Why Questions are so important for ESL teaching

When teaching another language as with ESL teaching, we ask questions as part of the teaching process to test the progress and knowledge of students. Questions should reveal more than only the successful transfer of targeted learning, we have to be masters at asking the kind of questions that will guide our students to present more than just correct answers. We need to get them thinking critically and enjoy discovering knowledge.

Elon Musk talking about the importance of asking the right questions at the 2017 World Government Summit.

Guide students to learn new ideas

As a boy, Elon always asked questions, thousands of questions,” is how the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s mother Maye recalls his school days. “We called him Elon the Encyclopedia for he remembered everything he read. He was always absorbing information.” When asked at the World Government Summit (2017) the secret for his success, Elon Musk replied: “What really matters is trying to understand the right questions to ask!”

Asking questions, being inquisitive, is in fact a denominator marking all great scientists, inventors, and scholars. They always questioned the accepted narrative of their day. For this reason, teachers also need to master the art of using questions to guide their students to learn and discover.

Asking the right questions is the art of probing, exploring, or finding the truth. Think of people in professions such as district attorneys, judges, advocates, detectives, psychiatrists. The same applies to teachers, who need to learn students to always ask questions. Asking the right question is also the art of being a good TV interviewer. Similarly, a good reporter has an instinctive journalistic curiosity, always asking questions, seeking truth.  

Asking questions to reveal knowledge

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, once said, “We run the company by questions, not by answers.”

The response to questions – answering either correct or incorrect – is important in the process of embedding the three core types of knowledge: Explicit (documented information/ factual knowledge), implicit (applied information/ conceptual knowledge), and tacit (understood information/ procedural knowledge).  So, asking questions is MORE than just getting information. A student will remember a correction to a wrong answer, which is the goal of teaching.

Dr. Joel Tapia (2020), connects Culturally Responsive Teaching, to the metacognitive, or fourth core category of knowledge. It is a more comprehensive pedagogical approach, which in the case of ESL teaching means taking the difference in cultures into account, also in using questions to extend learning. Covid_19 has accelerated the Information Revolution, Tapia says,“now is the time to integrate a hybrid curriculum where online learning compliments in-person learning environments.”

Changing the order of questions

Practice changing the order of questions, encourage students (in group work/ breakout rooms) to find ways to change the order of questions: For example, change the standard: “How are you today?” “Did you sleep well?” to “Did you sleep well?” “So, how are you today?” This will alter the response of high school students and break the habit of just saying, “I’m fine thank you…” to perhaps, “No, I slept for only four hours… because we have to much homework…”

Studies found that answers are influenced by the order of questions, which is why good examiners or interviewers will change the order of their questions. For example, under police interrogation questions will be repeated, but in a different order. When adults are asked, for example: “How is your life?” followed by “How is your marriage?” vs “How is your marriage”, “How is your life?” the latter will reveal a more genuine response.

Asking questions that are liked

“Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” This advice came from Dale Carnegie (1888-1955) in his 1936 classic ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’  Young learners especially love answering questions they know the answers to; adults do not differ. The general practice is to ask easy questions initially, and then to move on to the really hard questions.

By asking questions that students like to answer, the teacher puts them at ease, boosting their confidence to respond and encourage them to discuss issues. Asking ‘liked’ questions create the opportunity for students to express themselves and is a proven way to launch authentic conversations.

Teachers should not only often use group work/ breakout rooms as a teaching method, we must learn and encourage them to ask smart questions themselves.

Asking difficult questions

Getting a dreaded question out of the way first will, however, elicit a positive response to following questions. For example, if a student did something wrong, do not avoid it or postpone addressing the problem. Get the ‘difficult question’ (i.e. “why did you not do your homework?“) out of the way in a positive manner and see how a relieved student will be keen to respond to other questions.

We need to teach students that asking questions is a way to be more confident. It starts with teaching young ESL learners basic phrases such as: “Hi, nice to meet you. My name is XXX, what’s your name? How old are you? Where do you live? Do you have a brother or sister?” etc. When meeting someone new, we ask questions to get to know them. Asking the right questions will open them up to get to know you and in turn make you as an interviewer more confident too.

Teachers must encourage students to ask better questions, rewarding students who unique questions in the regular use of group work/ breakout rooms or in the case of online teaching using Zoom.

Advanced students must learn to ask open-ended questions that encourage wider conversation or discussion in group meetings, workshops and projects and thus gain more efficacy (effectiveness) and have higher quality results.

Ways to check for understanding

“Do you understand?” is not a good question, simply because students instinctively do not want to respond negatively. So, teachers need to use alternative, creative ways to check for understanding and encourage students to indicate when they have a problem and need a solution. We need to give students a way to ask for help.

Teachers should often interrupt a lesson to check for understanding by asking questions, but to avoid asking the lame-duck do-you-understand-question, rephrase questions, ask open-ended questions to force students to give more than just a yes/ no answer.

Yes-or-no questions are effective when used in certain grammar lessons, when students must make a sentence answering in the negative or positive. Don’t ask Yes or No questions if the answers are going to be boring; the answer must have a quality of surprise, fun, or excitement.  

Other creative ways must be used to also help students indicate that they need more help, for example, the One-to-Four Finger Response. When asked, students must with a show of fingers indicate if they grasp the lesson. One finger indicates “I don’t understand,” two fingers “I’m still a little confused,” three fingers “I’m okay and can do it myself,” while four fingers mean “I can teach it to a friend.”

A simpler way before continuing with a lesson is to ask them to show thumbs up to indicate ‘fully understood’, sideway thumbs to show ‘I’m a bit unsure,’ and thumbs down for ‘I need more explanation’.

Alternatively, ask a quick question that students must write down on paper or individual whiteboards, hold up, and show. This is also easy to do when teaching online, they can reply in the chat box or show their answers.  

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