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Questioning to stretch and challenge in a primary classroom

Written By: Matthew Shurlock
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This case study was written by Matthew Shurlock, a primary school teacher. 

As you read this case study, reflect on how the teacher considers pitch and depth in their questioning of pupils. Take some time to think about what the teacher does, how they do it, what they might do differently and how this might influence your own practice.

 

This article will discuss how Blank’s Level Questioning (Blank et al., 1978) can be employed to pitch questions at an appropriate level for individual pupils in Early Years and Key Stage 1.

When a question is correctly matched to a pupil’s developmental stage, it becomes possible to move their learning forward through questioning. Once pupils’ question level understanding is developed, the teacher can attempt to deepen the level of questioning by carefully crafting questions that require more thinking to answer. 

Blank’s book is subtitled The pre-school years and the development stages used within it are labelled from 2 – 6 years old. However, the work has relevance throughout the Primary classroom because of the significant number of pupils starting school without the necessary speech and language skills, (Department for Education, 2019a). 

When using questioning, adults should consider if the level of their questioning matches the understanding of their pupils. If they do not, and the teacher assumes that the pupils will understand how to answer, then the exchange may lead to confusion and frustration for both parties. Matching the question level to the pupil’s developmental stage will lead to successful questioning that extends and challenges their learning, (Department for Education, 2019b).

Use of Blank’s Levels allows the teacher to avoid assumptions and, to pitch questions within a pupil’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). The levels of questions get progressively more complex, as shown here:

Level 1 Naming (language demands rely on teaching materials e.g. objects/pictures)

Level 2 Describing (language relates to teaching materials e.g. objects/pictures)

Level 3 Re-telling (language has less emphasis on the teaching materials)

Level 4 Justifying and Problem Solving (language is more advanced than the teaching materials)

NB: A child is operating at a specific level when they can answer at least 80% of questions at that particular level (Central and North West London NHS, 2020)

This approach can be used with Numicon (Oxford Press, 2018), where four high quality interactions, each based on a different level of questioning, may sound like this:

Adult: Can you point to the 10? [Blank’s Level 1]

Pupil A: Responds by pointing at the correct piece.

____________________________________________________________________________

Adult: Which is the largest piece of Numicon? [Blank’s Level 2]

Pupil B: Responds by pointing and/or naming the piece.

____________________________________________________________________________

Adult: How did you use the Numicon to solve this problem? [Blank’s Level 3]

Pupil C: I found the 4 and then I found the 5. Then I put them together and counted them.

____________________________________________________________________________

Adult: I have used three 3s to make 10. Can you tell me where I’ve gone wrong? [Blank’s Level 4]

Pupil D: You have used the wrong pieces. If you get three 3s, you only have 9. Look, I can put them on the 10 and you see! You missed one!

Adult: Can you explain what I need to do then?

Pupil D: You need to get two 3s and then a 4. I put them on top of the 10 and there are no gaps.

____________________________________________________________________________

In the same way as teachers will know the Phonics Level that a child is working at, it is possible to assess, record and refer to their Blank’s Level. Having this displayed in class, or noted amongst planning will assist all adults in using effective questioning, tailored to individual needs.

In Key Stage 2, or where younger pupils have mastered Level 4 questions, the teacher can begin to select questions that require a greater depth of thinking. These kinds of questions may require pupils to recall prior knowledge, make connections between aspects of their curriculum or apply ideas to other scenarios. For example, to increase the need for deeper thinking, a simple question such as Describe what life was like in a Victorian school could be changed to Which aspect of Victorian schooling is most different to our classroom? The second question will require a pupil to not only know the key features of a Victorian classroom, but also compare it to their environment. They must then decide which aspect is most unusual to them – which involves a degree of organising the features into an order of usual to unusual.

Another example would be taking the question Can you describe your science experiment as being a fair test? and altering it to encourage pupils to really consider the details of what does and does not constitute a fair test. Initially this question requires little more than a Yes/No decision. However, when rephrased as What did you do to ensure your experiment was a fair test?, pupils must think more deeply about their process and justify their actions. The pitch and depth of high quality questioning in the Primary classroom is worth careful consideration. A teacher needs to make questions accessible, by asking questions that are developmentally appropriate (pitch) whilst also challenging thinking by adding layers of suitable complexity to questions (depth).

 

References

Blank, M., Rose, S. A., Berlin, L. J. (1978). The language of learning: The preschool years. New York, NY: Grune & Stratton.

Central and North West London NHS. Supporting the understanding of abstract language using the Blank Language Model. Available at : https://www.cnwl.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/8-a-Abstract-language-and-verbal-reasoning-BLANKs-level.pdf (accessed 5 January 2020).

Department for Education (2019a) Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2019. Available at: https://assets. publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/812539/Schools_Pupils_and_their_Characteristics_2019_Main_Text.pdf (accessed 5 January 2020).

Department for Education (2019b) Early Career Framework: January 2019. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/773705/Early-Career_Framework.pdf (accessed 5 January 2020).

Oxford University Press. Numicon: January 2020. Available at: https://global.oup.com/education/content/primary/series/numicon/?region=uk (accessed 5 January 2020).

Vygotsky LS (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

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