Turn the Question Around

Teach students to add detail and accuracy to their writing

Goal setting
Photo Courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images

In language arts lessons, elementary school students learn that writing allows them to communicate ideas. But to do it effectively, they must understand the basic elements of good writing. This begins with sentence structure and clear language that readers can easily comprehend.

But young students can find writing laborious, so they often subconsciously rely on clipped answers in response to a writing prompt. For example, in a getting-to-know-you exercise at the beginning of the school year, you may ask your students to write answers to a few questions: What is your favorite food? What is your favorite color? What kind of pet do you have? Without instruction, the answers will likely come back as: Pizza. Pink. A dog.

Explain Why It Matters

Now you can demonstrate to your students how, without context, those answers could mean something totally different than the writer intended. For instance, pizza could be the answer to any number of questions, such as: What did you have for lunch? What food do you hate? What food does your mother never let you eat?

Teach students to answer questions in complete sentences to add detail and accuracy to their writing; show them how to use the key words in the question itself as a cue when formulating their answer. Teachers variously refer to this technique as "putting the question in the answer" or "turning the question around."

In the example, the one-word statement "pizza" becomes a complete sentence—and a full thought—when the student writes, "My favorite food is pizza."

Demonstrate the Process

Write a question on the board or an overhead projector for students to see. Begin with a simple question such as, "What is the name of our school?" Make sure the students understand the question. With first graders, you may need to clarify, whereas older students should get it right away.

Then ask students to identify the key words in this question. You can help the class target them by asking the students to think about what information the answer to the question should provide. In this case, "the name of our school"; underline those words.

Now demonstrate to students that when you answer a question in a complete sentence, you use the key words you identified from the question in your answer. For example, "The name of our school is Fricano Elementary School." Make sure to underline "the name of our school" in the question on the overheard projector.

Next, ask students to come up with another question. Assign one student to write the question on the board or overhead and another to underline the key words. Then ask another student to come up and answer the question in a complete sentence. Once students get the hang of it working in a group, have them practice independently with a few of the following examples or with questions they come up with on their own.

Practice Until Perfect

Use the following prompts to guide your students through skills practice until they get the hang of using complete sentences to answer a question.

1. What is your favorite thing to do?

Example Answer: My favorite thing to do is...

2. Who is your hero?

Example Answer: My hero is...

3. Why do you like to read?

Example Answer: I like to read because...

4. Who is the most important person in your life?

5. What is your favorite subject in school?

6. What is your favorite book to read?

7. What are you going to do this weekend?

8. What do you want to do when you grow up?

Edited by: Janelle Cox