HomeSkillsYes! No! Spaghetti!

Yes! No! Spaghetti!




Children in class raising their handsRitsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get students answering questions in full sentences.

‘Yes! No! Spaghetti!’

Are these the kind of answers you get from your students when you ask them a question? Single words, instead of ‘Yes, I do!’, ‘No, I don’t!’, or ‘I like spaghetti.’

When you were learning a foreign language, there were probably times when you were able to understand questions, but only able to answer with ‘Yes’ or No’ or another single word. I’m sure it was a very frustrating experience – you probably wanted to say much more to continue the conversation, but weren’t able to communicate effectively with just one word. We all want our students to be able to continue a conversation and not experience the same frustration we did, but our students usually don’t have much exposure to English outside the classroom.

So how can we prepare them to continue a conversation with confidence? We can do this by teaching them how to use full sentences – and by showing them, through activities and role play, how to communicate with these new sentences.

What kind of communication do you think your students could engage in with the following sentences?

  1. I like cats.
  2. It’s a green book. / The key is on the table.
  3. That’s great! / I’m sorry.

In the first sentence the student is expressing an opinion. (Almost any statement can be an opinion if you teach them to say, ‘I think…’)

In the second sentence the student is giving information.

In the third sentence the student is reacting to someone and expressing feeling or emotion.

Our students can communicate very effectively with simple sentences like those above. They can even create dialogue using question forms. In class, these may feel stilted and sound unnatural, but they form the basics of communication. When our students can use what we teach them to construct a sentence, they are able to use the language practically in conversations, instead of just repeating independent sentences.

When teaching sentences to students, I first teach the vocabulary, then show them, step by step, how to construct a sentence. (This provides a context for using the words.) I then show them how to use that sentence to create a dialog by teaching the WH- question form. You can see how questions and sentences can be taught easily and systematically in my webinar recording, Introducing new language effectively for the young learner classroom.

YES/NO questions and answers

With YES/NO short answers, we are often faced with the challenge of teaching auxiliary verbs. Teachers often say they are reluctant to teach short answers because they do not want to go into grammar explanations about auxiliary verbs. Students have a hard time remembering which auxiliary to use and often make mistakes like the following:

Do you want a cookie? Yes, I am.

Can you swim? Yes, I do.

To help my students learn and use the auxiliaries correctly, I present the WH- question forms before YES/NO questions (my co-authors and I do this in Let’s Go too).

What do you want?

What can you do?

Knowing the WH- question form helps my students to master the YES/NO questions and answers more easily. I ask them to take away the ‘what’ in the question they have learned and add the word they want to ask about. For example:

What do you want?   =  What   do you want       + a ball?

What can you do?    =  What   can you                + swim?

By removing ‘what’, my students are able to use the correct auxiliary automatically.

Do you want a ball?

Can you swim?

My students don’t have to guess what the auxiliary is and they are more confident in asking and answering YES/NO questions.

To help students overcome their habit of guessing, I give them a quick listening activity, which is like a game to them. I don’t complete the sentence, but just say the first two words. I say them quickly in rapid succession, mixing them up:

Can you xxxx?  Do you xxxx?  Are you xxxx?

My students listen for the first words to make their answers:

Can you xxxx?   Yes, I can.

Do you xxxx?    Yes, I do.

Are you xxxx?   Yes, I am.

I make the drills very quick so that my students are able to focus on the words.

Would you like to see how I do this? In my free webinar on Saturday (you can sign up here), I will give a demonstration on how to do this. I will also show you how you can use teacher cards to make learning YES/NO questions and answers lots of fun without a lot of teacher talk. I hope to see you there!

Ritsuko will be giving a free webinar on ‘Getting students to answer questions in full sentences on Saturday, 23 February. Register here.

Bookmark and Share


  1. I would make a couple of points here.

    Firstly, surely a single word can constitute a sentence? So by answering a question with just, “Yes” or “No” the student is answering with a sentence.

    And of course on many occasions this is precisely what a native speaker would say. If you ask someone, “What’s your favourite food?” then a legitimate answer is, “Spaghetti.” In fact, one is more likely to hear this than hear, “I like spaghetti.”

    Of course the students do need to know and be able to use more complex answers but they also need to be able to speak natural English which will include single word answers.

    • Hello to IC Hello to ICAL TEFL

      Thank you for your comments. I understand your point of view very well, and we do have students talking with words when we are in a “natural” situation. However, since our students are learning English for the first time, I think it’s important for them to learn how to use the language, not only with words but in sentences. They have little or no exposure to English outside of their classroom. Lessons are usually less than an hour a week, which adds up to 30-40 hours a year, not even two days! They do not have the opportunity to pick up language as in an ESL environment.

      In order to have more student participation in class, we teach them how to ask and answer questions to each other so that they are doing most of the talking and getting as much practice as possible in their limited class time. In order to get our students to talk about their feelings, give opinions and information, they really do need to know how to use full sentences. We can teach our young learners grammar in a fun way without even talking about grammar. The students actually enjoy making long sentences, because it gives them a feeling of accomplishment and success. They learn to apply what they’ve learned to other situations and you can see the joy and excitement in their eyes when they do.

      Learning the fundamentals of language also leads to their understanding of what they read and write. They would have a difficult time understanding what they read if they did not know grammar or how to make sentences. Once they know how to speak English, it will be easy for them to shorten the language into one word utterances in a natural setting with native speakers, but they will also have the knowledge to help them understand more than just words

    • Dear Andrew,

      Yes, we teach our students those kinds of expressions, body language and other when ever possible. We have fun in our classes.

  2. I think I can appreciate the spirit of the comment above. I think most reasonable teachers would agree that you ultimately want your students to be able to recognize and communicate using colloquial English. That is certainly what they will be exposed to in the real world. I don’t disagree in principle. I would like to point out that technically, a sentence is comprised of a minimum of a subject (noun) and a verb. For example: “Babies cry.” While a one word response is certainly appropriate for a yes/no question, I think it’s helpful to make a distinction between what constitutes acceptable ways to verbally respond to a yes/no question and what constitutes proper grammar.

    To my mind, the point of the activity is to reinforce the recognition and usage of proper syntax and grammar via a verbal activity. I love this kind of approach to teaching grammar because it is active and kinetic. I have used activities exactly like this to great success countless numbers of times over the course of my almost 20 years teaching ESL/EFL. Did I worry that my students wouldn’t be able to communicate to a native speaker effectively? Not in a case like this because any student learning how to ask and respond to yes/no questions is clearly a beginner and I personally always liked to focus on reinforcing to the point of overkill the fundamental components of English grammar when working with beginners. Once students have a proper foundation in grammar, I always felt that they are ready to move onto higher levels of English communication where, armed with the knowledge of fundamental grammar rules, they can then break the rules (as they almost always are in spoken English) to their hearts’ content. Is this the BEST way to approach teaching ESL? I doubt it but it is certainly a valid way that I can say, based on experience, works.

    Thank you Ritsuko for presenting what I feel is a very practical, turn-key activity that can be readily adapted to the classroom. I like it!

  3. Dear Frank,

    Thank you for your comments. Yes, as you say, having the fundamental knowledge of how to use English, our students can move on to higher levels of English and be confident in what they do. This is also our goal for our young students.

    We want our students to have fun while they learn to speak without even being aware of grammar. We do it through a lot of fun exercises and activities so that they can “feel” the language instead of wondering about how it works. In this way, they can develop natural speed, rhythm and intonation as they speak. With constant practice, they can also improve their pronunciation. As you have suggested, in our lessons with young learners, they need to learn how to speak and use the whole language effectively. If they are taught to use English confidently, they will be able to apply and extend their knowledge so that they will be able to use it in other situations.

    We also teach them how to read the unit target language with word cards so that they will be able to read basic sentences without having to spend extra time teaching reading. As you have experienced, giving our students the basic tools to work with a good grammar foundation, they can apply their knowledge to build their skills further, not only in speaking but in understanding what they read and knowing how to construct sentences for writing.

    Thank you for your valuable input based on your experiences.

  4. Obviously, learners at lower levels need to be able to express themselves using longer utterances, my comment was merely to underline that all types of reply should be considered.
    It’s good to see the fun element is present: it helps motivation!

  5. Dear Ritsuko,

    Thank you very much for raising the issues of effective introducing of new language and the necessity of full answers. These are the exact problems which I encaunter in my practice. My students were used to remember new words and phrases for 2 or 3 lessons and then suddenly at the fourth lesson the new knowledge disappeared from their memory. First I thought (exactly as you did) that there was something wrong with the students. But it couldn’t be true, that all the students were abnormal and only I was perfect. I tried to find a way out from the situation and began to repeat new words and phrases at the beginning of least 4 following lessons. It helped. But it takes time. After watching your webinar in recording (it’s so pity I couldn’t take part in your webinars directly!) I use your tips. And I loved your “drills”! So thank you so much for your efforts and energy, you are so great!

    By the way, the specific problem of dissapearing a new information from students minds is experienced not only by English teachers. A friend of mine, a teacher of history, complains about hte same. I have a theory that the abundance of information from TV, internet and all these i-devices makes the minds to “restrict” their cognitive abilities for not to be overloaded. But who knows…

    • Dear Elena,

      I’m very happy to hear that you are using some of the techniques I introduced and having success with them. Thousands of teachers who have taken my workshops have found their students have become “alive” and active in class.

      I think all teachers have experienced, at one point or another, the same kinds of problems we have had. I think having an active class where the students are doing most of the talking is the best way to get students to “think in English” so that they won’t forget and therefore become more skilled at speaking and listening as reading and writing as well.

      I like to get them to do a lot of activities and pair practices so that they are speaking at least 80% of class time. They can be practicing, drilling, singing or chanting, reading out loud, etc. But getting their voices out helps them hear themselves speak and enunciate better. When they start speaking in pairs to each other, they remember better. Adding gestures or actions as they speak stimulates memory as well.

      Regarding the teaching of other subjects, some teachers in Japan are using my MAT Method to teach subjects like geography, learning the characters for reading Japanese, math, etc. They use the speed and rhythm to help students remember and lots of visual aids and games. Before the lessons were more like lectures.

      I hope you will have lots more fun teaching and make a lot more new discoveries!

      • Hello, I am an Algerian English teacher working in Turkey, I am facing huge issues geeting students’attention I need help especially in terms of class management, the classroom get all in complete chaos when I start my lesson

  6. Hello Brahim,
    First, I wouldn’t worry too much, I’m sure all teachers have had/have similar issues. I know I have!
    There are a few questions I’d like to ask before I start offering my advice (for what it’ll be worth).
    What sort of school/institute is it? How is your classroom set up (positions of chairs/tables etc…)
    How old are your learners?
    What level are they? What is the main aim of the course (final test etc…)? Is English compulsory?
    What sort of issues are you having?
    What do you mean by “chaos”?
    What sort of teacher training books have you used/have you got? (Have a look at Harmer “The Practice of English Language Teaching”, Longman and Dörnyei and Csizer, “Ten commandments for motivating language learners”also on-line at
    What are your thoughts about getting your learners’ attention? Have you spoken to colleagues about your situation?
    What are your learners main interests (away from school)?
    Andrew (Garvey)

Leave a Reply

Recent posts

Recent comments