My mother tells me when I was a little kid, I loved to ask questions. My specialty was why. Why is there a lake here and not over there? Why do I have to go to bed at 8:00? Why did she look at me like that? Why can’t everything just be fair?
I soon discovered that whenever someone said something, I could respond with why. People used to marvel at my mother’s patience in answering all of those questions. Now that I have a daughter of my own, I totally understand why. It can get tiring answering questions that are not well-thought out, and I am not always the best person to ask all of those questions because I don’t know the answers.
These days, part of what I love about teaching is asking my students questions. Discovering what they like and don’t like, what experiences they have had, what ideas they come up with and generally just getting to know them better energizes me. Sometimes when I am talking to students however I feel like I am conducting an interview. I am asking all of the questions and they are providing short answers that don’t inspire much conversation. I have also watched students zip through a sheet of questions or discussion prompts as if they were in some kind of race, never pausing to ask follow-up questions or even indicate that they have registered what their conversation partners have said. They know all of the question words: who, what, where, when, why, how, how much, how come, etc. They also know how to form a yes/no question grammatically but when it comes to the art of asking questions they are lost.
Through participating in and observing many of these frustrating conversations, I have come to the realization that teaching a language is about more than just teaching grammar and vocabulary, it is also about helping students develop their communication skills and one important skill is learning how to ask good questions.
1. Ask Students to Think about different kinds of questions.
Most students have never really thought about how the kind of questions they ask determines the kinds of answers they get. They have never thought about how by using questions skillfully they can guide a conversation as well as help both their conversation partners and themselves get the most out of their time together.
There are many different kinds of questions but one place to start is by showing students the difference between open-ended questions and closed-ended questions.
Closed-ended questions can be answered with a simple yes/no or other short easy answer. Kind of like true/false or multiple choice questions on a test. These questions are great for getting quick information like “Is the bank open on Monday?” or “Where are you from?”.
Open-ended questions require more thought and longer answers, much like essay questions on a test. Unlike essay questions however, most people enjoy answering them, because they show curiosity and take the conversation deeper.
Step 1: Get students thinking about open and closed-ended questions by giving them a list of questions and asking them to sort them into open and closed. Then ask them to try changing a closed-ended question into an open one and vice versa. For example a closed question, “Where do you live?” could be changed to “What are some of the things you like about where you live?”. An open question like “Why do you think climate change is such a controversial issue?” could become “Do you believe in climate change?”
Step 2: Ask students to brainstorm situations when it would be best to ask closed-ended questions and situations in which it would be best to ask open-ended questions.
Step 3: Have small groups of students choose several of the situations they brainstormed and practice asking open and closed-ended questions.
Step 4: Ask students to reflect on how they could use what they learned/thought about today when they leave class.
If this goes well you could delve deeper into more different kinds of questions like leading or rhetorical questions. For more information about questions, check out this post entitled Questioning Technique by MindTools.
For a step by step technique for encouraging students to think about asking questions, the book Make Just One Change: Teach Your Students to Ask their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana really helped me out a few times in my classes.
2. Brainstorm and Discuss Questions
Another way to get students thinking about questions is to give them a topic and ask them to brainstorm as many questions as they possibly can in a limited amount of time. The objective at this point is quantity, not quality. Tell students that no question is too easy/difficult/silly/serious.
- Put students into small groups.
- One student is the scribe and is in charge of writing all of the questions the group generates. That person should write all of the questions suggested without censoring any of them.
- No one should try to change or “fix” the questions. No one should try to answer any of the questions.
- When the time is up, each group should count their questions and the group with the highest number is the winner.
- Now, ask students to choose the best 3 questions. Depending on what you are doing in your class you can add stipulations like what 3 questions would be the best for generating conversation? What 3 questions would give you the most interesting answers? What three questions would be the most interesting to research?
- Ask students to defend their choices. Why were those three questions better than the others? Have them look at specific examples of questions they have generated and really get to the heart of what makes a great question.
- After the students have chosen their best questions, have them get together with students from different groups and ask their questions or, if you are teaching a writing class, ask students to use those questions as the basis for an essay or research paper.
3. Teach Students to ask Follow-Up Questions
Conversation is often called an art. At its best, it can be an intricate dance that excites and inspires not just those involved but also those who have the good fortune to listen to them. Conversations can also fall flat and go nowhere at all. As a teacher I am privileged to be able to openly eavesdrop on my students talking. What is most often the difference between a fascinating conversation and a painful one is the students ability to ask follow up questions.
All too often students will simply whip through a set of questions without listening to what their conversation partner is saying. The conversation jumps from topic to topic abruptly because students are not responding to their partners answers by asking for clarification or more information. They are not using their partner’s answers to take the conversation in new and interesting directions.
One way to get students to focus on how to do this is to watch skilled interviewers.
4. One Great Project to Get your Students Out there Asking Questions.
At a TESOL convention a few years back I attended a session in which a teacher described a project he did with his ESL students in the United States that I thought was pure genius. He noticed that his students were not really using English outside of the classroom because they were mostly hanging out with their fellow students who spoke the same native language. They had lots of questions about American culture but hesitated to ask them because they didn’t know who to ask.
He asked his students to brainstorm all of the things that they found baffling about American culture like, why do Americans treat their pets like people? Why do older people greet me at Walmart? They then brainstorm possible answers for those questions. Based on those possible answers, students come up with questions. They then go out and find several people to interview in order to figure out which, if any of their hypothesis are true.
* Before sending his students out, they discussed appropriate and inappropriate questions as well as who to approach and how to do it in a polite and respectful way.
After conducting their interviews, they wrote an essay and created a presentation for their classmates so everyone could benefit from what they found out.
I love this project because it encourages students to be curious but not judgmental when observing different cultures. Instead of leaping to conclusions, it asks students to look at cultural differences as something interesting and understandable.
As someone who has lived in several different cultures, this project has a lot of appeal. I would have loved it if a teacher had asked me to do this when I was living in Colombia, Turkey or Japan. Sometimes I see things happening around me and I don’t understand why people are doing what they are doing. Instead of dismissing those questions, this project would have helped me understand those around me and it would have helped me make contact with people I might otherwise not have spoken with.