maximizing reading taxonomies for self-directed discussions
Part of my resolution to become a more thoughtful reader is to not just read slower or to be more deliberate about the kinds of books I read, but also to actively engage with and think about the story. I personally think that asking questions while reading is the way to go, and doing so has always helped me be more invested in the text and appreciate the work than author has put into it.
Coming up with our own questions about a text helps us track several aspects of our reading process:
- what we know so far
- which information seems essential to the narrative
- which topics do not have clear-cut answers and may need more insight from other people
By being more aware of these aspects, we engage our metacognition or–in other words–we actively think about our own thinking. To beef up our active reading/thinking skills, I borrowed some things from my teacher toolbox, namely the Dimensions of Reading Comprehension by Nemah Hermosa (2002): a model that puts together other earlier ones proposed by Gray, Gates, Smith and Barrett. It is usually used in writing discussion prompts, creating activities, and formulating test questions for literature classrooms, but this post hopefully helps us maximize this for self-directed reading journeys. In addition, this is just one of the many theories out there, so feel free to use other models too!
The questions are grouped according to the level of complexity of required cognitive skills. For example, recall questions would only need information directly stated in the text, while creative questions lead you to come up with a new ending or a new world for the characters. Each level is also dependent on the others: for example, it’s hard to properly evaluate a text or argue a hot take without remembering what was directly mentioned in a scene or what its context was. Here’s a quick overview:
You can use the links to navigate this chonker of a post:
- Level 1: Literal Comprehension
- Level 2: Interpretation
- Level 3: Evaluation or Critical Reading
- Level 4: Integration or Application to Self and Life
- Level 5: Creative Reading
Though I’ve written these questions with books in mind, I think they can work for any kind of work with narrative content such as movies, TV series, and other formats. Hope you find them helpful, and please let me know if I missed anything!
Note: Many of the examples below are geared towards fantasy and mystery because I’ve been reading those kinds of books lately, but the tips can definitely be adapted for any kind of genre.
Level 1: Literal Comprehension
This refers to the “ability to obtain a low-level type of understanding by using only information explicitly stated in the text.” (Hermosa 2002) This is mainly recall of basic facts in the text by using the 5Ws and 1 H: who, what, when, where, why, and how. In the diagram, this is also known as reading the lines.
Helpful for (+some examples):
- Getting to know the characters – physical descriptions, traits, habits (doubly helpful for foreshadowing or checking character development, such as noting additions of new scars or outfit changes)
- Who is the main character’s father?
- Why do they choose to run away from home?
- Which factions are present in the book, and with whom is the main character allied?
- Keeping track of action scenes – logistics, attacks, stakes, consequences, key players, absent figures, weapons, and terrain
- Who instigated the plot?
- Where does the battle happen?
- How does the main character outwit her captors?
- What does the squad do to the enemy’s supply wagon?
- Managing plot – sequence or timeline of events, actions, and consequences
- [If the book has a map] Where are they going next? How far is it?
- Which event triggered this character’s outburst?
- When will the big disaster take place?
- What initial clues are given to solve the case?
- Appreciating level of detail in worldbuilding and cultural representation
- What food are the characters eating at the party?
- What is a cenote?
- What derogatory term is used for this group of people?
Why these can be helpful
I’m the kind of reader who forgets details halfway through the book, and I can’t appreciate the weight of reveals or climactic scenes because I lost track of the buildup. Sometimes, phrasing it in question form, like “Who is the shady figure following the main character?” piques my curiosity and I remember it more vividly than a random mental note like “There is a shady figure following the main character.” It helps me be more alert for similar cues and therefore keeps me more engaged with the story.
Since I’m also aiming to read more diverse works, I expect to encounter terms that I am not familiar with. Asking questions helps direct my Google searches and puts that sense of urgency to know them now instead of lazily glossing over a word I don’t know. By stoking my curiosity and deliberately acting on it, I become more motivated to learn about other cultures and see how they tie back into the book.
In addition, if you’re an artist who would love to make fan art, knowing key descriptions can help you imagine a scene or a character more vividly!
Listing the questions and answers (even in shorthand or in emojis) in a separate file as I go helps me keep my memory fresh, and referring to the file makes my life easier. Another plus is that I get to compile notes of textual evidence that I can bring up in whatever essay or hot take I want to do.
In class, teachers like to ask Level 1 questions to check if you have actually read the required readings. Don’t hate them for asking these! But if they do ask nothing else but Level 1 questions, that’s so sad 😦 It’s also a warning sign that you’re probably not getting the most out of the text (and your class). Explicit information in all narrative texts are supposed to be threaded together to form an overarching story, and if we spend too much attention on the little details, we might miss out on the big picture.
Level 2: Interpretation
These questions are concerned with details that are not directly stated in the text, but rather are suggested or implied. This is also known as reading between the lines, and this process is usually split into two main subskills:
- to infer – to make a well-educated guess using given information (aka the answers to Level 1 questions)
- to understand what the author implies – the author suggests a meaning without saying it directly
There isn’t always a strict boundary between the two. It’s more of who does what: a reader infers and an author implies.
Helpful for (+some examples):
- Discerning character motivations and emotions – back stories, personalities, silences, speech acts
- Why did she decide to sign this contract?
- Which event in their past influenced this decision?
- What does he feel at the moment?
- How did she interpret his declaration?
- He said this line: [insert quote here]. What does he mean?
- What does this character prioritize the most or hold most dear?
- Predicting what will happen next – solving a mystery, tracking a character arc
- Given the clues [in Level 1], what will likely happen next?
- Which cues does the protagonist miss? How will this affect her later?
- Best friends had a huge fight! How will they work together after that?
- Understanding underlying logic or institutions present in lore or worldbuilding – connections between history and how it affects the characters’ present choices, getting used to rules and limitations set in the world
- How does the magic system work in this universe?
- How did this environment come to be?
- If this [rule] exists, which choices are left for them?
- Analyzing relationship dynamics – dialogue, actions, power, priorities
- How does her relationship with her family affect her decisions?
- Is he likely to say this to her? Why would it be considered out of character?
- Are they in a romantic relationship, or is this just intense friendship?
- Analyzing a scene – who is doing what to whom, context
- What happened immediately before this scene? What happens after?
- What does this scene imply?
- What does this scene mean for the rest of the story?
Why these can be helpful
There are sometimes those moments when you read a scene, imagine it, and the emotional impact just HITS like an 18-wheeler truck at full speed like:
That particular scene won’t have the same dramatic effect if the author spelled every single detail and thought and emotion out for the readers. Sometimes, it pays to read in between the lines, and asking questions helps us if we don’t get the scene right away.
In addition, there are some emotionally demanding scenes that an author may not choose to depict directly. For example, if rape is part of the story, the author may choose to imply that it is taking place through the use of objects or symbols. Another example is if a particularly gruesome death happens, it can happen “offstage”, and the scene cuts to screaming. We don’t have to know all the details especially if it will only be gratuitous and won’t add anything new to the story.
Level 2 also helps us make sense of the setting and cultural backdrop. If a story is set in a world that we are not very familiar with, asking how things work–especially if they were left out of long lore dumps–can ease us into it and make us more comfortable in navigating it. These days, since I deliberately choose to read books written or set in cultures different from my own, I ask Level 2 a lot to make sense of the assumptions that are built into character relationships or the culture. Sometimes characters react very differently from my expectations, and by asking why and combing through context clues, I can see how all of these tie together.
Pausing to evaluate where the story is going or how the characters interact also helps us keep track of the narrative beats. For epic stories, I do this as often as I possibly can so that I can see the bigger picture. For mysteries, the break gives me a chance to put together all the clues that I have so far. Level 2 Qs help me come up with my own theories but, at the same time, keep me grounded to the text.
A word of caution, though: It’s so easy to take a scene or a detail out of context and attribute so many things to it. Asking questions about other aspects of the text can help ground our interpretations close to the logic presented in the book by the author. It may not always makes sense to us personally, but that’s what Level 3 is for 🙂
Level 3: Evaluation (Critical Reading)
Questions in this level are meant to help a reader make personal judgments on the text. It can be divided into two main parts:
- content or theme – issues presented and their accuracy, value, truthfulness, objectivity, recency, and relevance
- Is this good or bad?
- Is this real or not?
- Is it relatable?
- elements of style – everything related to the craft of writing: language, literary devices, and other storytelling techniques
- Is this well-written?
- Does this part or aspect make sense?
This is still part of reading between the lines, because the answers are still based solely on the text itself. This time, however, we slowly ease ourselves in by using our values to judge what is presented to us.
Helpful for (+examples):
- Keeping track of pacing, timelines, and other narrative structures
- Does the story-within-a-story format make the reading experience better?
- Are the flashbacks well-done, or do they slow down the pacing?
- Evaluating literary devices used
- Which tropes are used in the text?
- Is this character’s sudden reappearance a deus ex machina?
- Does the character unlock this ability through the power of friendship, or are there other explanations?
- Articulating personal feelings about the text
- Do I like this book? Which parts did I like?
- Would I recommend this book? Why or why not?
- Which parts did I like least?
- Connecting with the characters
- Who is my favorite character? Who is my least favorite character?
- Is his action good or bad? What makes it so?
- Identifying themes and motifs
- How is racism presented in this text?
- Which objects serve as symbols for this particular theme? Are they consistent throughout the text?
Why these can be helpful:
Level 3 helps hold a magnifying glass up to the text and lets us ask: is this good? is this working as it should? is it consistent? Being a critical reader does not necessarily mean nitpicking on every detail; rather, I think of it as considering the effort an author put into their craft in order to weave this story. It’s looking at a finished work from all possible angles and marveling at the tools and parts the author uses to craft a journey that has me crying and staring at the walls for a week. The more that I love a work, the more that I want to know how it was written and how so many meanings are layered into the text.
But a word of warning: not everything in the book is meant to be a literary symbol that needs to be analyzed to death. Sometimes, the curtains are simply blue. Not everything in the book is deliberate, either, and some of it are meanings that we read into the text and don’t really represent what the author is trying to do. The more we practice asking questions, the more we figure out which ones don’t really need to be asked.
In addition, this domain is exercised most by bookish creators who write reviews! It is a hard job, and hats off to everyone who spend time and effort and brain cells!!!!! to give an honest and well-grounded evaluation of a given work. If you struggle with writing reviews like I do, CW at The Quiet Pond has written resources of writing prompts (here and here) that can help you get started!
Level 3 helps us voice our opinions about the text. We get to judge the information that we have gathered from Levels 1 and 2 in order to determine if we like the text, if the text is well-written, if it is worth recommending to other people, and so on and so forth. When we ask these questions, we can picture in our heads a sliding scale to help us rate us a work based on qualities that we deem important–and it should come as no surprise that everyone rates things differently. In time, we become more aware of what we like and don’t like in a book–and honestly, having a solid sense of my own preferences saves me from months of reading slumps and a ton of frustration.
Level 4: Integration (Application to Self/Life)
These questions are meant for readers to connect the text with our own world: our personal experiences, the issues in our society, what we have learned in school or from the news, and so much more. This aspect also brings into discussion the author’s experiences: which scenes are inspired by real-life scenarios This is also known as reading beyond the lines because we now go outside the constraints of this one text and hold it up against others that discuss similar or related content.
Helpful for (+some examples):
- Connecting themes in the book with real-world issues
- Is this group coded as Black? How does it affect my understanding of the text?
- The author based the climax on this historical event. Are you familiar with it?
- Interrogating the author’s perspective
- How does the author’s experiences/identity influence the way certain characters are presented?
- Based on the book, what do you think are the author’s thoughts on this topic?
- Dealing with our own biases
- I can’t connect with the character or the worldbuilding. Is it a me problem or is it the book?
- Which perspectives are new to me?
- Which of my experiences or beliefs influence the way I read this book?
- This part makes me feel uncomfortable. Why is that so?
- Analyzing overarching systems or narratives in the story
- Who is in charge of writing and teaching history in their world? How does this affect the characters’ perception of reality?
- The main character is part of the nobility, and whether or not she realizes it, she is part of her people’s oppressors. How does her power and privilege influence her worldview and actions?
- Understanding its place in current published literature
- This book is considered to be part of the Western Canon. Why do you think does it continue to be considered “quality literature” by the academe or by certain ~educated~ circles?
- Do the ideas present here still hold up to a reread?
Why these can be helpful:
Personally, this is my favorite domain. I like seeing how the themes presented in a text connect with the world that I live in. At the same time, I love interrogating my own biases and checking how my own experiences influence the meanings that I ascribe to it: How far is it from my own? How biased am I? I got mad at this character, but am I in the right position to make that moral judgment? Are my experiences comparable with what the people in this fictional world are going through?
Part of what boils my blood is reading reviews that complain about how a character “is so whiny” or “does not make sense because if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t do THAT”. Well, you aren’t in their shoes! The choices available to them may be very different from those that are accessible to you, and their worldview may be based on rules that are not present in your society. If you consider any of these “backward”, then whose standards are we using? How did those standards come to be?
Questions in this domain are topics of discourse among authors, publishers, and the bookish creator community, and I am so happy that this kind of critical engagement with a text is much more normal today. One great example is this wonderful guide written by Kate and Shenwei on how whiteness influences how BIPOC characters are represented, and it is definitely worth checking out. Though many of the points brought up in the post are directed to authors, we as readers also have a lot to learn from understanding the thought processes that go into building the worlds we escape to.
Moreover, Level 4 pushes me to Google real-world issues that I may not have encountered before: headlines, forgotten names in history, and perspectives of identities that I do not hold. It is humbling to acknowledge that my worldview will not be able to account for every possible experience. By asking these questions, I get directed to experts, advocates, and history books that can shed more light on these issues. If I have time, I usually go back and reread parts of the text after doing research just so that I can understand it even more.
Level 5: Creative Reading
This is defined as the use of “divergent thinking skills to come up with new ideas or alternate solutions to those presented by the writer,” (Hermosa 2002) and is also part of reading beyond the lines.
Helpful for (+some examples):
- Coming up with our own endings
- Timeskip: what are the characters doing twenty years after the story ended?
- If she were the one to deal the killing blow, how would the story have ended?
- Cliffhanger: how can we tie up loose ends?
- Imagining the characters in new or unwritten scenarios
- If the characters were transported to this other fictional universe, what kind of chaos would erupt?
- What could have happened while they were en route to the next town on their list?
- How did these two side characters meet and become friends?
- What would the story be like had it been told through their point of view?
- Dealing with the consequences if a story had gone a different route
- If he chose to stay with his family instead of joining the quest, what could have happened?
- If this deus ex machina were not present, how would the story have ended?
- Writing our own stories inspired by the text
- Which ideas presented in the text can be explored in a new work?
- Are there parts of my culture or experiences that have not been represented or given similar treatment? How do I take what I have learned from the book to do my own?
Why these can be helpful:
Fanfiction writers, rise up! This is your domain, your time to shine! If you’ve ever tried to resolve that yawning void when your favorite character disappeared in favor of other “more important” concerns or if the ending was deeply unsatisfying, then you are probably familiar with the itch to fill it with fix-it fics, alternate universes (AUs) or fluff.
If you also want to reimagine the text in a new medium or to create a retelling of it, then it’s considered creative reading!
Sometimes, our inspiration goes another way: we get inspired by certain elements of the text and want to make our own stories, too. That’s creative reading! These questions help us decide which parts drive us to make these decisions and to get tips when we embark on our own projects.
Some thoughts on being a more engaged and critical reader:
You might be thinking: this is additional work! I want to read for fun, and you’re making me do a book report??? Well, no. The practice of asking questions doesn’t have to be compiled into a boring and formal school essay. It can be in the form of book club discussions, drafts for our pending bookish content, incoherent texts to friends, memes + other forms of shitposting, or–if you’re chaotic like I am–scribblings in all caps with a red pen on the margins of my books. If I watch a movie or TV series with someone, I literally ask them questions. Yes, I’m that noisy person, but I do try to hold my peace to keep my friendships and my seat in the movie theater. I strongly believe that reading is not meant to be a passive consumption of media and that thinking more about what we read helps us enjoy and appreciate the work so much more.
Whether we do it by screaming in the buddy reading Discord channel, gasping audibly, scribbling in the margins of our books, writing it in our reading journals, or unleashing a storm on Twitter, actively asking questions makes us more engaged with what we read. We think more and we feel more. By investing more time and brain cells into a text, we tend to remember it more–fondly or otherwise–and let it have more of an impact on our lives.
Related post: Slowing down in the age of fast content
Many of these questions drive me to write posts for Margin Letters, and you can see there how much love I give to other side characters. Since many of my what-ifs are not sufficiently answered in the text, I try to fill in the gap with my own musings. Hope you get to read what I’ve posted!
This is my working framework for the blog feature Classroom Without Walls, where I try to come up with discussion questions for books I have read. Though I try to cover as many aspects as possible, my questions are limited to what I find interesting. There are a hundred more questions that I’ve probably missed, and hearing your own would enrich the discussion.
At this time of writing, I haven’t yet uploaded any posts for Classroom Without Walls, but I do have three or four
rotting waiting patiently in my drafts. My frustrations with writing them have actually led me to putting this together in the hopes of maybe hearing one or two questions that I have never considered before. [Update: I gathered the courage to upload one! It’s more of an experiment at the moment, so please drop by and learn with me!]
Yes, I do give my brain a break. No, it isn’t wrong to just drink everything in and move on to the next book on my TBR. I think the most important thing is to enjoy a work of art, and sometimes, in order to appreciate it fully, it pays it dive in and dig deep.
You never know if you’ll hit gold if you don’t try.
- How do you usually engage with a text?
- Which of these levels do you like asking yourself while reading? Which levels have you not considered important before or will need more practice in asking?
- Besides the given examples, how else can we use these questions to enrich our reading?
Main reference: Hermosa, N.N. (2002). The Psychology of Reading. UP Open University.