Question Like a Four-Year-Old

A few years ago, I was trying to figure out how to get my AP Literature students to go beyond the surface in their analysis. Their essays mostly stayed in “safe” territory, rarely venturing beyond paraphrase and, when they dealt with theme at all, tentative stabs at topic: “Frankenstein’s monster shows the effect of society on personality.” or “Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about the meaninglessness of life.” The ideas in their essays weren’t necessarily wrong, but because they were so surface level, they never really dug into deeper, more focused meanings in the texts and led to similarly unfocused essays, not really sure what they were trying to say.

This stood in direct opposition to the discussions we were having in class. As the year progressed and students developed more confidence in taking risks with their thinking and expressing their ideas, our discussions were rich and fascinating, surprising the students with the connections they made and that particular satisfaction of an incisive analysis. I even paused the class on occasion to call their attention to the resonance of an especially poignant insight. They could feel it. But when it came to writing an essay on their own, students struggled to go beyond a stock thesis that often just restated the prompt.

So, I came up with an exercise to help them develop their ideas beyond the generic, and decided to focus it on thesis statements, because I’ve noticed (especially after reading thousands of Question 3 essays at the last two AP Lit readings) that an insightful, focused thesis quite often leads to an insightful, focused, well-developed essay.

Here is how we do it:

  1. Students take 5-7 minutes to write a thesis statement from a prompt. AP Lit released prompts are perfect for this. If they have time after writing their thesis statement, they can do a quick outline of possible supporting evidence or topic sentences for how they will support their essay.
  2. Students pair up with their essays and take turns questioning each other’s thesis statement, discussing the answers and progressively digging for complexity and focusing the ideas in the thesis.
  3. We go around the classroom and share our original and revised thesis statements, noticing what has changed and, time allowing, asking additional questions to hone them even further.

The reason I named this the 4-year-old Questioning Technique is because it involves an incessant, annoying, seemingly endless string of questions. Here is an example:

Thesis Writer (TW): Original thesis: “Frankenstein’s monster shows the effect of society on personality.”

Questioner (Q): “How did society affect Frankenstein’s monster’s personality?”

TW: “It made him angry and murderous.”

Q: “How did it make him angry and murderous?”

TW: “It treated him badly and made him want to treat others badly.”

Q: “Why did it treat him badly?”

TW: “Because he was ugly.”

Q: “Why did they treat him badly because he was ugly?”

TW: “Because society tends to reject things and people who are different and they don’t understand.”

Q: “Why did that make him angry and murderous?”

TW: “Because we learn how to treat people by how we are treated.”

20 or more questions later – possible Revised Thesis: “The development of Frankenstein’s monster into a murderous, angry creature shows how society’s tendency to reject what it does not understand can ironically lead to creating the very monsters we fear.”

At first, students can get flabbergasted by this activity, but I always model it for them first, telling them that the goal is to explore ideas and to get to the “Why” and “How” of things, because that is where complexity lies.

Teachers can try different variations on this activity, having a single brave student be questioned by the whole class, using an online discussion board to conduct a silent discussion, or sharing revised theses in various ways.

Eventually, after practicing with their classmates, students begin to enact the practice independently while they are writing, channeling their inner 4-year-olds and pushing themselves to develop their ideas with increasing insight and beyond the surface.

What are some ways that you get your students to go beyond the surface in their thinking and develop more insight with greater complexity? Let me know in the comments below!



Jori Krulder is a veteran AP teacher who teaches in paradise – literally – Paradise, California. In addition to teaching, she enjoys long bike rides, a good cup of coffee, and spending time with her family.


Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

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One thought on “Question Like a Four-Year-Old

  1. Now that I also teach AP Language I can bring into Lit what students learned in Lang. The exercise you describe sounds very much like a TOULMIN thesis statement model which is prevalent in Lang. TOULMIN is also based on a cause/effect. Thanks for the reminder.

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