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Assessment Opportunities: Asking Authentic Questions to Inform Instruction (Guest Post)

By Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan

We are always on the lookout for assessment opportunities that can happen authentically, right in the midst of our teaching.  Asking a pre-assessment question before a whole class, small group or individual lesson is one assessment opportunity that we have found invaluable and it only takes a minute or two.  We simply begin by asking a question, have students turn and talk, and move among the partnerships to listen and take notes.  Once students have had time to talk, we tell the class a few ideas we heard and connect these ideas to the lesson we are about to teach. 

The snippets of conversation we hear help us get a quick pulse of the classroom, understand some confusions that may be lurking and adjust our lessons based on the students’ comments.   When we approach students with a clipboard and pen in hand, they seem to sit up a little bit straighter, listen a little more, and state their ideas with a bit more clarity.   Listening and recording their words sends a message that what they say matters and that they are expected to actively participate in learning.  We are finding that when students get a minute to talk about a concept they are learning they become more engaged in what we are teaching. 

We ask all different types of pre-assessment questions, but the questions that provide us with the most information fall into three categories: assessing what we taught in a prior lesson, assessing what students know about a concept we are about to teach; and assessing students’ reflections about their learning process:

Pre-Assessment Questions about Prior Learning

When we ask a pre-assessment question about a concept we have previously taught we want to assess:  What do they remember?  What did they understand?  Why do they think they should learn it?   How might they use this new knowledge when reading on their own?  Here our some of our favorite pre-assessment questions that help get kids talking about what they have learned:

  • Over the past few days we have been learning how readers ___________________________(solve multi-syllabic words, talk about their characters, discuss possible themes etc.), please talk to your partner about what you have learned as a reader.
  • We have been learning about _________________________.  Why do you think we are learning this?   Turn and Talk
  • Talk about how our learning about _______________________has helped or hasn’t helped you as a reader?
  • Please “be the teacher” and teach your partner what you know about _________________________________

These questions are so simple, yet the information we hear helps focus our instruction.  The other day we asked students, “How do you figure out an unfamiliar word when you are reading independently?”  Students turned and talked and we listened.    As they talked we heard several strategies – sound it out, look at the picture, ask what would make sense, etc.    One strategy missing from the conversations we overheard was rereading.   Right then and there we adjusted the focus our lesson.

Pre-Assessment Questions about Upcoming Learning

We also use pre-assessment questions to help us understand what students know about a strategy before we teach it:  Have they heard of it before? What do they seem confused about?  Why do they think they should learn this?  Do they understand how this new learning will be connected to what they already know?

Here are some pre-assessment questions we ask students if we want to assess what they know about a strategy or skill we are going to teach.

  • We are going to learn _____________________.  How might that help you as a reader?
  • Today I am going to teach you ______________________.  Why do you think I want to you learn this?
  • Today we are going to learn _________________________.  What do you already know about _____________________?
  • Please tell your partner everything you know about ___________________________
  • How has learning _______________gone for you?  What is going well?  What are you still working on?

Just the other day we asked a group of students, “ How do readers find the theme(s) of a text?”  As we listened and took notes, it became very clear that many students were confusing plot and theme.   Once we heard this we knew we had to clarify the difference between plot and theme.   Our pre-assessment question helped us identify an instructional opportunity for us to address before we started to think about how to determine themes.

Pre-Assessment Questions about Students’ Reflections on their Learning Process:

On other days we want to assess how students are feeling about learning and know a bit more about how they view themselves as readers.   What do they think about reading workshop?  What are their thoughts about the books they are reading?  When do they feel successful?   When do they struggle? What do they hope to learn?  What are their frustrations or concerns?

  • Share with your partner what you have been working on as a reader?
  • Please tell your partner one thing you are excited about in reading workshop
  • Please talk about one thing you would change about reading workshop.
  • Share how you have been using your reading notebook.
  • Show your partner your book log, how have you been using it.
  • We have been learning about__________________.  What are you most proud of?
  • If I was going to spend more time teaching something at reading workshop, what do you hope I would teach?

Recently we began reading workshop by asking, “What are you looking forward to during reading workshop this year?”  One student looked at his partner and said, “ I am not looking forward to anything.  I hate reading.”   Perhaps this student would have told us this directly but he may have tried to hide it.   We knew our first job was to help him find joy in reading.

Sharing What We Hear

Since everyone has a chance to express their ideas to a partner and we have an opportunity to listen in, there is no need to have students share with the entire group.  We either share a few of the ideas we heard and then connect those ideas to what we are teaching or we ask one partnership to share their conversation with the group.    Depending on what we hear, we begin our lesson in a variety of ways:

Readers, as I listened to your conversations I heard so many thoughts.   I heard that you know ___________, ______________ and ___________.

Please listen to (students names).   We can learn from their discussion on this strategy.

Readers, when you turned and talked did you notice how quiet it was.  Why do you think it was so quiet?

Readers, as I listened I learned that this is new for all of us.  Great! That tells me that the work we are about to do is important.  Let’s get started.

When we use their words at the beginning of our lessons it helps them know that they are a big part of the learning process and that what they say matters.    We are not only listening, we are writing it down and incorporating it into our lessons.  Of course, the information we gain when we ask any pre-assessment question isn’t enough data on it’s own.   These questions only give us a glimpse into what our students are thinking in one moment in time.  We have to take what we learn and compare it to our conferring notes, student work samples and formal assessment data to determine our instructional goals.  We do think, however, that these snippets of conversations we hear inform our teaching and send a message to our students that that they are our partners in learning.


121120_0199_JG 2Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan have been working in the field of professional development for the past 22 years.  They began their work together co-teaching in an integrated first and second grade classroom at the Eliot Pearson Children’s School in Medford, Massachusetts.  They then spent four years as educational consultants for Tufts University in the Center for Applied Child Development.  Their next professional home was Wayland, Massachusetts, as the directors of curriculum for English Language Arts for Wayland Public Elementary Schools.  Clare and Tammy now run a private staff development business, Teachers for Teachers.  They work with various school systems to implement best practices in the field of literacy and to engage in institutional change through shared leadership.   They have written a book for Stenhouse Publishers titled, Assessment in Perspective:  Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers.  Visit the authors at


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. MaddieD #

    Wow, what great ideas, Clare and Tammy! I ABSOLUTELY want my students to be my “partners in learning.” Taking the time to pre-assess my students with turn and talk is such a great idea. I use it all the time during my lessons, but taking the time to do something like this in the beginning of a lesson would really set the tone for the entire lesson. Thank you for your suggestions. “Please tell your partner everything you know about…” is such a versatile assessment, too. Thank you for the suggestions!


    March 14, 2016
  2. Brianna Swartz #

    With the ever present emphasis on testing and assessment, this post provides an effective way for teachers to focus lessons and monitor understandings without all of the grades and pressures attached to them. Using these authentic questions as a way for students to reflect on their thinking and what they are learning is a beneficial strategy for both teachers and students. Students’ voices are encouraged and heard, and those opinions then help the teacher to clear up any misunderstandings or areas of confusion. In this way, both teacher and student truly become “partners in learning”. Personally, I know that many times, talking through my ideas with someone else or teaching someone else about a concept helped me to learn the most because it forced me to synthesize information in a meaningful way. These kinds of questions do just that. They help students understand what they know already and what they will want to know, inspiring them to be active participants in thinking about their own learning. Thank you for your insights on how to effectively create assessment opportunities in the classroom!


    February 28, 2016
  3. Sam Goodlin #

    Clare and Tammy,

    Wow. This is very enlightening for a prospective teacher such as myself. I completely agree that students tend to sit up and think more about their answers when their teachers write them down. We want our students to know that we care about what they say an writing that down gives them that assurance. I tend to view things like students still so I know that seeing my teacher write down something I said makes me feel more validated about what I’ve said.

    I also really liked how you gave potential assessment questions and how the students might answer them. I’m very excited to see how my students react to certain questions I may ask them so to see how some could respond is even more exciting.

    Thank you both for this wonderful article!

    Samantha Goodlin
    English B.S.Ed.
    West Chester University


    February 25, 2016
  4. Thanks for sharing your wonderful suggestions, Clare and Tammy. It is always amazing to me what we can learn from students when we let them talk and reflect on their learning – such purposeful assessment.


    February 25, 2016

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