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Five Steps to Writing Essential Questions

By Keren Perles

Essential questions can make the lesson planning process more effective, but many teachers struggle to write quality essential questions for their lessons. Read on for a step-by-step guide to writing essential questions.

1. Choose the Main Concept

The first step to writing essential questions is to write down the main concept that you are trying to teach your students. Although this may seem obvious at first, many teachers find that once they write down what they are trying to teach, they realize that they should really be focusing on something entirely different. For example, a teacher might write that he is trying to teach "the seven taxonomic ranks in the modern classification system," and then realizes that his main goal is not for students to memorize these ranks at all. Instead, his goal is for students to understand the reasons why scientists classify organisms and how they do it.

2. Turn It Into a Question

The next step in writing essential questions is to take the statement and convert it into an actual question. For example, you might change "the classification of organisms" to "Why do scientists classify organisms?", "How do scientists classify organisms?", or "What are the classifications of organisms?" In fact, you may find that one concept can be split into three essential questions.

3. Think Like Your Students

Think about what would interest your students the most about the questions that you write down. Which of them are the most thought provoking and which of them would seem most important within the context of your students' lives? The question should also require the students to really organize their knowledge in order to answer it. In this step, choose the question(s) that seem to best fit this criteria.

4. Refine the Content of the Question

Remember that an essential question should not have an obvious right answer and the answers to it should not be simple. Explained in a different way, an essential question cannot be answered in one sentence, but does not need a whole book to answer it either. Instead, an essential question should require students to use higher-level thinking skills or form their own opinions or solutions to problems. It should also target the main concept of the chapter or essay you are teaching about. In this step, try to tailor your question so that it addresses all of these concerns.

5. Refine the Wording of the Question

In order for an essential question to be effective, your students will need to be able to easily understand it and keep it in mind while they learn the information related to it. Students should never be able to misconstrue an essential question, and all of the students should understand exactly what it means. For these reasons, the wording of an essential question is incredibly important. After you adjust the wording slightly to make it as clear as possible, have several other people read it to make sure that they understand exactly what you are trying to convey.

The process of writing an essential question is often just as important as the question itself. Clarifying what you want your students to understand about the lesson can ensure that you will gear your lesson so that your students will actually grasp those important concepts.