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Vol 37 No 2, April - June 1999
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Effective Questions
by M.R. Talebinezahd


Questions and answers (Q and A) form a high percentage of classroom activities that are supposed to get the learners involved in creation or re-creation of meaning through language (Chastain 1988:142). However, not all Q and A’s are of communicative value.

To be effective, Q and A’s should be designed to ask for information. That means in every Q and A activity there must be a communicative purpose and an information gap to be filled. Questions that do not serve that purpose will be of little value in language teaching since in reality questions are not asked in vacuums.

This article intends to show that questions and answers are very common activities that, if exploited appropriately, can help students learn and teachers judge the usefulness of what they are doing.

Display questions

Suppose you ask your student something you already know. The answer coming from the student will not satisfy the basic criterion of providing information. For instance, if you hold up your pen and ask learners "What is this?" the answer will not solve a problem, which is required for learning to take place.

Of even less value are those questions to which the answers are provided beforehand. Some teachers give their students the information and then try to ask them questions. For example, "This is a pen. What is this?" Such questions, at best, test something of the students’ memory, not their comprehension. In addition, such questions are not in harmony with conversational maxims now agreed upon by many researchers (Widdowson 1990).

To clarify this point, here are some questions commonly occurring in textbooks, the source of many activities:

Example :

A: Who’s Denise talking to?
She’s talking to her boyfriend.

B: Who’s talking to her boyfriend?
Denise is.

Example:

Teacher: Can you speak Japanese?
Student: Yes, I can.
Teacher: Can you type?
Student: Yes, I can.

Example:

A: These are nice pants!
B: Can I try them on?
A: This is a nice sweater!
B; Can I try it on?

Example:

What is it? It’s a car.
Who is it? It’s Sandra.
Whose car is it? It’s Sandra’s.
(Hartley and Viney 1989)

These above examples are what Gaies (1983) calls display questions or questions that make sure learners know a grammatical form. Within the more communicatively oriented classrooms, such questions can take the form of routine language formulae that speakers use to open, maintain, and close conversations. Kaspar (1984) calls this phatic talk.

Referential questions

However, real language does not consist solely of questions from one party and answers from another. Real language circles around referents or world knowledge in order to create messages and therefore is not form based but meaning based. Thus, questions in the language classrooms should be referential or meaning based, and not focus solely on form. The following examples are meaning-based questions:

1. Suppose you win $50,000. What are you going to do with it?

2. How do you usually spend your weekends?

There are also questions that are confined in terms of possible answers by providing obligatory contexts. These have disadvantages as well as advantages. The following will illustrate the point:

Teacher (holding up a pen): "This is my pen. Where is yours?" (pointing to a student.)

Here the student may either hold up his pen and answer "Here’s mine!" or "This is my pen," or at least show that he understands by making an appropriate gesture. These answers will be acceptable in real situations. The teacher then has clearly created an information gap which has been filled by the learner. This is how real communication takes place.

Display vs. referential

This distinction does not solely apply to oral questions. In reading, too, questions can merely test the reader’s knowledge of form or comprehension. To make reading questions referential (meaning based), one can make them story specific. Compare the following two types of questions on the same paragraph (Ladousse 1987):

This is the last time I’ll look at the clock. I will not look at it again. It’s ten minutes past seven. He said he would telephone at five o’clock. "I’ll call you at five, darling." I think that’s where he said "darling." I’m almost sure he said it there. I know he called me "darling" twice, and the other time was when he said "good-bye, darling."

Questions:

1. Who is the "I"?
2. Who is the "he"?
3. Do "I" telephone?
4. Does "he" telephone?

The first two questions require exploiting schema or a general type of knowledge and therefore are referential questions. That is, the learner does not solely depend on his/her grammatical knowledge. The second two, however, are tests of knowledge of form or display questions. The fourth question only measures the student’s recognition of he, not general knowledge of the world, which is necessary in real situations.

Widdowson (1978:5) questions the importance of asking any question that serves no communicative purpose. He believes one should first understand why a question is asked. The following example illustrates the point:

A: What is on the table?
B: A book.
A: Where is the bag?
B: On the floor.

In this case, the teacher and the student are both aware of the whereabouts of the book and the bag, and therefore no information is transferred through the activity. The teacher might, for example, ask questions about the whereabouts of something he does not see but the learner does.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the following guidelines might prove helpful in forming classroom questions:

1. Always have a purpose for your questions, other than testing the student’s knowledge of form.

2. Ask for information you do not share with your learners, but make sure they have it, because you do not want to be confined to clichés.

3. Try to contextualize your questions and make them as learning based as possible.

4. Do not let questions and answers become only one-way activities: questions from teachers and answers from students.

The act of teaching will help the teacher think and devise Q and A classroom activities that are appropriate and that add to meaningful communication. With a little care, teachers can develop constructive Q and A tasks that benefit all students.

References

Chastain, K. 1988. Developing second language skills: Theory and practice. (3rd ed.) New York: HBJ Publishers.

Gaies, S. 1983. The investigation of language classroom process. TESOL Quarterly, 17, pp. 205–217.

Hartley, B. and P. Viney. 1989. New American streamline. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kasper, G. 1984. Pragmatic comprehension in learner-native speaker discourse. Language Learning, 34, pp. 1–20.

Ladousse, G. 1987. Reading: Intermediate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Widdowson, H. 1990. Aspects of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 1978. Teaching language as communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

M. R. Talebinezahd teaches in the Department of English Language

 

 

M. R. Talebinezahd teaches in the Department of English Language at the University of Isfahan, Iran.


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