The Only Four Questions You’ll Ever Need to Ask Your Writers

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Carl Anderson taught me to begin every writing conference with the simple question, “How’s it going?”

I love this question for two reasons: it’s a question we ask our colleagues, our friends, and our family members when we want to know how they are doing. In other words, it’s an authentic question that shows we care. Secondly, it puts the onus on students to determine the focus of the writing conference. There is no hidden agenda behind the question, “How’s it going?” It simply means, “How are things going for you in your writing?”

I typically ask this question at the beginning of a writing conference. I pull my stool up to the writer’s desk and lean in: How’s it going? 

It can also be useful on mid-process writing reflections. Sometimes, in the middle of a study, I ask my students to spend a few minutes telling me about their writing. I want them to share what they are currently working on in their notebooks, what their next steps are, and in general, how their writing is going. This question invites them to say anything – anything – about their writing. What a student chooses to talk or write about can be very telling.

Recently I have been thinking about the other questions I ask my student writers and which ones are the most fruitful. Here they are:

2. Can you say more about that?

Why it’s a great question:

I use this question all the time. From writing conferences to Socratic Seminars, this is the best way to help students elaborate. For example:

Teacher: How’s it going?

Student: Good.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: I’m working on my ending.

Teacher: How’s the ending going?

Student: It’s okay.

Teacher: Can you say more about that?

Student: It’s not very strong right now. I don’t know how to end it. 

Teacher: Can you read a little of your ending out loud…?

 

This question is like a gentle prod in the writer’s mind. It’s much gentler than, “Can you elaborate?” but more effective than accepting a writer’s one-word response (Good.) and moving on. It invites the writer to step back from his work and reflect on what he’s doing.

When to use it:

  • When a student gives one-word answers or is having trouble talking about his writing.

What it can do for students:

  • It holds students accountable for being able to talk about their work and explain why they are doing something.
  • It emphasizes the skill of elaboration in communication — not just in writing, but in verbal communication, too.
  • It cues the student to talk while still allowing the student to decide what to focus on in the conference.

3. Would you consider trying [x technique]?

Why it’s a great question:

I’m not sure where I picked up this question stem, but in my experience, it’s the nicest way to suggest to a writer that she try something in her writing. It’s the way I teach my students to give each other feedback on their writing.

Teacher to student, it’s much better than:

  • I’d like to see you [insert x technique].
  • I think you should [insert x technique].

With these questions, the teacher has an idea about the student’s writing, and s/he would like him to try it. The student doesn’t really have a choice. The teacher has the power. Is this how it should be?

When to use it:

  • When the student is struggling with something in her writing.
  • When the student needs a specific strategy in his writing.
  • When a student is ready for a challenge outside of the general class lesson.

What it can do for students:

When we ask a student to consider trying something, we are giving that student a concrete strategy, but the student holds the power. The feedback is framed as a choice, and sometimes students are more willing to try something in their writing when given a choice. When forced to try something, students tend to push back.   It’s important to remember that the writing belongs to the student – he ultimately decides what happens to it.

The word “trying” is important too — it suggests that writer sometimes make revisions that don’t work. In other words, the writer can try something, but if it doesn’t work — if the writer isn’t happy with how it affects his piece — he can go back to a previous version.

 

4. Are you ready to try this?

Why it’s a great question:

I came across this question while reading Carl Anderson’s book on assessing writing. I instantly wrote it in my notebook and pledged to use it during conferences the next day. It made what used to be an awkward moment for me (the goodbye at the end of the conference) fruitful and positive.

When you ask this question, the answer will reveal two things to you: 1) If the writer was listening during the conference and 2) If the writer is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference.

1. If the writer wasn’t listening, she’ll say, “Try what?” And you’ll know that you have more work to do. That the conference isn’t over.

2.If the writer was listening, and is ready to try the work you discussed during the conference, she’ll say “Yes.” And if you coach her a little more, she will often follow up with a specific step, as in, “Yes, I am going to do a little writing in my notebook to find an image I can put at the end of my poem.”

If the writer says, “No,” you have more work to do. The conference isn’t over.

~

There are myriad questions writing teachers can ask their students to learn more about their process. Rebekah wrote an incredible post a while back about the power of the question, “What did you discover today in your writing?”

But it seems that most questions lead back to one of the main four.

And some day, with enough practice under their belts, our students will only need one question: How’s it going?

Because this question seeks everything we need to know about our students as writers — and as human beings.

 

What questions help you communicate with your writers? What questions shut them down and what questions open them out? Please leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Only Four Questions You’ll Ever Need to Ask Your Writers

  1. Great suggestion! Thank you! You’re right — “Can you say more about that” is a yes or no question that might solicit a no!

  2. I love the idea of these four essential questions. It’s great to have some strategies set aside to get your students talking about their writing. I have minor suggestion for your second question–something that I have learned from mentors in my own personal experience. Instead of asking “can you say more about that?” try asking “what else can you tell me about that?” The simple switch could help prevent students from just saying “no.” When I switched from “can” to “what else,” I definitely noticed a difference in my own classroom.

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