Zarina Subhan is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught and delivered teacher training at all levels, across the world. She joins us on the blog today for the fourth article in a series focused on boosting classroom participation. Last week, she covered embracing different learning styles to widen your reach in class. This week, Zarina examines how changing your questioning technique can boost interest and interaction in your EFL classroom.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers” – Voltaire
The above quotation can also be applied to teachers, whatever their gender! Questioning is a vital part of most language lessons, but this essential technique can be difficult to master. Do you find that some students never answer? Do you avoid singling out members of your class who find direct questions intimidating? And what do you do when your questions are met with resounding silence? In this article, I’ll be suggesting some creative ways to get around these common problems.
Accepting non-verbal responses
When asking questions to a class, we can often rely on the same students to participate and hope the rest are paying attention so that they learn from others’ answers. To encourage participation from as many students as possible, you could consider accepting responses in other ways:
- Use a voting system which encourages students to offer a kinaesthetic, rather than a spoken response. For example, stick a “Yes”/ “No”; “True”/“False”; “Agree”/“Disagree” label on opposite sides of the room and ask students to move and stand under the correct answer.
- If you have access to mini-whiteboards held by each student, ask your class to write down their answers in response to your question. This is useful if multiple choice answers are possible, when asking for synonyms/antonyms, investigating parts of speech or grammar, and for brainstorming ideas as well as voting.
- Distribute cards labelled ‘true’ and ‘false’, and ask students to hold up their responses. If you use a colour code, for example, making ‘true’ cards green and ‘red’ cards false, it makes it easier to quickly assess the opinion of the group.
Provide more thinking time
We all know the feeling when we ask a question and no one answers – but what do you do about it? Silences can feel uncomfortable, and one common occurrence is that the teacher ends up answering themselves, without giving students enough thinking time. Studies have shown that on average a teacher waits 1-3 seconds for a response. Thinking time in the first language actually takes 7-10 seconds, so for students who are studying a foreign language, we need to be giving 10-15 seconds at the very least for a response. Otherwise they will be unable to process the question and consider the answer in English before saying it out loud. (Boyes and Watts, 2009)
Here’s a technique you can use in class to allow for more thinking time. It also has the advantage of bringing more students into the discussion.
- Choose a student (student A) to answer your question, but don’t say whether you think they are right or not.
- Ask a second student (student B) if s/he agrees with student A.
- Still not saying what your opinion is, open it up to the whole class to get more involved, and only then give the ‘correct’ answer.
This provides much more thinking time and keeps students on their toes as they may be asked next. It works particularly well if students have had time to consider the questions in pairs or groups beforehand. They can then test out possible answers in the safer environment of their small group first. Also, if you monitor your students during this discussion time, you can pick two opposing answers which the whole class can then go on to exploit. This should encourage a flurry of agreements and disagreements, as the other students reconsider their answers.
When you single out individuals, be sure to create a safe atmosphere. If teachers randomly choose a student to provide an answer without providing the chance to discuss things, it can cause a lot of anxiety. Another way of creating a feeling of safety is to praise all answers, not only the correct ones. Praise the participation or the fact that they are thinking about a different point that you weren’t considering, before rephrasing the question and throwing it out there again. So for an incorrect answer:
- Accept the incorrect answer.
- Add some additional questions (which may seem like baby steps) until the student who got it wrong can see what you were expecting from the original question.
- Go back to the student who got it wrong, to give them a second chance.
If students are embarrassed in public, they are far less likely to answer next time, so we need to avoid this at all costs.
Why ask questions?
And finally, it’s worth thinking about why asking questions is so important. The 2012 handbook of the UK Office of Standards in Education says inspectors must decide whether teachers use questioning to assess the effectiveness of their teaching and promote pupils’ learning. By using questions to guide our students towards particular answers, we are checking that what we are teaching has been understood. Just in case some students have slipped through the net of understanding, questions should be a way of catching them and preventing them from falling into the waters of confusion. By encouraging more students to respond to questions, we promote the expectation that we require our students to contribute, and that we won’t accept “Don’t know” as an answer. By thinking carefully about how we set questions up and how we phrase them, we can help our students to reach the answers that they previously thought they couldn’t. And from their answers, you learn a lot about your teaching!
Look out for my next article in the series next week – I’ll be exploring the benefits of really listening carefully to your students.
Boyes, K. and G. Watts (2009) Developing Habits of Mind in Elementary Schools. ASCD https://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-topromote-learning