Questions beginning with “How” and “Why” can elicit inferences and explanations, so they provide essential triggers for comprehension and expression. The problem is that although they seem like simple words, students often conflate them.
I figured this out one day while visiting a 7th-grade class that was revising responses to open-ended reading questions. I approached one girl who was chatting with her neighbor, evidently in an effort to avoid the assignment.
When I asked her how things were going, she replied bitterly, “My teacher gave me a 1 [out of 4], and I don’t know why.”
We began by looking at the Open-ended Response Writing Rubric. “Let’s see if you restated the question,” I suggested. The question was: “Explain how Sam’s attitude toward the bird-calling contest changed throughout that day.”
The girl had written, “Sam’s attitude changed because….”
“Aha,” I said. She stared at me quizzically. I told her, “I believe you know the answer to this question, but I think you approached it in slightly the wrong way. Let’s see if I’m right, OK?”
“Let’s pretend I walked into the classroom this morning wearing a parka, mittens, and a scarf. What could you infer about me, based on how I was dressed?”
“You were cold,” she replied.
“Exactly. Now, say I took all of that apparel off by the end of class. WHY would I make that change?”
“Because you were warm.”
“Right. In this room, I would probably be sweating. Now, here’s another question, and I want you to notice the difference: HOW would I have changed?”
“You would be wearing less clothing.”
“Correct. Notice the difference between the HOW and WHY questions. Now, let’s go back to your original question: HOW did Sam’s attitude toward the bird-calling contest change throughout the day?”
“Oh,” she said, and she was off to the races. Within a minute, she had explained HOW, and just for good measure, she also told me WHY his attitude had changed.
See, she understood the story. She just didn’t understand the question.
One reason students struggle to generate appropriate responses to “How” questions is that their default response to these questions often includes the word “because.” They don’t have the grammatical sophistication to answer “How” questions as they should, with the construct “by ___ing,” as in, “Sam’s attitude toward the bird-calling contest changes by becoming more accepting of its entertainment value.” Teachers grateful for any response at all sometimes accept inaccurate responses instead of providing the correct format.
So, HOW can we improve our practice as teachers? We must seize opportunities to train students to answer “How” and “Why” questions differently by modeling appropriate responses and correcting students when they respond inaccurately. WHY should we do this? Because it will improve our students’ speaking, writing, and thinking skills.
*This entry was adapted from The Literacy Cookbook (available for order HERE).