Quick Guide to Topical Essential Questions

Dr. Natalie Saaris
August 21, 2018

When most of us think of “essential question,” we imagine an overarching question that creates connections across a unit, semester, or year. What drives our thoughts and actions? How do nations acquire power? What patterns exist throughout nature? While these broader questions are thought-provoking and a great way to bring purpose to a unit, they are intimidating and difficult to implement. What if you can’t figure out an overarching essential question that ties together what you teach? What if you’re already halfway through a unit and haven’t built an essential question into your curriculum design?

There is a way to reap many of the benefits of essential questions without going whole hog: topical essential questions present a lower-lift way to drive purpose, engagement, and understanding. Here is everything you need to know to bring deeper learning to an individual assignment.

Topical essential question checklist

What is a topical essential question? 

Whereas an “overarching essential question” transcends many topics, a “topical essential question” focuses on the specific content of a text or topic (McTighe and Wiggins 2013, 9-10). As an example, an overarching essential question that could apply to a variety of persuasive texts might be: “How do writers influence their audience?” This question is not specific to any particular text, and is instead used to generate connections across many texts. You could easily use this question to work through several texts across an entire semester. A “topical essential question,” on the other hand, is one we could generate for an individual text like Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech: “How does Martin Luther King Jr. use rhetoric to bring Whites and African Americans together?”

While the topical essential question is more limited in scope, it still has some of the key features of an overarching essential question:

  • It is open-ended.
  • It inspires higher-order thinking like analysis and evaluation.
  • Its answer requires justification and explanation.
  • It engages students.

Overarching essential questions and topical essential questions can complement one another: a teacher who is tying together a unit using an overarching essential question might create topical essential questions that stem from the broader theme. So if a teacher has organized curriculum around the overarching essential question, “How do organisms evolve?”, one particular text about frogs might focus on the topical essential question, “How do different species of frogs adapt to their environments?”

But every teacher can integrate topical essential questions into instruction, even without the overarching question as an anchor. These topical questions can be used to deepen learning for individual texts or lessons. You don’t have to be an instructional designer to leverage the power of essential questions in your next assignment.

How do I create a topical essential question?

Consider what it is you want students to focus on or think about during the lesson or assignment. What is the most important “big idea” that students should retain? Any given text will have several details and takeaways, but the topical essential question should address the general idea that brings all those smaller pieces together. For instance, if students are learning about the Bill of Rights, a teacher might want them to know the specific amendments and the historical context in which they were written. But what ultimately brings those amendments and their context together is the notion of individual liberty: each of those amendments exists as a check on governmental power. An appropriate topical essential question would be: “How does the Bill of Rights protect individual liberty?” This enables students to delve into the details of the text but still tie them back to a broader purpose.

Another way to create a topical essential question, particularly in shorter nonfiction articles, is to think about how the main idea of the text ties to your instructional content. What curricular or thematic ‘lens’ do you want students to read this article through? If students are reading an article about why cell phones batteries die in a chemistry course, for example, an appropriate topical essential question that ties in concepts of heat and thermodynamics might be, “Why can’t a battery ever be ‘perfect’?” This enables students to tie this real-world scenario back to the larger chemistry unit.

How do I use topical essential questions in my instruction?

  1. Share the topical essential question before students begin their assignment. That way they know what they should focus on as they absorb new information, rather than seeing the essential question as an afterthought.
  2. Ensure that your questions and activities throughout the assignment tie to the essential question. Treat the essential question like a lesson objective and avoid randomness. For example, if your topical essential question relates to character development in a novel, do not ask a series of questions about unrelated themes that deviate from the purpose you have created for students.
  3. Always bring students back to the topical essential question once they complete their reading, lecture, or activity. Ask them to answer the question using evidence, preferably in a whole-class discussion. Encourage them to respond to each other’s ideas, either by providing contrasting evidence or furthering existing thinking. This enables them to connect the dots on what they’ve learned and integrate it back into a broader schema.

Related posts:

Works Cited:

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013). Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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