Close reading with text-dependent questions: conducting a text investigation

Making meaning of a complex text is itself a complex process. When students flex their literacy muscles to read something that is challenging for them, they grow as readers, as thinkers, and as writers.  Helping students develop stamina and supporting a productive struggle with challenging texts through routine practices provides the foundation for strong writing skills.

In their books Text-Dependent Questions: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading (Grades K-5 and Grades 6-12), authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey present a four-phase approach to close reading that takes students deeper into the text with each phase. Each phase includes an overarching question that students seek to answer as they are guided by additional text-dependent questions offered to help them surface the information needed to answer the larger question.

  • Phase One asks the question, “What does the text say?” to reveals essential understanding of the text and reflects instructional moves that activate and connect and provide the foundation for teacher moves that provide scaffolding for all students.
  • Phase Two asks, “How does the text work?” Questions at this phase help the student to read like a writer. Teacher moves at this phase include guided practice and modeling.
  • Phase Three goes on to explore what the text means and often provide a scaffold for students to make inferences based on the information gleaned in the first two phases.
  • Phase Four considers what the text inspires the reader to do.

Fisher and Frey’s Phase Two text-dependent questions address vocabulary, text structures, and author’s craft. By learning to recognize these essential elements of how a text works, students develop the ability to transfer that learning to other contexts.  Knowing how a text works, any text, often supports significant improvement in student engagement.


Developing text-dependent questions that analyze vocabulary and word use enhances the ability to determine meaning from context. This is a critical skill for lifelong learning in the workplace.  Vocabulary development relies on recognizing context clues, knowing how words work (such as roots, prefixes, suffixes, conjugation, etc.) and making meaning of domain-specific words. Three of the six ELA Language standards address vocabulary skill development, grades K-12.  Examining common words used a different way, words with multiple meanings which can only be determined through context, and words or phrases that suggest qualities of mood, tone, or attitude, require a reader to look at part of a text and determine its relationship to the whole.  Comprehension improves when students consider precise language and why an author chose one word rather than another.

Vocabulary questions often focus on the effect rather than just the meaning of a particular word.

  • What is an armistice? How does this word help you determine a detail of setting?
  • In The Raft, Nicky describes the drawings as “wild, fast and free.” What does that mean?
  • How does Rilke us the word alien? Does this have a positive or negative connotation?
  • What is the tone in the first chapter? Point to specific words that support your thinking.

Text Structure

Text structure refers to the way information within a text is organized. Narratives in literature generally follow a standard structure which introduces setting and characters, reveals a central conflict, builds tensions by heightening the conflict, then resolves the problem at the climax.  Literary nonfiction is often a chronological narrative that follows a sequence relative to time.  Informational texts sometimes explain a problem and its solution, but are also organized by other structures such as cause and effect relationship, comparing and contrasting, description, and sequence.

Text structure questions often start with how or why and explore an author’s intention as well as the effect on the reader.

  • Why does Rilke use “we” throughout the letter when addressing Mr. Kappus’s troubles?
  • How does the text use foreshadowing to alert us to the end of the relationship?
  • How does Twain use personal and popular anecdotes to illustrate his position on Shakespeare’s identity?

Author’s Craft

When students examine the author’s craft, they are reading like a writer. Knowing the characteristics of a particular genre is essential to analyzing whether the author is faithful to the genre or has taken liberties.  The role of the narrator, the rhythm of the text determined by sentence length and word use, and text features such as charts, figures, diagrams, and illustrations all contribute to understanding an author’s style and method.  Readers must contend with the author’s conscious choices and determine whether the choice is effective.

Questions about author’s craft wrap in choices about word use and structure as well as purpose and audience. It is not always necessary to know something about the author, but rather confirming audience and purpose before exploring craft may be helpful.

  • Nicky says, “Somehow, on the river, it seemed like summer would never end. But of course it did.” How does the author help us feel like summer is endless for Nicky?
  • Curley’s wife is the only woman in the story and the only character without a name. Why does Steinbeck only refer to her as Curley’s Wife?
  • Examine Hemingway’s use of direct, uncomplicated sentences. How does this affect the tone of the story?
  • How do the authors of the text use statistics to support their claims? Why do they use percentages to illustrate their point?

To learn more about creating effective text-dependent questions that support learning vocabulary, exploring text structure and understanding author’s craft, try these resources:

Achieve the Core: Text Dependent Questions

Find rich resources to support professional learning including a complete guide to creating text-dependent questions, a checklist for evaluating question quality, model lessons using text-dependent questions, and more.

Depend on the Text! How to Create Text-Dependent Questions

From ReadWriteThink, this strategy guide provides a short video and steps to developing close reading habits based on Fisher and Frey’s model.

Close Reading Vocabulary

This brief video demonstrates text dependent questions using a graphic organizer to examine key, related, and mood words that lead to an understanding of author’s craft.

A Close Look at Close Reading: Scaffolding Students with Complex Texts

This site provides another explanation of close reading including how vocabulary, structure, and author’s craft each provide an opportunity to provide direct support for a student’s understanding of a complex text.

Using close reading strategies to help students analyze word choice, understand how texts work and think like writers and that will help all students grow as readers and as writers. Try writing and using text dependent questions that focus students’ attention on the aspects of Phase Two—vocabulary, text structure and author’s craft.  See what a difference it can make in their understanding of the text and in their own writing.

Identifying Instructional Moves During Guided Learning by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey

This article from the Reading Teacher provides guidance and examples of instructional moves relative to the four-part process of small-group guiding instruction.

Teacher Exemplars and Nonexemplars of Instructional Moves

This chart briefly explains several teacher moves relative to literacy instruction and provides examples of how not using these instructional moves may prevent deeper learning.

For more information, contact Maine DOE Literacy Specialist Lee Anne Larsen at or ELA Specialist Morgan Dunton at