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The lost art of… asking real questions

question mark 710x532 The lost art of... asking real questions

You may ask: what on earth are “real” questions and when is a question ever not “real”? Let’s start by considering why we ask questions and analysing the types we frequently ask in our lessons.

Display Questions 

We are trained to use them for a variety of reasons. Here are some that I’ve heard in recent lessons:

  • If someone gives up smoking, do they stop smoking?
  • What is the 3rd form of the verb “swim”?
  • Okay…so are you going to do this exercise alone or with a partner?

Questions like these are extremely common in a communicative language classroom. They elicit language and ideas from learners, and check students understand tasks and understand language; if you have done an initial training course such as CELTA you will know how much emphasis is put on designing and asking such questions. They allow the teacher to follow a central precept of communicative language teaching – that is, keeping the learner as involved as possible at all times.

It’s worth taking a step back, though, for a moment, and thinking about what these questions above all have in common; in all cases, the teacher already knows the answer – they are display questions.  The teacher wants the learners to show what they do or don’t know. 

Real Questions

Is there anything wrong with display questions? Fundamentally, no, but an interesting point emerges when you consider the number of these asked in a lesson; the proportion differs significantly from communication outside the classroom, where the majority of questions we ask tend to be ones where we don’t know the answer. We ask questions because we need certain information, or because we are curious about the world or other people: we want to find out how someone is and how they feel. We often ask questions because we aren’t sure about something we have heard…not because we want to check whether someone else has. For instance:

  • What did you think of the book?
  • When should I get my ticket?
  • How’s Bob doing?

These are real questions – questions we ask based on a genuine communicative need and with real motivation to know the answer.  Compare the above with these recent classroom examples:

  • Am I satisfied if I’m unsatisfied?
  • Does a sea lion live in the jungle?
  • I want you to write down the answers. So, do I want you to write the answers?

Some of these are more pedagogically valuable than others –I’ll leave that up to you to judge. We can probably agree that most of these would not be asked outside of the classroom.

If we want our classrooms to feel more like the world they exist in, we need to redress the balance: restoring not so much the lost art as the natural art of asking real questions. As a matter of fact, art is a poor metaphor here: asking real questions we don’t know the answer to – because we are curious, concerned and want to maintain friendly relations with people we know – is as artless and as natural as breathing; it’s also empowering for both learners and teacher as it puts us on an equal footing.

Increasing real questions in the classroom

How can we integrate real questions as part of our teaching? Some examples:

  1. Our lessons are usually based on topics, often from the coursebook. Take every opportunity to find out the students’ views on these topics. What crimes in your neighbourhood worry you? Would you try extreme cheese rolling?
  2. Check students’ understanding of language in a way that links it to their own lives. What are two things that frustrate you about your workplace? What are two activities you used to do?
  3. As appropriate to your teaching context, don’t hold back from showing your curiosity concerning your learners’ lives. Don’t confine “chit chat” to the break. How was the exam last week? Sorry about Borussia Dortmund…where did you watch the match?
  4. Ask questions which get the students to make predictions. So then I saw a stranger standing in the living room…what do you think I did next?
  5. Make comprehension questions to texts real questions that students may naturally answer. Read the review of this hotel resort – would you like to stay there? Why, or why not?
  6. Find out in feedback to reading / listening exercises how students feel about the content of the text. Do you think he did the right thing? Do you agree when the writer says “this was a mistake because…”?
  7. Find out how the learners feel about an exercise, or the lesson – and use this to help make future decisions.  Ask them what they want more / less of. That seemed difficult. Was it? Which of the last three exercises were more / less useful? Why? Would it be useful to do more writing in the next few lessons?
  8. Encourage students to ask real questions and listen to each other by, for instance, setting communicative tasks that require this. I want to know who had the best weekend. Find out by asking your partner at least 5 questions about what she did and where she went.

Being “teacherly” is one of our roles; being genuinely interested in our learners and their opinions…is that just a role or something more fundamental? That, by the way, is a real question – let me know what you think.

Neil Anderson

3 Comments on “The lost art of… asking real questions”

  • Steve Brown September 1st, 2013 10:51 PM

    You didn’t mention the best display question ever asked in a coursebook: “Can you fold your legs?”
    True to Life, eh.

  • Steve September 3rd, 2013 2:27 PM

    Good one Steve. Remember those concept checking question contests we used to have? My favourite winner was ‘How do you do?’

  • Neil Anderson September 3rd, 2013 5:46 PM

    It’s funny, we were just talking about those quirky CCQs from True to Life the other day. Do beards grow on trees? Can you wear a jacket potato? Can you cancel a lake?

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