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Questioning biological texts

By Doug Buehl

Chimps with weapons? As you page through a recent National Geographic Magazine, you find yourself immediately engulfed with a series of rapid-fire personal queries: What kind of weapons? What do they do with them? Where do they get them? Do all chimpanzees use weapons? How did scientists find out about these practices? What insights about chimpanzees (and other animals) do these discoveries suggest? Your curiosity thus piqued, you settle in and begin to read.

What we are wondering – our questions about a topic – guide our thinking and set our purposes for reading, in this case an intriguing article about animals that can exhibit human-like behavior. The author informs us that these chimpanzees not only use weapons, they make them by chewing sharp points on thin branches. You wonder if scientists have encountered other animals that can make weapons. The author relates that these chimpanzees exist in an area in Senegal where they must spend most of their time foraging for food, and that they use their makeshift spears for hunting bush babies, small squirrel-sized primates. You wonder how long this species have been hunters and whether they fashion other tools to use in their daily lives. The author offers a theory for this startling development, that the environmental conditions might encourage chimpanzees to take this step, to improve their odds for survival. And the author gets you wondering about the dynamics that led humans to develop similar traits and abilities.

The author is doing more than merely informing readers of interesting new information. In this case, the author is also inviting readers to organize their understanding through a ‘biological lens,’ to examine the world the way biologists do and to ask questions about phenomena that biologists might pose. In previous Reading Room columns, we have talked about ‘insider questions,’ those questions that structure the thinking within specific academic disciplines. Researchers argue, for example, that historians ask sets of questions about historical texts that are particularly suited to developing knowledge from a historical perspective. These questions contrast significantly from those appropriate for understanding the world through the lens of literary fiction. (See December 2006 and November 2007 columns.) Likewise, biologists generate questions about biological texts that engage readers into perceiving ideas and concepts central to understanding the biological world.

Students are expected to transition several times each school day into the characteristic thinking of an array of different academic disciplines. A key to comprehending written texts in these disciplines is mentoring students into the ‘insider questions’ they should develop as a habit of mind when reading within a specific subject area.

The Strategy

Students read biological texts as a regular component of learning within the science curriculum. Biological texts present students with a number of challenges. Such texts usually feature a wealth of factual detail that can easily derail comprehension for students who feel inundated with all the facts. In addition, biological texts introduce concepts through extensive ‘insider’ vocabulary, terminology that students may meet only in science class but rarely anywhere else. Some observers note that a student will encounter twice as many new words in a year’s biology class than he or she would in a year of a beginning world language. As result, students may merely try to cope by memorizing facts and definitions rather than engaging in thinking like a biologist.

Step 1: Begin by emphasizing self-questioning strategies that signal cause/effect relationships in science. Formulating explanations of physical and biological phenomena is core to understanding the world through a ‘scientific’ lens. Scientists gather evidence and search for data that provide a basis for theories, generalizations, and conclusions about why things are the way they are. Students need to develop the inclination to constantly ask ‘why’ when studying scientific concepts.

Closely related to ‘why’ is ‘how’: how did something happen, and how can we identify the necessary information to continue to refine our understandings. When students approach science texts with a cause/effect orientation, they become accustomed to mentally organizing information to answer their why and how questions.

Step 2: Model self-questioning of science texts around the Questioning the Author strategy, developed by Beck and her associates. This strategy conditions students to ask questions of the author (QtAs) as a means for self-directing their comprehension. “What does the author expect you to already know?” is particularly relevant for biological texts, which place a heavy load on prior knowledge and previous learning. QtAs such as “What does the author think is most important?” and “Why does the author tell you this?” are equally significant questions for students to pose when reading biological texts.

Step 3: Introduce the Self-Questioning Taxonomy for Biological Texts. Based on the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the taxonomy features questions at each level of thinking that are appropriate for comprehension of biological texts. These are ‘insider’ questions characteristic of thinking like a biologist. Students will need continual modeling and reinforcement of these questions so that they can become a habitual way of thinking as they engage with biological texts.

At the remembering level, students need to consider what biological concepts are worthy of recalling over time. This question encourages students to rise above detailed information and focus on key ideas that a person should retain for future understandings. In addition, at the remembering level, students also need to attend to the biological vocabulary with which they will need to be conversant as they further their learning within a topic area.

At the understanding level, students consider both what they perceive the author wants them to understand, as well as what they currently understand about the topic. It is especially important for students to personally inventory their prior knowledge about a topic, given the prevalence of misconceptions and flawed knowledge that many students bring to science learning.

At the applying level, students are prompted to make connections between their experiences and observations and what an author is telling them. In particular, they need to be sensitive to differences between what they previously understood and new learning.

At the analyzing level, students ask questions that structure their thinking around cause/effect relationships, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions modeled above in Step 1. In addition, students reading biological texts need to notice essential characteristics and make comparisons, foundational elements for building concepts and classifying phenomena.

At the evaluating level, students probe the explanations, theories, and conclusions offered by an author. Students ask questions at this level that engage them in tracking arguments and marshalling evidence that supports author generalizations.

At the creating level, students ask themselves how their understandings have changed after reading this author. Particularly important at this level is for students to verbalize how their previous understandings need to be revised or even discarded, given their new insights and knowledge.

Step 4: Provide students with regular opportunities to discuss their understandings of biological texts, using the Taxonomy as a frame of reference. As students become familiar with these ‘insider’ questions, they will increasingly generate them without prompting, as a habit of mind when reading biological texts.


Comprehension research underscores the importance of students raising their own questions to guide their reading. ‘Insider’ questions help students make the necessary transitions to reading a variety of text genres across academic disciplines.

  • Students come to realize that different academic texts require different modes of thinking as readers.
  • Students focus on essential ideas and concepts rather than becoming immersed in the factual detail.
  • Students develop an awareness of how their personal understandings evolve as they study academic subjects with more depth.

Further Resources:

Beck, I., McKeown, M., Hamilton, R., & Kucan, L. (1997) Questioning The Author: An Approach For Enhancing Student Engagement With Text. International Reading Association, Newark, DE.

Doug Buehl, WEAC member, Madison
Wisconsin State Reading Association.

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Posted May 7, 2008

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