Pike County’s Shelia Varney conducted a micro-study and found her students benefited in multiple ways from learning how to ask questions.
In the 2016-2017 school year, with a small grant from the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative, Kentucky kindergarten teacher Shelia Varney conducted a modest study with suggestive results.
Collaborating with a fellow kindergarten teacher at Pike County’s Southside Elementary School, Varney set out to enhance students’ ability to ask questions. At the beginning of the year she introduced her class to the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), and she used it with students throughout the year. Students in her colleague’s kindergarten class were not exposed to the QFT.
“At the beginning our two classrooms were very similar,” Varney said. The teachers presented their kindergartners – 20 in each class – with a drawing of a worm digging in dirt, and they told the kids to “ask all the questions you can about this picture.”
In September, students in both classes approached this exercise with silence, or they made on-topic statements, such as “that’s a worm.” A few asked off-topic questions, like, “May I go to the bathroom?” Only two students, not from Varney’s class, asked relevant questions, such as, “Is that a worm?”
“A five-year-old child asks a hundred questions a day,” Varney said, “but when you put them on the spot and say, ‘Okay, let’s look at this picture, ask me some questions,’ it’s like a deer in headlights. They just don’t know how to approach that.”
In March — after Varney’s students had experienced the QFT — the two educators measured students’ progress with a similar exercise. Varney’s students had leaped ahead in their ability to ask questions. Nine of her students asked three or more on-topic questions, and another seven asked at least one on-topic question. Four of her students made on-topic statements, and none were silent or off-topic.
In her colleague’s kindergarten class, only three students asked an on-topic question, and none asked more than three questions. Most of those kindergartners, 11, made on-topic statements. Seven were silent or off topic.
Summarizing the results of this small study, Varney noted that students exposed to the QFT “had a huge jump” in their ability to ask relevant, on-topic questions.
And consider some of the questions they were asking. In a unit about seasons, they asked things like, “Are there deciduous trees in that forest?” and, “Are those trees dormant?” — sophisticated material for kindergartners.
“I was really impressed,” Varney admitted.
Building foundational skills
Like many kindergarten teachers, Varney recognizes the unique responsibility intrinsic to her role. Namely, she is the first teacher students will have in their academic careers. She oversees their first structured classroom experience. She is responsible for teaching foundational skills that set the stage for years to come.
It’s a role Varney takes seriously. Introducing students to reading and writing is one of the foundational skills she’s responsible for teaching. It’s another area where the QFT has helped, she said.
Incoming kindergartners can’t read or write, but they began using their own questions as a vehicle for learning these skills. Students would underline tricky-to-learn words like “where” and “when.” Varney created sentence strips with their questions, and her students would cut them into pieces, shuffle them like cards, and put them back together in the correct order.
“It helps solidify those sight words, sentence structure, how you put a sentence together,” Varney said. “Question marks at the end, the capitals at the beginning, and all those foundational skills that I have to teach in kindergarten. This is just a natural connection … it’s a versatile tool for me.”
Vocabulary and the sophistication of questions also improved after using the QFT, with students incorporating words like the ones mentioned above – “deciduous” and “dormant” – into their questions.
“They’re more ready to write,” Varney said. “I really think it’s affecting them in so many different ways that I can afford to spend the little extra time” using the QFT. She said her students “reap the benefits.”
“It’s one of the easiest tools I’ve ever been given”
Varney first encountered the QFT through Kim Sergent, who conducted teacher training with the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a collection of 19 school districts in eastern, Appalachian Kentucky. Additionally, Varney’s son, then in seventh grade, had used the QFT in his classroom and spoke highly about it.
Like many teachers, Varney works with kids who come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Pike County — at the heart of the legendary family feud between the Hatfields and McCoys — is “nesteled in the Eastern coal fields” of Kentucky, the county’s website says. In 2017 the median household income was just over $33,000, about $20,000 less than the national average, according to Census figures.
“Economically it’s a mixed bag,” Varney said of the area. There’s a mix of professional families (doctors, lawyers, accountants) with families struggling due to a decline in the coal industry. School budgets are tight.
That the QFT is free, quick, and easy to implement makes a difference. It “takes very little prep time” and is “one of the easiest tools I’ve ever been given for my little tool box,” Varney said.
Better yet, her kindergartners love it and light up when they get to use it.
“You say, ‘QFT,’ and they’re on the rug. They’re ready,” Varney said about their enthusiasm. Their attitude is, “Let’s go. I want my sentence strip now.”
“Sometimes you’ll hear the kids say, ‘Best day ever!’” Varney said about their reaction to the QFT. “They really just like it because it’s theirs … it’s their sentence. It’s their questions.”
By Chris Orchard: firstname.lastname@example.org