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#qskills – Why are questions a good way to stimulate language learners? (Part 2)




Clouds in the form of a question markIn the latest of our series of posts on English for Academic Purposes, Joe McVeigh, a teacher trainer and author from the U.S., continues to explore a question-based approach to teaching English and developing critical thinking skills.

As teachers, we use many different types of questions in the classroom. We ask students questions to see if they know the answer. A question like, “Can you answer number six, please?” is one example. “What does remote mean?” might be another. These are questions that we know the answer to already. They are used to quickly gauge comprehension and to make sure students are following along.

Compare this with another type of question, such as “What did you do this weekend?” In this case, the teacher, who is asking the question doesn’t know the answer. When the student answers, some real communication has taken place. Still, the question is not going to lead to a lot of conversation.

A third type of question is more likely to stimulate student learners. This is a question like, “Why does something become popular?”  This is a question without an easy answer—and chances are that the teacher doesn’t know the answer either. To answer this question will require not only good language skills, but the ability to think in English.

Helping students answer challenging questions

While some students might enjoy this type of question and dive right in, others may need some help from the teacher. Here are some tips on working with questions with your students.

Warm ups

Students will respond better when they have an opportunity to get warmed up. Rather than starting off with a challenging question, lead them up to it gently, by asking some easier questions. For instance, if the essential question you are looking at is Why does something become popular? you can start off with some easier questions such as: What are some popular trends today? or have students look around the room at the clothing they are wearing or think about the music they listen to and answer questions about how those things became popular.

Vocabulary building

As with most classroom activities, a question-based approach will benefit from vocabulary development. Prepare your students to address the question by introducing them to helpful new words. You can introduce these with photos, by having students use their dictionaries, or by using targeted vocabulary activities.

Build schema

To help students with questions, try drawing on their “schema” or background knowledge. Usually, this means eliciting from students what they already know about a subject. This can help activate vocabulary and critical thinking skills.

Provide food for thought

Students are more likely to come up with insights into questions if they have an opportunity to know what others think. You can share some ideas that other people have come up with by using a listening activity or a reading passage to give a point of view about the question. Even better, offer two different points of view, and then let students make up their own minds.

Have you used questions like these in your classroom? What techniques did you find helpful to get students to participate? What were some of the questions that worked particularly well with your students?

Joe McVeigh is co-author of Q Skills for Success, the new course from OUP that connects critical thinking, language skills, and student learning outcomes.

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  1. I agree that warm ups are extremely important as well as building background. It’s an important part of class time that we shouldn’t skip.

  2. Most communicative approach trained teachers use a variety of questions, and as you so rightly say the key is to know what type of question you are using, and what for.
    1) Classroom management type questions like “Could you please answer number 6? mentioned in your article, or questions to check instructions or comprehension. These generally have to be phrased quite carefully if they are to be comprehensible to learners.
    2) Classroom language such as “What does it mean?” which learners are often trained to use in order to use English to ask for information that they actually need to build and extend their language awareness.
    3) True “Information-gap” type questions that may or may not lead to discussion. These, in my experience work best when done in small non confrontational groups or in pyramid discussions, leading eventually to a full class format. To simply ask the whole class can be daunting for some (Of course this depends on the size of the class etc.)
    I actually got one of my students to record my classroom language to do an analysis, s couple of years ago and what I saw was that I used all these different types of questions for different reasons, at different points in lessons. One thing was very obvious though. I, as a teacher, used questions continually, and the students responded well.

  3. Nice thoughts:) These days, I have mostly lower-level students, so it got me thinking about how this applies for different levels. Is it just about accepting shorter and simpler answers at lower levels?

    I’m also thinking about the structure you prep students with. I like the idea of doing several short readings on the topic. Somehow, it needs to prep them without just giving them the answers. If you could know the exact structure they need, then it kind of defeats the purpose.

    Maybe it would be helpful to let students use their dictionaries to look up, for instance, 10 new words they think they might use with the topic.


  4. I’m excited to see meaningful questions taking center-stage in the classroom, and I’m happy to see a way to adopt those “unknown answer” questions laid out so clearly. In my classroom, I try to focus on schema-building too, and I wonder if you have any specific activities at your fingertips for schema-building that you wouldn’t mind sharing.


  5. In response to Stuart Mill English, a great activity occurred to me, one that I use in the first lesson of my beginner classes. And this is how I do it.

    1. Elicit words they already know in English, but they just somehow don’t realise these are English words. In most countries in Europe a some typical examples would be “restaurant”, “shop”, “computer”,”pizza”, “Yes”, “No”, etc. I fill the board with these words to show them how many content words they already know. In groups they help each other with the words they have trouble with.

    2. Then next to their words, in another word-cloud I write the following: I, you, we, he, she, do, like, have, did, not, can, when, why, how ?

    3. I ask them to try and put together a question they would like to ask me using their content words and the ones from my word-cloud.

    4. Then they continue doing this in small groups. It is truly amazing how many questions they can come up with at this stage. Of course, some classes might need an example to get them going on ideas. It is also important at this stage to accept ANY attempt at forming questions, as the main aim is to encourage them to try to communicate by asking questions they would like with the language at their disposal at that time. You can reformulate their questions as unobtrusively as possible, and then students will try to follow the pattern they see on the board.

    4. The next thing is to answer their questions, making sure they understand as much as they can – using body language, simple words, words that are on the board. They love this stage as they realise how much they understand, and most importantly their ability to communicate instantly makes them shine 🙂

    5. Then I ask them to work in pairs to come up with questions they would like to ask other members from the group. These tend to be “Yes”/”No” questions. However, when they start to mingle, ask and answer their questions, not only do they get to know each other a little bit, but they experience communicating with each other in English…in their first lesson.

    Try it out and let me know how it works for you 🙂


  6. I completely agree with everything that’s been said about giving students the opportunity, incentive, and language to discuss interesting questions.

    I had an interesting conversation a while back with a colleague who was complaining about the ESL teachers’ fall-back question: how is this different in your culture? Of course, there are times when cross-cultural comparisons are interesting, but after several sessions/semesters in multi-national classes, the question gets a bit old!

    I also like to see the challenging questions that Joe and Jenny have described on the blog because they move away from the purely personal to more academic discussions. Contrary to some dogma in TESOL, not everyone likes talking about themselves all the time, and this kind of questioning is excellent preparation for future academic study.

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