Questions about words

In my talk at IATEFL (and International House London, where a video was made of it), I explained some of the limitations of asking traditional concept questions, especially when looking at vocabulary. What follows is a list of alternative types of checking questions about vocabulary. You may see some of the same question frames I used in the talk. The questions that I give below are about vocabulary that comes from an exercise I explored in a previous post in this section. There were some comments and questions about that particular exercise there, but please do add your own or suggest other questions below.

Stick to prototypes 

It can be good to ask personalised questions using the vocabulary being explored as a follow-up activity, but as checking questions to generate related vocabulary, it’s better to base your questions around the prototype of the word, how we typically use it: what might happen …? What might you say …? etc. This is likely to be more productive than going straight in and asking, for example, Have you ever experienced violence?!

Open questions can be difficult

Open questions offer more opportunities for students to find the limits of what they know, but can be difficult to think of. In the list under consideration here, I found the words claim, intend, probablepossible and account all pretty difficult to ask anything sensible about and you may well feel I have failed even now! Some words lend themselves more to pattern practice of the kind we explored in this post. There is also value in asking closed questions about word forms and grammar such as prepositions, although this can also be drawn out in other questions we ask too (see suspicious below).

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In the original material, there was a series of exercises that practised the vocabulary: comprehension questions, gap-fill task, and story retelling. Good material will always provide these kinds of multiple opportunities and we can use these as chances to ask questions about different key words throughout the class. So when roudning up the first exercise, we might ask about three or words, then during the next task four more, and then after the speaking, correct and ask about two or three more.

Answers and boardwork

We might want to write some of the language which is generated by students on the board – especially where students were unable to produce it without our help. However, again, don’t feel you have to to begin with. Sometimes the language which is generated will already be known or half known and we are encouraging recall, repetition and integration with new language – which is good in itself.

The questions:

violence:Can you give any examples of violence? What’s the adjective form of violence? Why might a crowd turn violent?

claim: If you claim something, does everyone believe you? Elicit endings: He claimed he wasn’t there but … / They claim they’ve found the murderer, but …

evidence: What kind of people look for evidence of something? How do you find evidence? What do you need evidence for?

temper: What often happens if you have a temper?

suffer: What preposition follows suffer? What else can you suffer from? What happens if you suffer from …[hayfever]?

commit suicide: So what’s another common way of saying commit suicide? Do you know why it’s commit? What else do you commit? How do people commit suicide?

overwhelming: Hmm tricky…. What might happen if you find a situation overwhelming?

liar: so what does a liar do? What happens if you are a terrible liar?

be armed: What can you be armed with? Who do you normally describe as armed? Why might they be armed?

lively: other things that can be lively? What happens in a lively party? What do you have in a lively area?

join someone: In what situations might you ask “Do you mind if I join you?

an exception: When might you make an exception for someone – and why?

intend: If you go out armed, what might you intend to do? If you didn’t intend to do something, you did it by …? What’s the noun of intend? We sometimes say we have no intention of …ing.

rapidly: you can rapidly become friends, unemployment can grow rapidly, what else might you do rapidly? What’s the opposite?

mental illness: What kinds of mental illness do you know? How might you recover from / overcome it?

furious: how do you know when someone is furious?

a row: how do you say the word? Why might you have a row with a friend? What about with your parents? What might be the result? How do you stop a row?

summon: Why might someone be summoned to court? Who summons you?

accuse: what might you say to accuse someone of something? What might be the opposite? What happens if you are accused of a crime?

account: you usually give an account of the events to the police or a reporter.

witness: What happens if you witness a crime? What do you call the person who witnesses a crime?

suspicious: if someone looks suspicious, what do you think they intend to do? Who else might you be suspicious of? Why? And what’s the noun? What about the person? And the verb?

haste: probably I would avoid getting into this one!

depart: what’s the noun? What’s the opposite? Where do you have a depature lounge?

lack of: what happens if there’s a lack of rain? What if a hospital has a lack of resources? Anything else we often have a lack of?

possible / probable: we might have a possible / probable cause or explanation or outcome? Anything else?

withdraw: what’s the opposite of withdraw money? And withdraw an accusation? And withdraw from the competition? What might a government withdraw? Why?

be attracted to: why might you be attracted to someone? And why might you be attracted to a job?

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13 Responses

  1. Rachel Williams says:

    I like the questions -wish I could think of them when I needed them though. I think just getting into the habit of asking what’s the noun, verb etc is good and antonyms when relevant. While sts are thinking of the answers to those I can think of other Qs. (I’m referring to the unexpected Qs that come up here)

    For temper, I might ask what things make you lose your temper (often good to know!) Asking sts to describe their temper might open up room for short/ quick temper. Overwhelming, I’d just reverse your question and ask what situations students find, have found to be overwhelming.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Rachel –
      Yes, good questions are hard to think of on the spur of the moment. For me, they need to be built in to lesson planning. part of what I still do when looking at what I’m going to be teaching is think of which words that are there I want to explore more, what questions I’ll ask about them and what examples I’ll get up on the board. This is the kind of area that only really gets better with deliberate, conscious practice.

      I’m not really a fan of the what’s the noun, verb, adverb, etc. line of questioning as that falls into the trap of skimming wider without really going deeper. Take something like FURIOUS, all you’d be able to get from that is FURY and FURIOUSLY, and that’d be two more words they kind of understand, but don’t know how to use. Without going deeper into what’s already there, you deprive students of the chance to learn the co-text – the language they’d need if they’re to actively use the words in their own output. The question above gets at this. By asking how you know when someone is furious, you get at screaming and shouting / throwing things around, etc. – all of which might be useful if you’re talking about a furious boss, etc.

      That said, I like your question about temper – why might you lose your temper – as it allows exploration of context and co-text very nicely.

      With overwhelming, I like your idea, but find it’s usually better to avoid asking directly about students and instead to frame the question like this: What kind of sitiuations might people find overwhelming?

      It’s easier to come up with general ideas than to give specific personal examples – but it doesn’t preclude personal examples from emerging either.

      • Antje says:

        I like that sort of question because it gets you thinking on how and when to use the word and the discussion can also help you see how not to use it. In my monolingual classes, however, someone will have looked up a word like “violence” before I can ask any question and told the others in German. In such cases there is not much point in asking these questions to establish the concept of the word. It can help establishing a lexical context of “violence”, though I find that it is the more advanced students (B2 up) and/or academically trained ones who really benefit from such discussions, getting something new out of it rather than confirming what they already know and ignoring the rest. At lower levels these exercises – in my experience – just help raise students awareness of this way of looking at language, which is a good thing in itself.

        • Lexicallab says:

          Hi Antje –
          Thanks for your interesting comments.

          Yes, I know that feeling of students translating words for each other before you even get the chance to explore them. In a sense, though, that’s a good thing as it means the basic meaning will already be clear to students and so instead you can explore the language around the word you’re teaching.

          If you take the word VIOLENCE and assume that students will have translated it for each other, if you just ask what VIOLENCE means, they’ll almost certainly shout out “GEWALT”! It goes nowhere, other than to show you that they’ve grasped the basic meaning.

          To expand what they can do and what they knoiw about the word, though, you could ask any number of questions. At lower-levels, obviously, you’d want to keep this relatively simple, so it might just be something like these:


          By trying to answer these kinds of questions, students are forced to go beyond their comfort zones; they give the teacher the opportunity to teach new language; and they connect the words being studied to the wider world and to things that happen in it.

          Of course, as you say, it also serves the covert function of simply encouraging them to think about how words are use,d in what contexts, and with what other words.

          • AndrewWalkley says:

            Antje, I would say in nearly all cases you need to ask the questions here after you explain or translate a word. They are checking understanding and expanding. I find students quickly understand the purpose and value of the questions – as you say it’s a way of helping them look at language in a different way. My esteemed colleague, those don’t seem like low-level questions to me, but show how words can be explored at various levels! In addition to those above how about at low levels: Who often uses violence? Why? How might we try and stop or reduce violence? So what verbs go with violence? Any others?

          • Lexicallab says:

            Point taken. That’ll teach me to write questions before coffee!

          • Antje says:

            I’m totally with you on that and I enjoy expanding my own vocabulary in that way. This strategy has actually helped me become a better translator. In my classroom, however, it can be overwhelming. In my experience it is especially students with some sort of an academic background (in any field) who really benefit from this and who don’t mind this somewhat unstructured approach (unstructured in the sense that they need to decide what’s important for them and what isn’t, how to record the language items, how to make connections and remember them). The vocabulary load in your coursebooks (Innovations/Outcomes) is quite heavy as it is – which is great! But many of my students struggle to remember the things in there, so I’m reluctant to add too much extra, unless it comes from the students, they ask me or I see that they want to express something but can’t. With a relatively straightforward word like VIOLENCE that is used in German and English in a similar way I would probably not ask my adult learners any additional questions when somebody has already shouted out the translation. Once a student told me he doesn’t feel like answering when the answer is too easy – he seemd to focus on content rather than language, i.e. of course he can explain what violence is in German and give examples, etc. That he might not be able to do it with the same confidence in English didn’t matter at that moment. Strange, isn’t it, considering that he is in an English course.

          • AndrewWalkley says:

            Yes. All things are balance. The list here is purely illustrative and I by no means ask questions for all vocab – see also this post Thanks for posting.

      • Kelly Morrissey says:

        Very good point. I’ve been including those tables in which students must fill in the other parts of speech, but I now see that our time could be better spent going deeper instead.

  2. Kelly Morrissey says:

    This is a very useful post with discussion. I’m excited to find it because I have instinctively been headed in this direction with my students without having a text or mentors to guide me. For example, my students and I always choose together which vocabulary items are probably going to prove useful in life and which ones are not worth the trouble of studying. The useful ones go on the chart paper for the week. Next, we try to revisit lexis in as many ways as possible in order to give the brain an opportunity to latch on, make connections, etc. We do pattern drills with chunks. My copy of Teaching Lexically is in the mail. Yay.

  3. […] other examples of these types of questions see our website or the book Teaching […]

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