Questions

Sometimes I think that this teaching lark is all about questions. Take CELTA, for example: trainees (and trainers) spend hours agonising over concept checking questions, , ICQs, and questions to draw the meaning: they all cause a headache for new teachers (along with labelling stages of a lesson, although this is like moving your head slightly to show you are using the mirrors in your driving test, and you never ever need to do again).

So, asking questions. Arguably this is the most useful tool in the teachers arsenal, and for some people, the hardest to master. Given time and practice, mind you, and it becomes something you do more or less out of habit.

Here’s how you do it, based on a CELTA teaching practice I saw, focussing on using and and, most importantly, but with a group of Entry 1 students:

Put up the following two sentences:

I have an ipad _______ I have an iphone.

Then point at the first sentence. “Is this yes or no?” (or “positive and negative” if you like). Students say “Yes”

Then repeat with the second sentence.

Indicate this on the board with a tick by each sentence.

“Are they the same?”

“Yes.”

Ask: “How can I make this one sentence?”  and/or “What word can I put here to make one sentence?”

This should elicit I have an ipad and I have an iphone.

Then we follow more or less the same procedure but with some changes:

I have an ipad _______ I don’t have an xbox.

Point at the first sentence. “Is this yes or no?” (or “positive and negative” if you like). Students say “Yes”.

Point at the second sentence. “Is this yes or no?”. Students say “no”.

Take a deep breath: this is a crucial bit.

“Are the sentences the same?”

“No.”

Ask, again: “How can I make this one sentence?”  and/or “What word can I put here to make one sentence?”

I have an ipad but I don’t have an xbox.

This may not work. You may want to try “Can I use and?” to guide them a little.

Obviously, the students may still not have a clue, so you may have to tell them here, although I reckon you should have got there by now.

You then follow this up with some more questions. Write up:

I have an iPad but I have a computer.

Questions are then asked more or less as above, but this time you finish with “is this right?” The real trick now comes with making sure all the students have understood, so you get all of them to answer the question, for example, by saying “if you think it’s right, put up your hand” or getting them to write yes or no on a mini whiteboard or piece of paper. The point being that this questioning now has a different purpose, which is to ascertain whether or it the students have understood the language in the first place. Depending on the level, of course, you may want to ask some students to explain why.

This seems like a lot of fuss, and believe me the explaining of this takes much longer than the actual doing of it. However, the point of this kerfuffle is this – by asking questions like this, you are taking all the bits of knowledge that the students already have (in this case, notions of positive and negative, how these are formed, and the idea of joining two simple sentences using some form of conjunction) and start to link these all together in a structured way. The fact that you are asking questions means as well you are demanding that the students engage with you in order to do this.

Now, I’ve got to admit to a little bit of annoyance with the CELTA fetish of asking instruction checking questions, and indeed sometimes concept checking questions, when there is no need for it. I’d much rather see clear instructions and 90% of the class get on with it while the teacher helps those who have struggled, rather than ritualistically asking stuff like “can you tell me what we are going to do?” and “are you going to write in the gaps?” and the whole class sit there in a state of confusion.

It’s also this sort of thing that irritates the living shits out of me when people waffle on about higher order questioning. It’s a bug bear of mine. Higher order questioning is about meta-awareness and sometimes, indeed very often this is totally unnecessary and no indicator at all as to whether or not they can actually use the language. Give me some speakers of Slavic languages in a Level 1 class, and I will give you a whole bunch of people who can explain the rules around definite and indefinite articles, discuss very clearly the reasons why we use them, hypothetical situations where we might not use them and so on, a whole stack of higher order stuff, but they still say “I went to supermarket and I bought apple.” You can wave Bloom’s Taxonomy at me all you like, but higher order questioning is not going to help those learners learn articles, because there are other things at play here, and more than simply presentation.

What they need is practice, and that, of course, is a whole other question.

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