Defining “Deep Reading” and “Text-Dependent Questions”

In my English 10 class, I used to teach a lesson about satire through Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book.  To begin this lesson, I would tell students, “While this is, on one hand, a children’s book, it is also a satirical look at the Cold War era and arms races.  Let’s talk about what you already know about the Cold War,” and doing due diligence to pre-reading activities, we’d begin listing everything we knew about the Cold War era.

Then, we would read the book aloud together in its online format.  Afterward, returning to pre-reading activity in its post-reading form, we’d talk about what we learned in terms of satirical writing:  How did the characters represent the countries involved in the Cold War?  How did the weapons in the butter battle represent the nuclear arms race?  What do you think about the leaders in Cold War countries based on the way they are portrayed by Seuss?

Looking back on this lesson with my common core lenses, I took all the joy out of reading from my students.  Because I unlocked all the secrets of The Butter Battle Book for them and did all the work of dissecting the piece as part of my lesson planning, I left them with only the bones of a Thanksgiving turkey having picked away all the meaty parts myself.

Where I went astray of common core expectations.

What the common core asks us to do is to stop doing all of the work of reading for our students, to stop stealing the fun of reading and put it back in their hands.  We want them to explore, uncover the mysteries, inquire, and pick away at the text to figure it out.  You may have heard some of the controversy recently surrounding David Coleman, primary writer of the English language arts standards statements, and his seemingly anti-pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading comprehension strategies.  What Coleman and the common core standards want us to do is stop frontloading so much information because what we research and dig up to tell our students in an attempt to build context for a reading is information they can dig up on their own while we guide and facilitate their reading.  Oftentimes, in doing pre-reading activities, we give away all the answers, such was the case in my Butter Battle lesson, unfortunately.  When we ask students to complete anticipation guides in which we address the themes of a text, we are doing the work of finding the themes for them.

Deep reading, the kind of reading encouraged by common core standards, asks students to “read like a detective” (NYSED) where they are looking closely for details.  Kelly Gallagher (2004) describes deep reading in terms of baseball.  When he took his daughters to baseball games as children, they missed all the intricacies of the game such as the signals sent from the coach to the player on first base or secret signs passed around by the players:

Isn’t this how many secondary students read text?  They rarely get below the surface to the richer, deeper meaning of the text.  The think one reading is sufficient; they don’t have the skills to uncover the craft, the complexities, and the nuances of the text.  They can read and ‘comprehend,’ but they do so almost exclusively on a surface level.  They miss much of the deeper beauty of the game. (3)

Deep reading forces students to dig further into the text by asking them to re-read, re-visit, and search for the hidden intricacies of the text.

Deep reading through text-dependent questions, or “Another area where I went astray”

When I asked my students “How did the characters represent the countries involved in the Cold War?” they could answer without having to look back in the text.  In fact, because we had already discussed the Cold War and how the countries behaved, they could probably answer that question without having read The Butter Battle at all!  Again, my question itself did all of the work for the students; I left them no responsibility for dissecting the text.

A text-dependent question forces students to go back to the text.  It is a question they could not answer if they did not read, and even if they did read, they will still need to refer back to the text to answer the question.  In his research in both Texas and Vermont, Coleman found that 80% of the questions students in grades kindergarten through twelve were asked to answer did not require them to go back to the text.

To help teachers understand text-dependent questions,, created by the Student Achievement Partners, has created exemplar lesson plans and has published its “Guide to Creating Questions for Close Analytic Reading.”  Good text-dependent questions, according to the guide, cause students to do at least one of the following tasks:

  • Analyze paragraphs on a sentence by sentence basis and sentences on a word by word basis to determine the role played by individual paragraphs, sentences, phrases, or words
  • Investigate how meaning can be altered by changing key words and why an author may have chosen one word over another
  • Prove each argument in persuasive text, each idea in informational text, each key detail in literary text, and observe how these build to a whole
  • Examine how shifts in the direction of an argument or explanation are achieved and the impact of those shifts
  • Question why authors choose to being and end when they do
  • Note and assess patterns of writing and what they achieve
  • Consider what the text leaves uncertain or unstated

For a student to complete any of these tasks, he or she would have to read and comprehend the text and revisit the text to analyze it.  While asking these kinds of questions requires planning in advance–I know I would have a challenging time making them up on the spot!–it is a different kind of planning than we are used to because instead of preparing to give away all the information, we are planning to ask probing questions that guide students in uncovering the information.

What does deep reading do for our students?

Deep reading, text-dependent questions, and teaching them to uncover the mysteries of texts leads our students to become more critical readers.  Because they are doing the work of analyzing the text, the expectations of the common core are that students will become more critical consumers of texts in their college and careers—areas of their lives when they will not have teachers around to impart the secrets of texts to them before they read.

This kind of reading also relates to the writing expectations of the common core standards that require students to deeply analyze texts, to identify the author’s explicit argument and claims to support it.  If students are being asked to “read like detectives,” they are being asked to “write like investigative reporters,” which means building their own arguments in response to texts (NYSED video).

Reflection is the heart of our practice.

If I were to teach my Butter Battle lesson again, I would start with reading and get rid of all the frontloading.  I would present them with the whole Thanksgiving turkey and have them dig in on their own.  I would then guide their learning by pre-planning questions that make them dig deeper and deeper into the levels of meaning:  How does the use of the phrase “kinks in his soul” define the view the Yooks have of the Zooks?  What causes VanItch to “look quite sickly”?  What is Dr. Seuss saying through the growing intensity of the weapons?  Why does Dr. Seuss end the book with the “Big-Boy Boomeroo” standoff?

The common core standards ask us to change the kinds of questions we ask and to require our students to do more work on their own.  They ask us to let our students unravel the mysteries of reading.

Additional Resources

For more, this post by Tim Shanahan was absolutely fantastic!

This video of a high school English teacher leading a text-dependent analysis of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” highlights how this strategy works in practice:



Gallagher, K. (2004).  Deeper reading:  Comprehending challenging texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

NYSED. (2011, April 28).  Bringing the common core to life.  Video retrieved from

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45 thoughts on “Defining “Deep Reading” and “Text-Dependent Questions”

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  11. I couldn’t agree more. It sounds like Tim is now practicing some of the methods I was trying to use in the early 90′s, when the gurus of the day told us to get back to Madeline Hunter, get our noses out of the texts, and start taking advantage of computers. Deep reading, they said, is an antiquated practice. We need kids who can make PowerPoints. “Futurists” saw shining castles, glimmering with technology, without the need for relics like “deep reading.” I’m glad that the new leaders are here now to take us through these new practices.

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  30. What are some of the close reading questions you would have asked for this Butter Battle Book and the Cold War? Can you show us an example? Thanks!

    • Whoo hoo! A free moment to spend some time looking at the book and respond :)

      So, here is how I would run this lesson (if I were doing it again)…

      1. Have them jump in and read–Maybe start the class with it since they (high schoolers, here) would be curious about using a Dr. Seuss book in class.

      2. I’d Google to find the copy online and project it so we can all see. Why? Because what’s better than a giant image of Dr. Seuss pages?

      3. Since I know I want to focus on satire and what is being satirized, I need to ask questions that guide students in that direction. (Side note–IF we were talking theme or something, I wouldn’t steer the conversation toward the satire. We’d have a bigger conversation open to many interpretations, but this lesson was about satire…).

      4. I’d start by asking what they thought the book was about (The first, and literal level of the text). They’ll say things like “The Yooks and Zooks” or “A battle about butter,” maybe some students will dig deeper. I’d keep asking “and what else?…and what else?” until it got to the uncomfortable moment when they’re stretching and digging and trying and feeling like they’re way in left field. I would hope that we could get to the Cold War comparison this way, but maybe not (continue story with step 5)

      5. If “what else” doesn’t get them to make the Cold War connection, I would ask them to talk about the weapons. What is significant about the weapons? (Text-dependent because they can’t answer without having read). Follow up: Why does each side keep recreating weapons?

      6. What might Dr. Seuss be alluding to? (This is my “We can’t get there any other way” question because it’s REALLY leading their thinking). And again…”What else?….What else?…”

      7. What does Dr. Seuss think about the the ever-changing weapons and what words did he choose to show you his opinion? (author’s craft, text-dependent question–gets to the satire bit)

      8. What does his use of “buttered toast” do to emphasize his opinion on the subject? (To clarify…Think about…How might this story be different if the two sides disagreed on something like religion?)

      Not a perfect lesson (they never are, of course), but much more aligned with a Common Core lesson that drives student thinking with carefully planned questions that guide rather than give away. Hope that helped!

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  38. Thanks for giving more insight to text dependent questions. I have read your post here and another comment on another website, and it has clarified some things for me. I think we should not completely leave the Pre-reading activity, yet I agree with the Thanksgiving turkey idea. In the past I have given my students almost the whole story! I remember one student asking for the summary before we read when he thought we were going to move on without it. I noticed then and there, OMG I don’t think they are reading! I’m thankful there is another shift and its statewide/country wide. I have found so many resources! Thanks Christina for sharing.

    • Thanks for commenting. You’re right about not completely leaving pre-reading behind. As with all things in education, balance is key! There’s a line between too much information (making it destructive to learning) and too little information (making it destructive to learning), but a good balance makes information accessible for all students. Best of luck!

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