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Scaffolding Text-Based Questions in the Classroom

Molly is a Language Arts teacher and writer with a B.A. in English and French Literature and a M.A. in Secondary Education.


Do you have a classroom of diverse readers and writers? Do you struggle to meet the needs of your emerging, grade level, and advanced students all at once? There is no need to feel overwhelmed: adapting your lessons to suit a wide variety of student abilities is easier than you think. Read through the tried and true steps below to learn how you can modify your assignments for different students without feeling overloaded by extra work.

Step 1: Identify Your Main Idea

Just like you might ask your students to identify the main idea of a text, it is important that you identify the main idea of your lesson. What do you want your students to focus on when reading this text? Characterization? Plot development? Figurative language? Maybe you are reading a nonfiction text and want your students to evaluate the thesis and supporting arguments of the writer. Before you plan out how to modify your text-based questions for varying levels of comprehension, you need to have a firm grasp of what understandings you want your students to demonstrate.

Step 2: Scaffold the Topic Itself

Sometimes it can be difficult to simply generate questions that target different reading levels, especially if you are more comfortable with specific types of questions. To make this easier, list out the knowledge students should have about your topic, from the most basic to the most advanced.

For example, if you want your students to answer questions about characterization, your list might look like this:

  • Every story has a protagonist, an antagonist, and supporting characters.
  • Authors develop a character using description, the character's actions and speech, and what other characters say to or about them.
  • Complex characters evolve and develop over the course of a story.
  • Complex characters often serve as foils to one another in order to highlight important traits.

This might not be a complete list, but it's a good place to start. Another way to go about this is to think about what you want your most advanced students to understand and work your way backwards to the basics.

Step 3: Write Questions Designed for Each Item on Your List

Now that you have your list of basic to advanced understandings, you can write 1-2 questions for each. Thus, characterization questions for an emerging reader might be:

  • Who is the protagonist of this story, and who is the antagonist?
  • Find 1-2 sentences that describe the protagonist and copy them down.

Characterization questions for your advanced readers (and writers) might be:

  • Explain how character X serves as a foil to character Y, using supporting evidence from the text.
  • Compare and contrast the evolution of characters X and Y over the course of the story, using supporting evidence from the text.

See? Not so hard, after all.

Bonus Tip: Consider Multiple Choice Questions

Sometimes you have students in your class who struggle to express their ideas in writing. This might be due to a learning disability, a language barrier, or simply being far behind, but it is important to accommodate these students. Multiple choice questions are also a great way to confirm your suspicions about what a specific student isn't quite getting. For example, if you ask: "Who is the protagonist of the story?" and a student chooses the antagonist, you know there's probably a misunderstanding in vocabulary. This can also be a simple way to check for understanding of nuance when studying something such as theme or metaphor.


Planning assignments for a classroom of diverse abilities can seem incredibly daunting, but it doesn't have to be as challenging as you might think. Try out these steps and see how quickly you are able to turn your carefully crafted lesson into a versatile, easily adaptable plan.