Declan Cooley, CELTA trainer at the British Council in Poland, explains why some questions are not as effective as they first appear, and offers some alternatives.
Questions of all kinds are a teacher's most basic tools for generating interest, provoking thoughts, encouraging students to speak, developing text comprehension skills and checking understanding.
New teachers on courses like the CELTA spend a lot of time honing their skills at using effective questions in the classroom. As well as discovering what questions work, teachers learn that some questions are not as effective as they first appear.
Here are a few questions that do not always give the results intended. In some cases, we will see where they can be useful or how they can be replaced.
Do you understand?
This seems like an obvious question for checking comprehension. Variations include Is that clear? Does that make sense? and (perhaps most common of all) OK? However, a 'Yes' answer could mean the learner:
- understands correctly and completely
- thinks he or she completely understands (but doesn't)
- partly understands (but which part?)
- understands just the last thing
In addition, learners might answer in the positive when they've lost interest, want to move on to the practice task, or don't want to admit to a lack of understanding.
Responding 'No' is a rarer occurrence but can also be an unreliable indicator. It could mean the learner partly or fully understands but thinks there's more to it.
Other options for 'Do you understand?'
Once you realise the ineffectiveness of this question, try a more fruitful technique, such as concept checking questions (CCQs). For example, to check students understand the meaning of the sentence 'He's been to New York', the teacher could ask the following CCQs:
- Is he in New York now? (No)
- Did he go to New York at some point in the past? (Yes)
- Do we know when he went to New York? (No)
What does this mean?
This question is problematic, especially when teaching vocabulary or dealing with new words that come up in the course of a lessson. On the surface, it seems to be an example of elicitation — an important teaching technique for keeping students active, on their toes and involved in open-class segments of the lesson. So why does this attempt to elicit entire meanings from students fail so often? Well, the question can prompt an incorrect definition or one that is too complex or convoluted for others to understand. Learners may also give a different sense of the word in cases where it has multiple meanings.
But occasionally, the question produces a correct, concise and clear definition/synonym from learners, which can lead teachers into believing the question is a valid one in all circumstances. It's worth noting that the question can be more effective with high-level students but becomes increasingly less useful as we go down the levels.
Other options for 'What does this mean?'
A vast improvement on the question 'What does this mean?' is 'What's a word that means the same or the opposite?'. In other words, ask for a synonym or antonym (if there is one). This will at least produce a short answer, and it may be easier to tidy up incorrect responses and get right ones.
Alternatively, why not take the tried and tested route of illustration (definition, synonyms, example, quick sketch, mime, real objects) followed by CCQs. If we suspect the students already know the answer, we can go straight to a CCQ.
When checking answers to a reading or listening comprehension, or other language task, it's good to ask students to give reasons for their answers. This can provide a real 'learning moment' for those who answered their question incorrectly and want to understand where they went wrong. The question also checks whether students have really figured out the answer, or just made a lucky guess (or copied the answer from their peers).
However, just asking ‘Why?’ by itself can sound a bit blunt and abrupt.
Other options for 'Why?'
For listening or reading comprehension tasks, try: What did you hear/read? What phrase gave you the answer? What line number is the answer on?
For grammar or lexis practice, try re-asking some of your CCQs to get students to prove why their answer is the correct one. For example, When did the action start? Is this a plan or a prediction? Does ‘lend’ mean to give or to get?
Did you find this difficult / Was that interesting?
It's definitely worth getting feedback from students about activities, texts and lessons. But this question, posed in open class, can lead to students giving answers they feel will please the teacher, without revealing their true opinions.
Other options for 'Did you find this difficult / Was that interesting?'
To find out if a task was difficult, monitor students’ work more closely, watch how they progress and where they struggle, and notice if they ask for help from you or from peers. To see if they found something interesting, read their non-verbal signals (smiles, laughter, paying very close attention, leaning forward, eagerness to chat, etc.).
This question aims to clear up potential learner confusions but it can often draw blank stares and furrowed brows. Although it works well at the end of a lecture, in a language classroom, learners may shut down rather than voice their concerns. This is because learners find it hard to articulate their concerns in the form of a question, especially in a second language. In addition, students can be reluctant to start posing questions in front of the rest of the group, or to appear as if they are questioning the teacher’s authority.
Other options for 'Any questions?'
If asking whether instructions are clear, an alternative tactic is to ask precise checking questions, for example: How many words do you need to write? Will you be speaking during this task? These are sometimes called instruction-checking questions (ICQs).
Do you agree with Declan, or do you have any other 'wrong' questions to add? Leave your comments below.