There’s an old saying that claims questions are never dangerous – only answers are. Well, a recent presentation I saw by Jim Scrivener gave me pause to reconsider this received wisdowm and to ask whether some questions might be if not exactly dangerous, than at the very least far less useful, productive and worth learning how to ask in the language classroom.
A few days ago, I was down in Bristol talking at a day organised by Living Learning English, a firm specialising in matching students wanting one-to-one classes with homestay tutors who host them, and Jim gave the opening plenary. It was a continuing exploration of some of the ideas opened up by the Demand High construct that, alomg with Adrian Underhill, he’s responsible for, and which I’ve posted about before. This time, the focus was on grammar and we spent around ten minutes being asked to say the sentence I’ve never eaten a tomato in a variety of ways. We were asked if we believed the various speakers who’d been voulnteered to say the sentence to the group (which seemed rather an odd question, given that we knew they were only saying it because they’d been told to!); we were asked if and how the meaning changed when the sentence was said in differnt ways; and we were asked to listen to it being said, hold the voice in our minds and then replace that voice in our inner ears with our own!
So far, so touchy-feely!
Jim believes that there is great value in what he calls “playful safe exploration of form in meaning / context light examples”. Personally, I think that one problem students tend not to have had with grammar is a lack of opportunities to consider sentences they’re never likely to say in a decontextulaised realm. In fact, for most of the students I’ve ever taught, that’s a fairly accurate summary of the bulk of their grammar studies thus far! For me, far more useful and fruitful questions to ask about a sentence that supposedly exemplifies a grammatical structure are (to oneself): when would this be used? And if it wouldn’t, why am I wasting time on it? – and once you’ve got past that and decided exactly what you want to focus on (for me personally, that wouldn’t be the tomato sentence, but there you go!), you could then ask students: what was said before this sentence? What was said after? What’s the context? Why would you tell someone this? How would the conversation develop?
Anyway, the point I’m getting at here is just because there are many different kinds of questions available to ask about items we’re exploring with our students, it doesn’t mean that simply asking any of them somehow pushes students more or demands more of them. Some go further and into more interesting areas than others. And if this is true with grammar, it’s perhaps even more true with lexis and with chunks.
We’ve been posting quite a bit about questions recently. Andrew followed up his IATEFL talk on this theme with a post here, for example. This is maybe a reflection of how central we both feel the ability to ask the right question at the right time is to teacheing and how working on what we ask, when – and understanding why we do so – plays a major role in teacher development.
To explore this idea in more depth, I’ll give just one example taken from a class I saw earlier this year. The teacher was working with an Advanced group and was doing an exercise that looked at how to give your impression of people you don’t know – or don’t know well. One of the chunks being explored was He / she comes across as being . . . very down-to-earth, etc. The teacher explained that this basically meant this was the impression you have of the person and then wanted to ask an extra question to push / work the language more.
Obviously, there are many different ways you could approach this, but as mentioned above, some ways are more fruitful than others. My fear is that far too many teachers bring over from the PPP approach to structural grammar a very limted kind of CCQ (Concept checking question) and ask things like: Do I know for sure he’s very down-to-earth? or Do I know her very well or not? The problem with these questions is that they require nothing from students other than a bored “No!“
What happened in this particular class was the teacher asked What else can you come across? (no sniggering at the back of the class now, please!), which elicits more from learners – but which also brings about a different set of problems. Students shouted out things like old photographs, articles online and interesting little shops when you’re out and about. The problem for me here is whilst this IS getting at other uses of come across, and skimming more widely across the collocational range of the item, what it fails to do is to actually go deeper into the usage being looked at in the exercise students were doing, which is NOT about coming across things, but rather about how people come across.
To get deeper into that requires a different line of questioning, more along the lines of How else can people come across? or What else might you come across as being? However, such questions are almost too open – there are countless adjectives availabale to fill such open slots. As such, maybe the best way in would be to ask how particular people in the public eye that will all be known by the students come across. Who you choose depends on yor context, but it’d be something along the lines of So . . . how does famous singer / politician / actor / sports personality / TV celeb come across? What’s your impression of him / her?
And here, perhaps, lies one problem with the whole thorny issue of questions in class. There is no one off-the-peg question that can be used to explore the words often used with the words you’re teaching. Each item you’re looking at needs to be thought about – and asked about – in its own right. And the ability to do this certainly isn’t innate or inbuilt; it takes time, thought, and practice.
Perhaps you might want to add your own ideas below about similar questions you could ask about the words in bold in the two sentences below?
It’s easy. You don’t have any real responsibilites like managing anyone.
It’s very well-paid. He gets £60,000 a year as well as a bonus every Christmas.