Strategies for Reading Comprehension
Questioning the Author
[McKeown, Beck, & Worthy, 1993]


What Is Questioning the Author?
Questioning the Author is a protocol of inquiries that students can make about the content they are reading. This strategy is designed to encourage students to think beyond the words on the page and to consider the author's intent for the selection and his or her success at communicating it.

The idea of "questioning" the author is a way to evaluate how well a selection of text stands on its own, not simply an invitation to "challenge" a writer. Students are looking at the author's intent, his craft, his clarity, his organization...in short, if the author has done well, students can say so, and they can identify why they say so. Likewise, if students are struggling over a selection of text, it may be because it hasn't been written very clearly. Students can see this, and say so, but then they are invited to improve on it.

How Does It Work?
The standard format involves five questions. Students read a selection of text (one or more paragraphs, but generally not as much as a whole page), and then answer these questions:

  1. What is the author trying to tell you?
  2. Why is the author telling you that?
  3. Does the author say it clearly?
  4. How could the author have said things more clearly?
  5. What would you say instead?

As developed by Margaret McKeown, Isabel Beck, and Jo Worthy, Questioning the Author becomes a tool for recognizing and diagnosing inconsiderate text. Sometimes, as we know, students struggle with content not because they are failing as readers but because the author has failed as a writer. It is this notion of the "fallible author" that McKeown et al wish students to become aware of. When they think a failure to understand is their own fault, students often pull away from their reading. But if they will approach text with a "reviser's eye," as McKeown and her colleagues put it, they can shift from trying to understand text to making text more understanable.

Got Some Text I Could Practice On?
Here's a selection that's offered just for fun, but I think you'll get the idea.

Each employee must wash his hands thoroughly with warm water and soap after each trip to the toilet and before beginning work.

What is the author trying to tell you? The author is telling me that I must be clean before I can work at my job; in particular, I have to wash my hands whether I'm just starting work or if I've just been to the bathroom.
Why is the author telling you that? I think it has to do with who the author is; in this case, I think the author is the Health Department, which is responsible for sanitation issues in restaurants. To keep customers of an eating establishment from getting sick and to reduce the transmission of disease, employees who handle food or utensils or plates have to make sure they have clean hands.

If the author were the owner of the restaurant, though, she would probably want her employees to wash their hands for a similar reason, only in her case she is concerned about different consequences. If people who eat at her restaurant get sick because employees weren't clean, then it would hurt her business.

A customer might also express the same sentiment as the Health Department or restaurant owner, but his motivation would simply be that he doesn't wish to get sick because of unsanitary practices by employees.

Is it said clearly? It seems pretty clear and straight-forward.
How might the author have written it more clearly? Well, it has a real legalistic sound to it. That's probably necessary because of a uniform health code and the nature of governmental agencies and the way that they communicate. You can hear the unspoken tagline: "By Order of the Health Department." In this case, it's probably written pretty clearly and might be hard to improve upon. It does seem a little wordy. For instance, if you tell someone to wash his hands, do you have to remind him to do so with soap and warm water?
What would you have wanted to say instead? "Please don't make me eat your germs. Wash your hands before touching my food!"



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