Essential Questions: Helping Readers Focus

Essential Questions:  Helping Readers Focus

What makes a work of art great? Why do people find the painting Guernica by Picasso so compelling? What makes a Frank Lloyd Wright building so remarkable? Why is Aaron Copland’s lyrical Appalachian Spring such a heralded piece of music? What was it about Walker Evans’ photographs that renders his images so memorable? Why do generations keep discovering magic in a novel such as “To Kill a Mocking-bird?”

How do we explain the appeal of a Mozart opera, an Emily Dickinson poem, a Henry Moore sculpture, a Sergei Eisenstein motion picture, a Billie Holiday recording? How do we account for what makes some artistic works great? You will be confronted with these questions when you will begin your ACT or GED prep, with traditional books or following an online prep course.

Most of the questions that confront students in the ACT  curriculum are leading questions. Leading questions direct learning toward a set answer and are helpful in making sure that students are clear on key basic information. But essential questions help students dig deeper into a topic. Organizing a unit around essential questions involves the following steps:

Or to perhaps ask it another way, “Why should we bother to become acquainted with works such as these?” Certainly, this is an essential question, a question that cuts right to the core of art and what makes some art meaningful, powerful, and enduring. And it’s a question that would undoubtedly elicit a variety of possible answers, probably some disagreement, and perhaps even heated passions.

Last month’s Reading Room column described a method of unit planning that Wiggins and McTighe term Backward Design. The concept behind backward design is to organize instruction first around “big ideas,” those central and focusing ideas within a topic that make it worthwhile to study, the gist of a unit that provides students with important insights about their world, the essence of learning that students retain long after their days in the classroom are over. The way to get at big ideas, suggest Wiggins and McTighe, is through essential questions.

Teaching/Learning Activities


Step 1: Consider what transcendent questions might be embedded in a topic or unit of study. Why? or So What? are examples of over-arching questions that help students see critical connections or relationships within a topic area. Why exactly are we studying this? How can this be applied in the larger world? What couldn’t we do if we didn’t understand this? What’s the “moral of the story”? What is worth remembering, after time has passed, about this topic, unit, novel, or experiment?

For example, why should students read the novel, “Lord of the Flies”? Why this book and not another? What will they gain from this experience that will make a difference to them? What are the “big ideas” in this work? What makes this book a classic?

Questions like these help teachers focus on the “point” of instruction. Unlike leading questions, which could help students follow key events of the plot, spot the author’s use of symbolism, or clarify characterization, these overarching questions tap into larger ideas that can be accessed during a unit such as a novel study of “Lord of the Flies.”

Step 2: Next, decide on “topical” essential questions which directly relate to a specific topic or unit of study. For example, essential questions germane to “Lord of the Flies” might include: What does it mean to be civilized? Are modern civilizations more civilized than ancient ones? What is necessary to ensure civilized behavior? Do children need to be taught to be civilized? What causes us to lose civilized behavior?

Wiggins and McTighe argue that essential questions like those posed above have a number of critical attributes. First, they are arguable; there is no single obvious “right” answer. Such questions ask students to “uncover” ideas, problems, controversies, philosophical positions, or perspectives. Second, essential questions often reach across subject boundaries and engender a series of ensuing and related questions that help us reach an understanding.

Third, these questions often strike right at the heart of a discipline, such as what can novels tell us, whose version of history is being told, can we ultimately prove anything in science and how do we know what we think we know. Fourth, essential questions are also recursive; that is, they naturally reoccur, often many times, during the study of a discipline. First graders as well as college students can offer valid aesthetic judgments about what makes a book a great book, for example.

Finally, essential questions can provide a focus for sifting through the information and details of a unit of study, and they especially encourage student inquiry, discussion, and research. They involve students in personalizing their learning and developing individual insights into a topic.

Step 3: Once you have focused a unit on essential questions, design daily activities and assessments that include student processing of these issues. Essential questions can guide students through assignments and help them see the intent behind a unit of study and perceive lasting value.

For example, essential questions for a history unit on “manifest destiny” and the movement of settlers west in America could include: Why do people move? Do people migrate for the same reasons today that they did in the 19th century? Who has the “right” to a particular territory? Who wins and who loses during major population shifts? Questions such as these can help students focus on big ideas as they study the events such as the Oregon Trail, the Mexican War, the California Gold Rush, and the conflicts between settlers and native peoples in the Great Plains.

Activities such as position papers, debates, role playing, and simulations can be especially effective in helping students formulate working answers to these essential questions. Certainly leading questions that help students establish key information are an integral part of instruction. But students also come to realize that knowledge does not necessarily exist for its own sake, but is used to understand important dynamics about human behavior.


Much of our curriculum is geared to telling students “what.” Essential questions help students to perceive “why.” In addition:

Students are engaged in critical thinking as an integral part of learning.
Students begin to expect more than factual information; they become accustomed to examining topics and issues with more depth.
Students are encouraged to take an inquisitive and questioning approach to the curriculum, and to develop answers that personalize their learning.
Learning centered around essential questions is more likely to be remembered over time.