Asking more: why some questions are better than others

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!

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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.

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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.

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12 Responses

  1. It is high time ELT teachers moved from ‘questions about words’ to ‘questions about ideas’. And this is an environment where the quality of the question plays an absolutely fundamental role. Asking about words does not engage the learners, it is like drills, like chopping wood. It is not working.

    • hugh dellar says:

      Not sure I agree actually Jedrek. I find students are often very enagged by questions about words – and the words that go with them. Say you ask something like WHY ELSE MIGHT SOMEONE GET SACKED? – they can draw on their own life experience, on TV shows they’ve seen, stories they’ve heard and some very amusing and entertaining anecdotes and stories may emerge. One thing’s for sure, though, these things WON’T emerge if you don’t ask the questions – and nor will the connected language students will need if they’re to use the new words in their own output.

      If you’re thinking of exploring ideas, what kind of questions would you suggest need to be asked when the teacher is checking and clarifying and exploring the three items in bold above, then?

      • First off, let me start by saying that I am not a huge fan of imposing or forcing any vocabulary items or phrases upon the students. I’d rather they find the genuine need to use one, then ask for it, then use it. The odds that the phrase will stick are way higher than if we enforce the use of vocabulary items that are foreign to the learner in L1 in the first place.

        Hugh, you get lucky with the question on getting sacked – people generally like to discuss job-related issues, however, you may not get away with another one, say, about gaining weight (and having an obese student in the class).

        I have been exploring, researching and testing what is a good educative question for almost 2 years, and there is so much I can say that this here little disquis window is simply not enough. In fact, I’m releasing my ‘Handbook for Conversations’ this year where I will present a whole new approach to teaching L2 through specially designed questions.

        • AndrewWalkley says:

          The questions we are encouraging about language will also contain language that ‘comes up to meet a need’: the need to answer the question the teacher asks – which is the same as whatever questions you will have in mind (except I’m guessing ours are more display-like).We would certainly agree that it is also good to ask entirely open questions and deal with what comes up – and we have plenty of these kinds of questions too in our own commercial products ;-)! We see the kinds of questions Hugh talks about here as having more of a scaffolding role. Your idea does sound interesting, though, and it would be nice to see a framework for the kind of Dogme or Task-based approach which I imagine it has much in common with.

          Oh, and as to questions about “gain weight” – how about:

          Why might people gain weight? When might someone need to gain weight? What’s the opposite of gain weight? Anything else you can gain? (How?).

          Would these really be problematic even with overweight students in the class? I personally don’t think so, but teachers know their students best.

  2. […] 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…  […]

  3. Rachel Williams says:

    The bonus one is alway difficult as course books often list it alongside commision and I’m left trying to find other examples. Both can be paid, earned, given and got. Which, if we go down Jedrek’s route of ideas they could be considerd as the same thing -extra money. But students want to know the difference. This week it was kill and murder. I do agree that wherever possible we should teach collocations or colligation. I’m struggling with non-polar questions for bonus. Why do people get bonuses?
    Responsibilities – What sort of responsibilties do parents have? Pet owners? Employers? Do you have any responsibilities?
    Well-paid. Can you name some well-paid jobs? How much would you consider to be well-paid? Also, in that example I might start by asking what the ‘it’ is.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Hi again Rachel –
      I think one of the advantages of asking the kinds of questions we’re advocating is they preempt the kind of “So what’s the difference between . . . ?” questions from students that you allude to. Your question is spot on – why do people get bonuses? The one I’d ask is almost the same: “Why might someone get a bonus?” This brings out all the possible reasons and allows exploration of co-text: I got a bonus because . . . I beat (or HIT) my sales target for the year / the firm had a really good year, etc.

      If students then ask about commission, you simply ask why and when people might commission (when they sell something, they usually get a percentage as commission) and maybe ask which jobs most depend on it (sales jobs, estate agents, etc.) and it’s job done there.

      Good dictionaries can help you prepare for this as well. Take the Macmillan online thing, it defines bonus as “extra money that you are paid in addition to your usual salary” and gives the example of a Christmas bonus; it defines commission as “an extra amount of money that you earn in your job every time you sell a product or get a new customer”, so reading that as apart of your lesson planning will stand you in good stead.

      With things like kill and murder, the best policy is often simply to give examples. For example: Each year thousands of people are killed and injured on the roads / Cancer kills thousands of people every year . . . versus . . . He denies murdering his wife’s lover / She was murdered on her own doorstep. Again, all taken from good learner’s dictionaries!

      I like your questions for responsibilities too, btw. The one I usually ask here is just this: “What other important responsibilities might a job have?”
      And for well-paid, I just go for this: “What’s the opposite of well-paid?”

      I think in general two or perhaps three questions for each item is plenty enough.
      Anyway, it looks like you’re very much on the right track with the line of questioning you’re pursuing.

      Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi again Rachel –

      I think one of the advantages of asking the kinds of questions we’re advocating is they preempt the kind of “So what’s the difference between. . . ?” questions from students that you allude to. Your question is spot on – why do people get bonuses? The one I’d ask is almost the same: “Why might someone get a bonus?” This brings out all the possible reasons and allows exploration of co-text: I got a bonus because . . . I beat (or HIT) my sales target for the year / the firm had a really good year, etc.

      If students then ask about commission, you simply ask why and when people might commission (when they sell something, they usually get a percentage as commission) and maybe ask which jobs most depend on it (sales jobs, estate agents, etc.) and it’s job done there.

      Good dictionaries can help you prepare for this as well. Take the Macmillan online thing, it defines bonus as “extra money that you are paid in addition to your usual salary” and gives the example of a Christmas bonus; it defines commission as “an extra amount of money that you earn in your job every time you sell a product or get a new customer”, so reading that as apart of your lesson planning will stand you in good stead.

      With things like kill and murder, the best policy is often simply to
      give examples. For example: Each year thousands of people are killed and injured on the roads / Cancer kills thousands of people every year . . . versus . . . He denies murdering his wife’s lover / She was murdered on her own doorstep. Again, all taken from good learner’s dictionaries!

      I like your questions for responsibilities too, btw. The one I
      usually ask here is just this: “What other important responsibilities
      might a job have?”

      And for well-paid, I just go for this: “What’s the opposite of well-paid?”

      I think in general two or perhaps three questions for each item is plenty enough.

      Anyway, it looks like you’re very much on the right track with the line of questioning you’re pursuing.

      Thanks for taking the time to share with us.

  4. Kelly Morrissey says:

    I tried something a bit like this when I turned my standard ‘peer survey’ activity into a lexical activity by finding chunks and patterns that we can use again and again, or ones we may encounter again. One chunk mined from the unit on using an AED to resuscitate an unresponsive person was, “spring into action.” So on the peer survey, Ss had to ask a few classmates, “Have you ever had to spring into action?” Other questions on that peer survey included, if I remember correctly, to name five things with an on button, name a part of the body that can have inflammation, and finish the pattern: “My ____ is still quite ____.” “My arm is still quite numb” became “My umbrella is still quite wet” and “My neighbour is still quite angry.”

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Kelly –
      Nice to hear from you – and great to hear that this post struck a chord with you. I guess the way we’d see these kinds of questions as being used is first when we’re dealing with new vocab as and when it comes up or when going through the answers to a vocab exercise. It obviously depends on the context item,s are met in in the first place, but we might ask something along the lines of WHY MIGHT A TEAM OF DOCTORS SUDDENLY HAVE TO0 SPRING INTO ACTION? The answers will basically involve telling little stories about what happens when teams spring into action that you can help students say better. It’s often the language connected to the language you’re looking at that proves most useful. In the same way, you could flip the NUMB question around and say WHY MIGHT YOUR AR, BE NUMB? ANY OTHER PARTS OF THE BODY THAT SOMETIMES GO NUMB?

      • Kelly Morrissey says:

        Thanks for this. I’m a bit confused now, so I think I’ll lurk and listen in on others discussing this until my copy of Teaching Lexically arrives and I’ve had time to digest it. 🙂 –K

        • hugh dellar says:

          Sorry to confuse you Kelly.

          Feel free to ask anything at any point if there are things you need a second opinion on.


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