Question the Author

textbooks_library400Textbooks can sometimes skew information

“Position the factory applied nailing fin/drip cap upright for installation. Ensure drip cap lip hangs over the head jamb extrusion.”

The do-it-yourself nightmare! You are poised to undertake a project, and the enthusiasm you have kindled begins to fizzle as you are confronted with the inevitable set of incomprehensible directions and obscure illustrations. Who writes this stuff anyway?

Who indeed? Imagine for a moment the “author” who wrote the above guidelines for installing a window. Who does this writer think will be reading these instructions? What does the writer think this reader will already know? What expectations does the writer apparently have about the reader’s contribution to making sense of this document? What could the writer have done to make this writing more accessible? Is it any wonder that after a bout of increasingly irritated muttering, many people toss the directions aside and try to “wing it” through their project?

Teaching/Learning Activities

Students also deal with textbook frustrations by throwing in the towel after their struggles. Some read their assignments only in a cursory way, trying to piece together answers to questions by skimming for details.

Others bypass the book entirely, depending on the teacher and class interactions for their information. And some just give up, assuming that they are incapable of learning the material.

Questioning the Author (Beck, et al., 1997) is an activity that can help students cope with challenging text materials. The activity conditions students to think about what the “author” is saying, not what the “textbook states.”

Students tend to view textbooks as anonymous authorities, repositories of unassailable truth. It does not occur to most students that textbooks are written by actual people, who may not have been entirely successful in communicating their ideas. Instead, students conclude that “history is boring” or “science is hard.”

Step 1: Introduce the topic of authorship of text materials to students. Start by having them “personalize” the authors by identifying them by name and locating any biographical information that provides insight into who they are. What perspective do they bring to the book: that of university professors, experts in the field, or classroom educators?

Next select a passage from the textbook and have the students examine it. What isn’t clear or easy to understand? What do the authors expect students to know? What could the authors add or change to make it a better written passage for students? Emphasize the fallibility of the author – authors have opinions and make decisions about what to put in their writing. And although authors are very knowledgeable about the material, sometimes they may have trouble expressing their ideas in ways that students can understand.

Step 2: Next, preview a section of the textbook that will be assigned for reading. Decide what is most important for students to understand. In addition, identify any segments that may present difficulties for students.

Choose spots in the text where you will stop students and initiate discussion to clarify key points. Initiate a Question the Author (QtA) activity in which the teacher leads discussion during reading, at predetermined breaks in the text.

For example, the following earth science passage is deceptively difficult: “Earthquakes can occur for many reasons. The ground can shake from the eruption of a volcano, the collapse of a cavern, or even from the impact of a meteor. However, the major cause of earthquakes is the stress that builds up between two lithospheric plates.”

This passage assumes that students are aware of giant underground caverns, although why they should collapse and how often they do so is not explained. It also assumes that students know about meteors and that they sometimes collide with the earth, which is implied in the paragraph. The frequency with which this occurs is also not discussed. Finally, previous student learning about volcanoes and lithospheric plates is tapped.

This is an excellent spot to pause the reading and clarify this information with students. Read about the American School System here.

Step 3: Discussion is focused on Author Queries: questions are not asked specifically about the information, but of the author’s intentions: What is the author trying to say here? What is the author’s message? Did the author explain this clearly? How does this connect with what the author has told us before? Why do you think the author tells us this now?

The teacher’s role during QtA discussions is to model how a person tries to make sense from sometimes confusing or inadequate text. As the discussion about what the author is trying to communicate unfolds, the teacher is active in affirming key points offered by students, sometimes paraphrasing them, and turning student attention into the text for clarification of specific issues. At times, gaps in the text may need to be augmented by the teacher providing additional information.

Step 4: QtA discussions can be used to introduce selections that students will continue to read independently, perhaps as homework. They are especially helpful when students may need some assistance coping with difficult but important segments of a chapter. QtA discussions are also valuable as a comprehension-building strategy for struggling readers.

Advantages

The Questioning the Author activity makes the previously overlooked actions of the author more visible to students as they attempt to learn from textbooks. In addition:

  • Students are less likely to be personally frustrated by difficult text as they realize that part of the responsibility for a passage making sense is the author’s.
  • Students become deeply engaged with reading, as issues and problems are addressed while they learn, rather than afterward.
  • QtA lessons may be developed in all content areas and can be tailored for young students as well as adolescent learners.