What’s the use of chapter questions?

August 25, 2008

In order to test whether students have read their novel (or play), English teachers have traditionally given them chapter (or Act) questions. However, these can be both dull and futile: dull because there’s nothing like having to answer a multitude of questions to kill your interest in a novel; and futile because they are an invitation for students to copy each other’s work just to ensure that the questions have been completed. What’s the alternative then? Here are six ideas:

  1. Literary lies: The teacher produces a summary of the story that contains ten errors (ranging from obvious to subtle). The students are then required to identify and ‘correct’ these errors.
  2. Twenty questions: Starting with the teacher, a number of people in the class take turns being ‘IT’. This person sits at the front of the room and must think of a character, object or place from the story. Individually or in teams, students have the opportunity to ask yes-or-no questions. If they receive a ‘yes’ they continue asking questions until they can guess the character or object, or until they receive a ‘no’ in response to a question. The first person or team to guess the character or object wins. If twenty questions have been asked and no-one has determined the correct answer, the person acting as ‘IT’ reveals the answer and a new person becomes ‘IT’. Prizes can be awarded, if wished. Alternatively, adapt a current game show on television as a classroom activity.
  3. Who? What? Where? When?: The students are given an A4 sheet of paper that contains unfinished line drawings of various scenes from the novel (or play). These drawings should not be too specific or detailed. Students are then required to identify who (which characters) are in the scene, what’s happening, where this is occurring (setting) and when. Finally, the scenes have to be arranged in chronological order and colour, dialogue, additional drawing can be added to the scenes. Students can create their own and swap with other groups.
  4. Photostory: Using digital cameras, students work in groups to create a series of photographs which summarise the major scenes of the novel (or play). These can then be uploaded to Microsoft’s PhotoStory 3 (available as a free download), and appropriate captions, audio narration and music added.
  5. Hot seat roleplay: One person sits at the front of the room in a chair. That person is to take on the role of a designated character from the story and answer questions from the audience in role. This also works well with a panel of students playing different characters.
  6. Mapping: Have students create detailed, annotated maps based on the events and characters in the story. These can drawn digitally.

This is just a small taste of a much wider range of possible activities. The main points of difference between these suggestions and the traditional chapter questions include:

  • They encourage active engagement with the text.
  • They encourage discussion and close reading.
  • They are likely to be more enjoyable.

So, throw away those chapter questions and try something more creative and ultimately worthwhile.

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