary text. By framing the book of study with a question that is relatable to the real world, your students will recognize the relevancy and power of literature.
Good essential questions aren't plot- or book-specific, something that you could ask on a multiple choice test. Students should be able to write an answer to the question on the first day of the unit, even before they've read the text. Here are a few poor examples of essential questions for The Princess and the Frog from Story World Real World:
- What were the three favors that the frog requested?
- This question has only one correct answer and is content-specific to the story—students will not be able to relate to this question.
- What lesson did the princess learn at the end of the story?
- While this question is important to test plot comprehension and might lead to a real-world moral, the question is still specific to the story and unanswerable on the first day of the unit.
Essential questions provide students with a relevant learning goal without reducing the lesson into plot memorization or mere literacy practice. Use question words like "how" or "why" in essential questions to encourage open-ended discussions:
- How important is it to keep promises?
- This question is relatable to any child and also subjective.
- How and why can looks be deceiving?
- This question necessitates an answer other than yes or no, and is also relevant for combatting racism in the real world.
After reading and discussing the book, a student should be able to elaborate, nuance, or even change their initial answer from the first day of the unit. Now, students can compare and contrast their own views with the character sin the book.
Essential questions are a fantastic tool for any grade and any book!