Tag Archives: inquiry

Question-Answer Relationships in Science

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What are QARs?

Has this happened to you, as a teacher?

Student B (age 9, 12 or 18… it doesn’t matter) sits with a scientific editorial, and an essay assignment. The prompt asks him, “Does the author believe that nuclear power is a benefit to society, or a danger? Use evidence from the editorial to answer your question.” At the end of class, the student turns in a blank paper: “I don’t know what to write — it didn’t say.” Sigh.

Researchers developed the concept of QARs, or Question-Answer Relationships, to help students understand that there is a relationship between the type of question asked, and the place the student goes to find the information to answer the question. By quickly determining the type of question, the student is better able to figure out how to answer the question.

Types of Questions

Reading response questions fall into four categories, based on where the reader must go to find the answer:

  1. “Right There” Questions
  2. “Search and Find Out” Questions
  3. “Author and Me” Questions
  4. “On My Own” Questions

If students can learn to identify the hallmarks of each type of question, then they can more quickly determine what they have to do in order to craft the appropriate response. Here is a general overview of the categories of questions:

Right There Questions

  • assess literal comprehension: there is little need to think beyond the text in order to answer
  • the answer is readily identifiable directly in the text (e.g., a definition, a specific fact, a quote)
  • tend to be lower Bloom’s levels (because the reader merely has to identify or locate the answer)
  • are text dependent: the reader cannot answer the question without reading the text
  • may include the words, “according to the text”
  • may include the question words, “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” or “how.”
  • may contain words in bold print
  • Example: “What is an igneous rock?

(c) gregw66, 2011 via Creative Commons

Search and find out questions

  • assess literal comprehension
  • the answer is identifiable in the text, but the reader must read through a more extended portion of the text to find all the parts (e.g., several reasons, multiple steps)
  • involve more summary and extrapolation, so are higher than “Right There” questions, but still lower level questions
  • are text dependent
  • may also include the words, “according to the text” and the question words “who-what-where-when-how”
  • Example: “What are the three major kinds of rocks? Explain how each is formed.

(c) gregw66 (2011), Jonathan Wilkens and Ken Lund (2010) via Creative Commons

Author and me questions

  • assess inferential comprehension
  • are text-dependent (the reader must have read the text in order to answer), but cannot be answered with the text, alone
  • involve interpretation and reflection, so are higher order
  • may include the words, “why,” “in your opinion,” “you,” or “use evidence from the text to explain your thinking.”
  • Example: “Find five rocks outside. Use the table on page 5 to classify them as igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary, and explain what characteristics helped you decide.”

(c) 2008, Gwen and James Anderson via Creative Commons

On my own questions

  • are not text-dependent: the reader does not have to have read the text at all to answer the question
  • involve connections to personal experiences
  • can vary in Bloom’s level, depending on the question
  • may include the words, “you/your,” “think of a time,” “when have you,” or “have you ever.”
  • Example: “List ten things in your school or schoolyard that are made from rock.”

(c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011

The Reading Lady has an excellent overview of QARs in .pdf form. It’s thirteen pages long, and includes planning sheets for teachers to plan different levels of questions for a lesson, or to classify the kinds of questions at the end of the chapter (so you can add others that are lacking). It also includes organizers for students to classify or create their own questions for each level — a very powerful task for student learning.

QARs in Science

The above examples show how QARs can be used to help students make sense of science texts. The Tantasqua School District (Massachusetts) has developed examples of how QARs can be used in other content areas – very useful for supporting literacy across content areas.

But can we use the same levels of thinking in non-text-based tasks? What would that look like?

Let’s go back to the original levels, and what they stand for:

  1. Level 1 (Right There): just reporting the proper information
  2. Level 2 (Search and Find Out): the information is there, but you have to work to get it
  3. Level 3 (Author & Me): you process the information based on your own thought and experiences
  4. Level 4 (On My Own): only your experiences are needed

Here is a suggestion for encouraging these four levels of thinking, even when text is not used. This is helpful thinking, for working with struggling readers who are not struggling thinkers, for making grade-level content accessible to students with disabilities, for making input comprehensible to students who are second language learners, and for ensuring overall rigor of thinking for all students.

Level 1 (Right There) questions

  • Involve direct observation using the five senses

Some data can be directly observed, using the 5 senses. (c)  lara604, 2011 via Creative Commons

Level 2 (Search and find out) questions

  • Involve indirect observation
  • Involve using text resources, simple tests and simple tools to gather additional data not directly observable
  • Involve knowing that some data cannot be directly observed

Simple tools and tests can be used to gather more information. (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett

Level 3 (Author & Me) Questions

  • Involve extending beyond the observations to possible causes and effects
  • Involve applying prior learning and knowledge to new observations
  • Involve prediction based on knowledge and present data

Level 4 (On My Own) questions

  • Involve generalizing to the real world
  • Involve establishing relevancy and real-life connection

Comparing the new with the known, the student generalizes to similar observations and experiences. (c) Alastros Oistros, 2005 via Creative Commons

Fostering Thinking…

To help organize students’ thinking at these four levels, I created a simple reporting sheet that can be used with many types of science tasks, from experiments, to outdoor observations, to science centers. I also made a companion sheet for using QARs with text-based tasks, in science or any other content area. Click on the image to download a copy.

QARs for Science: an Organizer for Download

QARs: an Organizer for Download

For More Information…

For more information on strategies to help foster literacy in science, see 50 Instructional Routines to Develop Content Literacy. From some of the best-known authors in the field comes a book that provides all middle and high school teachers with practical information about improving students’ reading, writing, and oral language development. Every teacher needs to use instructional routines that allow students to engage in all of these literacy processes. Classroom examples from science, social studies, English, math, visual and performing arts, and core electives ensure that all middle and high school teachers can effectively integrate literacy instruction into their lesson delivery. Click on the link (above) or the image (below) for ordering information.

50 Instructional Routines to Develop Content Literacy, $27.60 from Barnes & Noble.

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The October Simple Science Strategies Newsletter is Ready!

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Download the October Newsletter today!

As promised, here is the next edition of the Simple Science Strategies Newsletter for 2012.

In this edition, we explore Stability and Change through nature studies of fruit and seed development, migration, fall color change and the arrival of autumn weather. In the process, we will learn more about the role of questioning in scientific thinking, and learn ways to help students explore cause and effect. Right click on the text or photo link, below, and save on your computer wherever you choose. Print out or view online (note: the document contains hyperlinks to important resources).

October 2012 Edition of

The Simple Science Strategies Newsletter

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Biomes: Teaching With the ‘One Small Square’ Series

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I spent seven years of my teaching career as a third grade teacher in an urban school district. The elementary school where I taught was actually located at the edge of town, so we had a school full of kids from the city, attending school in the country. The children delighted in the horses that lived at the farm next door, and enjoyed just rolling in the grass and watching the butterflies in our nature garden.

While working on building nature activities to give the students experiences which they had not previously had, I stumbled upon the One Small Square Series of non-fiction children’s books, by Donald Silver.  Each 48-page book covers a different habitat, and guides kids through a close-up look at what you might find if you observed one small piece of that habitat.

  • Backyard
  • Cactus Desert
  • Cave
  • Night Sky
  • Pond
  • Swamp
  • Woods
  • African Savanna
  • Arctic Tundra
  • Coral Reef
  • Rainforest
  • Seashore

There are over a dozen titles in the One Small Square series, by Donald Silver. For the remainder of this post, I will focus only on Backyard, for the following reasons:

  1. While people reading the post might live in different parts of the country, and (hence) in different biomes, everyone has something that they can call a “backyard” – a patio, a planter, a parking lot, a school garden, a playground, or a park. The learning tasks in Backyard can be performed in any kind of outdoor area, including one of the other biomes.
  2. The Charlotte Mason Method of instruction recommends beginning nature studies with the child’s own surroundings, then moving to exotic locations. In all instruction, we do well to connect new information with what the learner already knows. See “Nature Study: Charlotte Mason’s Cure for Tired, Text-Taught Tots” for more on the Charlotte Method philosophy of outdoor education.
  3. Becoming familiar with the “One Small Square” method of nature study in one’s backyard makes the other studies easier.


One Small Square: Backyard, from $2.96 at Barnes & Noble. Click image for ordering information.

50 Helpful Links for Use With One Small Square: Backyard


These two links provide helpful reviews of the series, one by readers through Google Books, and another from a homeschooler:

Cornerstones of Science provides excellent reviews of many fiction and non-fiction books that can be used in your science instruction. Search by title, topic, author, grade and reading level.


Lesson and Unit Plans


This section includes a huge variety of types of web links, from .pdf versions of lesson plans to print out and put in your public school lesson plan books, to laid-back, Charlotte Mason-style homeschool nature studies using Backyard, to  unit studies compiled by the National Park Service. You will find plans for preschool through high school students in this list. I think the list is exciting! And all materials are free.

[NOTE: While I did select only links that were relevant (i.e., contained actual lesson plans, included appropriate learning tasks, used Backyard as a “spine” and addressed important educational goals), a site’s presence on the list does not mean that all linked lessons will align with state or national standards (although many provide this information for you). The teacher always has to consider the needs of her own students, as well as any school or state requirements, when choosing lessons and curriculum. ]


Many who used Backyard as a basis for their lessons tied it into studies of soils, life underground and worms. For older students, the “meter square” links introduce the idea of quadrat studies, in-depth, scientific investigations of the plants, animals, soil, light and weather of a specific area used in the field of ecology. See also the Creative Curriculum link (which describes a center-based learning approach to teaching with the book).

Learn more about observing in your backyard in “Science Skills: Making Observations and Asking Questions Like a Scientist” (Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2009)

Resource Lists


Some links did not specifically include a lesson plan, but had other interesting and important information that might be helpful to a classroom or homeschool teacher, such as schedules for using the book, the role of nature study in a balanced curriculum, lists of materials to include in a comprehensive outdoor study program, and general information on nature study. Think of these as a “shopping list” for a teacher intent on infusing science into classroom practice.

Learn how to “look closely” in “The Power of Observation: Life in a Tiny Ecosystem” (Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2009)

For More Information…


All these sites, and others, can be found on my Pinterest board, One Small Square. New sites will be added as I find them.

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Describing Using a Bubble Map: Observation of Wildflower Fruits and Seeds

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Who Would Love This Task:

  • Do you struggle getting your children to notice the difference between the words  “patch” and “pitch?”
  • Do your kids refer to objects as “thingy” or “cosita” instead of using precise words to describe them?
  • Does the typical writing of your students lack elaboration, or use general versus specific details?
  • Do you wish your students would stop and notice things when they are outside playing?

If any of these apply to you and your students, then you would all benefit from this learning task on observation. Observation is a skill used in all learning, and is the foundation of inquiry.

In inquiry-based learning, explorations provide opportunities for students to have conversation and ask questions prior to starting a new topic, to that they can activate their prior knowledge about the topic, and begin to formulate questions to help them guide further investigations. The teacher can use this opportunity to find out what students already know, as well as any misconceptions they have about the topic. To foster these experiences, teachers carefully choose the materials they provide, so that they draw the students to the learning goal. They resist the “temptation to tell,” instead providing an environment that leads students toward the desired logical conclusion (the “big idea”) instead.

This guided exploration is included as an introductory learning task for a unit on seed dispersal mechanisms. Before students can understand the various methods that plants use for dispersing their seeds, they must begin to see that the structures of plants are connected with their functions. The first step of this process is identifying and describing plants and plant structures from their locale. Although this task uses wildflower seeds and flowers as materials, you can adjust the materials freely to use whatever natural or interesting materials you have available when you do the task.

This learning task also explicitly teaches students how to use a Bubble Map as a way of recording their observations, in preparation for its use independently. The Bubble Map is a thinking map designed to focus specifically on the cognitive process of describing an object using adjectives.

Teach students to notice and wonder about things all around them [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012]


Learning Focus:

Essential Questions —

  • What is inquiry?
  • How do scientists use observations in scientific work?
  • How do wildflowers disperse their seeds?

Enduring Understandings —

  • Scientists use observations to better understand the world around them.
  • Observing plants and seeds gives us clues about how they are dispersed in nature.


Focus for This Learning Task:

  • Focus Strategy: Describing Using a Bubble Map
  • Targeted Skill: Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information
  • Key Concepts: Attributes
  • Core Ideas: Structure and Function


The Learning Task:

Guiding Questions for Students:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?

Materials Used:

  • Stems of burdock, including fruits (one for each pair of students) [Another interesting, textural fruit can be substituted for burdocks: horse chestnuts, maple samaras, black locust pods, milkweed pods, etc.]
  • Observation pages (one per student) and one copy of directions (for teacher)
  • Writing tools
  • Hand lenses
  • Tweezers
  • Styrofoam trays or plates
  • Chart paper and markers OR SmartBoard (for teacher)


Safariology™ My Bug Box Exploration Kit with 4 Compartments. Includes one set of tweezers, one magnifier, and an idea booklet. $10.98, HearthSong.

Procedure (Day 1):

1. Preparation:

    • Organize students in partners – pair students to foster conversation.
    • Pass out one burdock stem, one pair of tweezers, one Styrofoam tray, two hand lenses, and two Observation Pages for each partnership. Students will also need pencils. Have students label their trays with their initials, for future days.
    • On chart paper or the SmartBoard, recreate the chart from the Observation Page. In the center, write the words, “I notice…” At the bottom of the page, write “I wonder…”

2. Define observation: “When you notice details about something, you are making observations. Scientists use observations to understand the world around them, and to help them ask good questions.”

3. Model observation.

    • “Hmmm… I’m looking at my stem. I know it’s a burdock – you might not know that. I notice that it’s mostly brown.” [On the chart, make a bubble connected to the center bubble. Label the new bubble “mostly brown.”]
    • “Let’s see. I notice that the stem has some streaks of green in it, too. I’ll connect that to the color bubble I already have.” [Draw a new bubble, and label the bubble “streaked with green.”]. “I wonder if the whole thing started out green, then turned brown?” [At the bottom of the Observation Page, write the question, “Did the whole branch start out green, then turn brown?” under, “I wonder…]
    • “Ok. There are these round balls on the stems. I think they’re seeds or seed pods or something. I notice that they’re really prickly – they stick to my fingers!” [Add new bubbles, “very prickly,” “round things.” Add the question, “I wonder what these round things are?” to “I wonder…”]
    • Give students a minute or two to copy what you have written so far onto their own Observation Pages.

[Teacher’s Note: A Bubble Map is a brainstorming tool, so don’t worry about categorizing the responses right now – that can be done in another step. This step is focusing on describing with adjectives. If student’s response is not in the form of an adjective, paraphrase it to make it an adjective (with the student’s permission).]

4. Shared PracticeObservation.

  • Invite students to share observations that they can make about their own specimens, adding them to the class display as above.
  • Add additional observations to the class Observation Page.
  • Collect trays and tools for the next session.

Procedure (Day 2):         

1. Preparation:

    • Have students find their partners.
    • Pass out materials, or have a helper pass them out.
    • Post class Observation Page.

2. Review:

  • “What is observation? Why is it important in science?”
  • “What observations did we make about our burdock specimens yesterday?” – (Review class chart – have student volunteers read or report – add new observations as necessary).
  • Introduce the word attributes. Define attributes as the kinds of things we noticed about the burdock specimens (“We said the burdocks were mostly brown, and streaked with green. Those are all words that describe the attribute, color.”).

 3.      Guided PracticeObservation

  • Next, give students several minutes to explore their specimens using the hand lens [Teacher’s Note: Encourage students to closely examine the barbs on the fruits with the hand lenses, but don’t tell them what they’re for.]
  • [Support: Be prepared to guide students to put their responses in adjective form. It is also very important to encourage students to include questions at the bottom. Paraphrase their statements to form questions, if needed (E.g. “Look at those tiny things inside! Maybe they’re seeds” becomes “I wonder if those tiny things inside are seeds?”]
  • As students are ready, invite them to next use the tweezers to dissect one of the seed pods, continuing to add to their observation sheets.

4. Independent Practice – Observation

  • Provide interesting specimens in the Nature Corner Center for independent observations by the students. Provide any tools that would help the students make observations (hand lenses, tweezers, scissors, plastic knives, etc.), as appropriate. Include sufficient copies of the Observation Page for all.
  • Post the class Observation Page in the Center, for reference.
  • Post the vocabulary words, “observation,” “observe,” “attribute,” “notice…” and “wonder…” in the Center.
  • See “The Nature Corner” for more details on setting up a nature study center in your classroom.

 See the photo gallery, below, for ideas for seeds and other plant materials to put in the Nature Center, in order to help students develop their observation skills.


Wrap-up (Day 3 and ongoing):

  • Students place Observation Page in their science journals.
  • Teacher continues to use “I notice… I wonder…” in multiple contexts.
  • Students continue to use “I notice… I wonder…” in multiple contexts.

How could you use “I notice… I wonder…” when you’re reading? How could you use your powers of observation when you go into the cafeteria at lunchtime? When you return from recess today, be ready to share 3 things you noticed, and one thing you wondered, about the weather today.

Key Vocabulary:

  • Adjective
  • Describe
  • Observe, observation
  • Attribute
  • Notice
  • Wonder


  • Which of your five senses did you use the most when making your observations? Which did you use the least? Why?
  • Read over your questions, under “I Wonder…” Which can you answer by more observation? Which of your questions must be answered by doing some kind of research or experiment first? Why?
  • Why do you think it is important to ask questions in science?
  • Why do scientists make observations about things?


Let’s Go Outside! Outdoor Activities to Get You and Your Kids Closer to Nature. Paperback, $14 (HearthSong)

Grade-Level Considerations:


Students who are very young are learning that objects have properties, some which can be observed directly, using their senses, others which can be determined using simple tools and tests. The focus for them is on honing their observational skills, and sharing their observations orally.

When sharing this learning task with little ones, ask them questions, like the ones below.

  • What did you notice? Which of your senses did you use to notice that?
  • What word could you use to describe _____? Can you think of another word that means the same thing?
  • How did using scientific tools help you make different observations?
  • Why do scientists observe things?
  • If you were a world-famous scientist, what would you want to observe next? Why?
  • What other things did you observe today? Explain.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

Focus on conversation with preschool and kindergartners [Image credit: kjarrett 2012 via Creative Commons]

Grades 1/2:

As students enter the primary grades, they are learning that living things have structures that help them to survive. They begin to notice and can explain the connection between the structures of living things and their specific function (e.g., the stinger on a bee helps it protect itself and the hive). They are becoming more adept at the use of tools to investigate their world, and are learning to select the appropriate tools for a given situation. They can compare the way a seed is formed with the way that it is dispersed and begin to see the function behind the form.

Providing a variety of science tools leads primary grade students to explore their world in different ways, and to gather different kinds of information. In addition, providing unfamiliar objects to explore helps students at this age apply the skills that they have practiced in new contexts. As students work, ask them questions such as these:

  • Which tool would be better for ______? Why might this be?
  • How could you answer your “I Wonder” question? What tools would you need?
  • If you were making observations about underwater plants, what tools would you need? Would you need to make your observations a different way? Work with a partner to design this new exploration.
  • Use pictures and words to describe your observations.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

Primary grade students are learning that living things are the way they are for a purpose [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2012]

Grades 3/4:

Children who are moving through the elementary grades are exploring the relationships between and interdependence of living and non-living things in the environment. They are beginning to understand that some structures of living things make them better adapted for their living conditions — that there is an underlying purpose behind the way that plants and animals are designed, the environment they live in, and how they go about finding food, shelter and ways to reproduce. They are also moving beyond concrete to representational, and are using symbols and visuals to show ideas.

Children in the elementary grades can begin to discuss how certain seed dispersal mechanisms benefit plants that live in different ecosystems (e.g., why a tumbleweed disconnects from its roots when the seeds are ripe, on a windy prairie). They are also more adept at creating their own graphic organizers (“thinking maps”) to organize information in meaningful ways.

If this exploration is conducted with elementary grade students, ask them questions like the ones, below:

  • Look at the structure of _______. How do you think this plant disperses its seeds? Draw a picture showing how this might occur.
  • In what kind of environment would this seed dispersal mechanism be important? Explain.
  • Look at the words you used to describe _______. Organize your descriptions into categories. Name each attribute.
  • Create a flow map showing how _______ reproduces itself, starting with the dried fruit. Label each step in the process.
  • Find another wildflower seed head in the Nature Center that you think disperse its seeds a different way. Explain its seed dispersal mechanism. Use pictures and words to explain your thinking.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

Elementary students begin to infer and explain the reasons why living things look and behave the way they do, based on observing patterns in nature [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2011]

Grades 5/6:

Students in the middle grades are honing their skills as scientists, and learning to evaluate the validity of experimental methods and claims. Their experiments should focus on evaluating and selecting among various scientific claims. They can be expected to produce more sophisticated arguments and presentations, based on data and resources.

When conducting this investigation with older elementary students, consider the following adaptations:

  • Find two other plants that have the same seed dispersal mechanism as _______. Compare the seeds of these three plants. With a partner, make a chart showing what is sometimes true, always true, and never true about plants with this seed dispersal mechanism.
  • How would you find out if you were correct when deciding what seed dispersal mechanism _______ uses? Describe the investigation.
  • Find an article online that describes the various ways that plants disperse their seeds.

Common Core State Standards Connections:

In the middle grades, students practice making scientific claims and evaluating others claims, using observations and other data sources [Photo credit: (c) Kim M. Bennett 2011]

Suggested Resources:

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