How to Answer Questions Substantively

What is a substantive response?

Answering response questions each week can be a tedious task, but it’s important to exercise critical thinking skills to ensure understanding of the text. The questions I ask are designed to help you think about a story or character in a deeper way, to think beyond the basics. Plus, answering substantively ensures you get full credit.

A substantive response can include: 

  • Identifying and interpreting the author’s intentions 
  • Dissecting the motives of the character
  • Projecting what might happen based on the passage in question 
  • Explaining deeper messages and meanings within the text
  • Connecting ideas from a story to something in our current time
  • Providing *anything* of substance

Here’s an example of a response question followed by various ways you could answer:

In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis creates four main and distinct characters in Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Why do you think Lewis designated one child as rebellious early in the story?

Poor response: Because he wanted to make the story interesting. 

Better response:  Lewis created a diverse cast of kids so there would be tension in the story and it would be more interesting. The story wouldn’t be as good if everyone had the same personality.

Best response: By designating Edmund as rebellious, Lewis sets up the symbolic story with a “Judas” already in motion. He shows Edmund’s discontent early in the story so readers understand that he will be the one to betray Aslan. The White Witch sees Edmund as an easy target and preys on him to achieve her goals. Also, CS Lewis might have wanted to spotlight the rebel in all of us – how everyone wants to ditch the rules sometimes and go his/her own way. By presenting different personalities in the cast of kids, Lewis shows how we can all struggle with authority at times, struggle to work together, struggle to listen, struggle to trust one another, etc.

Do you see how different those answers are? The first answer lacked insight and effort, and the second answer was only a little better. The last answer was thoughtful, thorough, and shows that the reader tried to connect ideas.