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Concourse 2

Asking good questions


Asking questions is an important communicative tool and we all ask lots of them.
In the language classroom, the ability to formulate appropriate questions is also a key teaching tool.


Question form and question function

If you have followed the guide to form and function (new tab), you'll be alert to the fact that what looks like a question may not be one and what looks like a statement may in fact be a question.
Here are some examples.  What functions do the utterances perform?
Click on the graphic when you have an answer.


Even here, we may disagree slightly because much depends on tone of voice, setting, shared knowledge between speaker and hearer, power relationships and so on.  It is, however, plain to see that form does not always represent function and vice versa.
Here we are concerned with real questions, whatever form they take.


Question types

The first thing to do is to find some way to classify questions so we know what we are asking.

think Task 1: Consider this list and see if you can come up with some kind of classification of question types.
Click here when you have done that.
  1. What's the capital of France?
  2. How old are you?
  3. Do you have a brother?
  4. Where did you go to school?
  5. How do you make an omelette?
  6. Why are you sad?
  7. What's the meaning of 'dirigible'?
  8. When are you leaving?
  9. Who did you meet?
  10. Is this important?

How you classified types of question may differ from the following.  It's a place to start.

closed questions
require a simple yes or no.  Examples are Questions 3 and 10.
open questions
may have one-word answers but are not yes-no questions.  Often, they require more output, sometimes lots more.  Examples are those beginning with wh-words (1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9).  Questions using how and why usually require much more from the responder than those using when, which, what, where, whom and who.
display questions
are asked so that the learner can display his/her knowledge.  Examples are Questions 1, 5 (probably), 7 and 10.
communicative questions
are asked when the questioner really does not know the answer.  Examples are Questions 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 9.
Such questions go under different names but they all mean the same: referential questions, communicative questions or just genuine questions.
This type of question can be open or closed.
how questions
Questions with how are usually concerned with manner but manner of four different sorts and we should know what sort of response we are looking for:
  1. an adjectival phrase such as quite excited, a bit down, unhappy etc. in answer to, e.g.:
        How did she appear?
  2. an adverbial modifier such as hurriedly, with great care, in a rush etc. in answer to, e.g.:
        How did she drive?
  3. a response regarding means, such as from Mary, John explained it, I looked it up etc. in answer to, e.g.:
        How did she find out?
        How do you know that?
  4. a measure of extent or amount such as very, a lot, extremely, 20 dollars, three miles etc. in answer to, e.g.:
        How long was the journey?
        How much did he worry?
        How expensive was it?
        How angry was the boss?
why questions
The word why has two possible meanings in terms of the questioner's intentions and we should be slightly careful when using it.
  1. Why meaning How come:
    If we ask, for example
        Why is John happy?
    we are enquiring about causes so the question demands that the learner recalls previous events and states to see connections between those and the present condition of John.  That requires that the learner recalls the information, understands it and applies it.  That is often quite a challenging question along the lines of, e.g.:
        Why does water float on ice?
        Why does iron become a liquid at 1538 degrees Celsius?
  2. Why meaning What for:
    If we ask, for example:
        Why did he stop the car?
    we are not asking about causes but we are asking about reasons and that requires a different way of processing the data.
    Now the learners need not only to recall the facts of the story.  They need to understand them, apply them and analyse them in terms of intentions.
    That is cognitively even more demanding.

Here's a brief summary of the four main types of question:


Question purposes and uses

Using closed and open questions

Closed questions are the simplest to answer because there are only three possible responses: yes, no or Don't know.  That may lead you to think they are less useful for language teaching but it all depends on purposes.

  1. Checking
    Closed questions are useful for checking concepts and instructions because they are quick to formulate and allow of only three possible answers (one right or one wrong or an expression of ignorance in this case).  Here are some examples:
        Can I say, "It's a tall ceiling?"  Can I say, "It's a high ceiling?" (collocation concept checking)
        Are you working alone on this task? (instruction checking)
        Is it important to read the first sentence in each paragraph? (checking a subskills approach)
        Do you have to understand every word? (checking a skills task)
        Are you going to write notes? (checking a procedural issue)
        Is that the correct past tense of 'make'? (encouraging self-correction)
    Avoid questions which require the learner to use a presupposition or understand an implication.
    • If you want to check that the instruction to work in pairs has been understood, you can ask:
      • How are you going to do this?
        but that requires a presupposition that the question refers to alone or with a partner and could equally be understood another way (I'm working hard, I'm working in writing etc.)
        A better question might, therefore, be:
      • Who is your partner for this?
        because that entails the fact that it is pair work.
    • If you want to check a concept, the same considerations apply so a question such as:
      • What time was his action?
        is open to a number of interpretations depending on the learner's understanding of the implication (at 4 o'clock, after his brother came home, when he finished breakfast etc.).
        A better question might be:
      • Does the verb refer to the present or the past?
        because only one of these can now be true.
  2. Easy questions first
    An old salesperson's trick is to ask an easy yes-no question to lull the customer into a sense of security and then follow it up with a question which requires more thought and deliberation as well as commitment.  We get, therefore, exchanges such as:
        Can I help you? (an offer masquerading as a question)
        Yes, please (that's the easy answer)
        What kind of hat are you looking for? (now the customer needs to commit)
    Teachers can do this, too (and for nicer reasons).
    Weaker learners or those that are more reticent can be drawn into an exchange by posing easy yes-no questions first and then encouraged to commit more by follow-up questions so we could get, e.g.:
        Are you looking for a particular kind of word? (easy question: the answer is almost certainly yes)
        Good.  What sorts of words do you need to find?
        Er.  The verbs and nouns.
        Great.  What sort of verbs?

    and so on.
    Note that the first wh-question has a limited answer but the second requires much more thought.
  3. From the factual to the personal
    The same sort of procedure can be used to encourage a certain amount of investment from learners and move gradually from easy yes-no responses to responses requiring some commitment.  For example,
        Do many people eat large breakfasts in your country? (a simple yes-no question to which the teacher may even know the answer so there's little pressure on the learner to get it 'right')
        Do you have a large breakfast? (another simple yes-no question but requiring personal commitment)
        What do you usually have? (now the learner has to deploy the target language and make it personal and memorable)
        Why do you say it's your favourite meal of the day? / Why don't you eat much for breakfast? (this requires a bit of thought and some quite complex language use to answer properly)
    If you start with the final question, especially with weaker or more reticent learners, you'll get very little response.

Using display and communicative / referential questions

Teachers spend a good deal of their professional lives asking questions to which they already know the answers.
Outside the classroom, in the real or normal world, pointing at something obvious (like a loudspeaker) and asking:
    What's the name for that?
    Can you think of two adjectives to describe it?

would draw odd looks at the very least and possibly attention from the authorities.
In a language classroom, however, such questions are quite normal.  Indeed, learners expect them.


Display questions

As we saw, these sorts of questions simply give the learner the opportunity to display knowledge.  Sometimes, such questions really are useless (of which more later) but they do have serious pedagogical functions as well.
Here's a selection of useful ones (with their ulterior purposes).


Cyclist disappears on country road

Look at the picture and the headline.  What's the text about?

The answer is obvious but the teacher wants explicitly to elicit something like 'a mystery' or 'a disappearance' from the learners.
There are four possible purposes:

  1. To check if they have understood the language in the headline (is, e.g., cyclist understood?)
  2. To see if they can form the noun from the verb: disappear to disappearance
  3. To activate what they know about such things happening
  4. To prepare them for what will follow in the text and allow them to make some predictions about what the text might contain

and one display question has done all that.

how do you say it Question:
Where's the stress?

Again, it's pretty clear that the teacher is not asking for information, she's asking for production.  She clearly knows where the stress should be.  So why is she asking?

  1. To get the learner to produce language so she can check for accuracy
  2. To get the learner to focus explicitly on stress
  3. To get the learners (all of them) to notice where the stress falls and decide if that's where they would put it
  4. To prepare the learners to use the target in a later phase without stumbling over the pronunciation
display Questions:
What goes in the gap?
Can you move the right one?
What colour is the right answer?

Clearly, again, the teacher can just go to the interactive whiteboard and simply move the green box into the gap because she knows the answer.  But, wisely, she elicits the correct response because:

  1. The cognitive effort makes the right form more memorable
  2. The act of getting up and doing something with the interactive whiteboard makes the solution memorable
  3. Some people may even find that colour selection helps the memory
  4. The teacher also wants to know if teaching up to now has been effective.  If it has, everyone in the class should get it right.  If they don't, it's time to backtrack.

There are thousands of possible display questions so this list stops here.  The key fact to note is that they have a purpose and you should know why you are asking them.


Responding to display answers

There are two main sorts of follow up to learners' display answers:

  1. Positive endorsement:
        Yes, Good, That's right
    etc.  This simply tells the learner that the response to a display question is exactly what you hoped.  Don't overdo it.
  2. Negative outcome:
        Not quite
    which usually means
        Not at all
        No, think again
        No, can anyone help?
    etc.  This alerts the learner to what's gone wrong, ideally.


Communicative / referential questions

These are the ones to which the teacher does not know the answer.  They can be open or closed and include things like:

  1. Is there a music shop in your hometown? (a yes-no factual question)
  2. What sort of music does it sell? (a wh- factual question)
  3. Do you enjoy music? (yes-no personal fact question)
  4. What sorts of music do you like? (a wh- personal fact question)
  5. Do you think it's OK to download music from the web? (yes-no opinion question)
  6. What should the penalties be for breaking copyright like this? (a wh- opinion question)
think Task 2: What do you notice about the ordering of the examples above?
Click here when you see it.
think Task 3: Why should you ask communicative questions?
Think for a moment and then click here.

Responding to communicative / referential answers

A teacher's first instinct is often to praise whatever the learner says providing the language is acceptable and the communicative effect is appropriate.  That is not always a wise choice in this case.
On many occasions, the natural follow-up to a response is simply something like 'Oh' because the hearer has been made aware of something they didn't know.  It is not particularly authentic to respond to, e.g., "I'm allergic to cats" with either a positive "Right, good" or a negative "No, that's not right."
The moral is that we should respond primarily to content and only secondarily to form when people answer communicative questions.  And in that order.  So, for example, a better response to "I'm allergy to cat" might well be:
    Oh, are you?  That must be difficult sometimes.  Are you allergic to dogs, too?
Often, stressing the correction when you echo is enough to alert the learner to what's wrong.  You may, of course, have to follow that up with a focus on form.  (It's called a re-cast, incidentally.)


Avoiding impossible questions

If a question is asked at the wrong time, and learners aren't prepared, don't be surprised if they can't answer you.

For example, how would you respond to an opening gambit such as:
    Do you think the punishment should fit the crime?

Right.  The most common response would be to temporise with something like:
    Well, it depends, I guess.  What sort of crimes are you talking about?
Temporising is a) something that is hard to do in a foreign language and b) probably not going to carry the lesson forward with a great deal of momentum.

think Task 4: If you want to ask something to activate what the learners know about crime and punishment and introduce the topic,
  1. What would be a better set of opening questions?
  2. How do you proceed after them?
  3. What questions would occur at the end?

Click here when you have answers to those.


Wait time

Lastly, don't forget that processing a question and formulating an answer takes time in a foreign language.  The more elementary you are, the longer it may take.  The more cognitive effort we have to put in to arriving at an answer, the longer it will take.
As we saw above, too, there are grades of challenge in questions both in terms of language and in terms of social pressure.

There is evidence from some research that teachers rarely wait long enough (often around one second) so curb your desire to move on to the next learner too quickly or supply the answer yourself.  Allowing adequate time (up to three or four seconds at least) has been shown to increase learner involvement and responsiveness.  When wait time is increased to three or four seconds, the amount of student participation also increases, together with the quality and the average length of the responses.

There are two sorts of wait time:

  1. The time you wait after asking the question, allowing the learner(s) to formulate a response.
  2. The time you wait after asking a question and before nominating who should answer it.  Again, some research shows that waiting a short time before you nominate someone to respond increases everyone's involvement.
    Because nobody knows who will be asked to respond, everyone focuses on an answer.  If people know that a question is posed to a colleague rather than them, they can switch off and ignore the question.

Be prepared to wait.

The summaries

Here's a handy cut-out-and-keep summary of most of this:


There's a test on this – your chance to respond to some questions.

Related guides
testing: the essentials the essential guide to how to use testing in the classroom
elicitation this link takes you to part of the toolbox for CELTA trainees to do with eliciting questions
feedback to learners this guide is mostly about how you give feedback on learner output and one obvious way is to ask targeted follow-up questions
checking learning for a related guide to making sure what you teach is what is learned
checking questions for the guide to asking instruction- and concept-checking questions: what they are, how to construct them and how to use them
Bloom's taxonomy this is a way of looking at questions and tasks to measure how difficult they are in terms of cognitive challenge

Reference for some of the above:
Thompson, G, 1997, Teaching Teachers to Ask Questions, ELT Journal 51/2, Oxford: Oxford University Press