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 As are of communicative value.
To be effective, Q and
As 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.
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
To clarify this point, here are some questions commonly occurring in textbooks, the
source of many activities:
A: Whos Denise talking to?
Shes talking to her boyfriend.
B: Whos talking to her boyfriend?
Teacher: Can you speak Japanese?
Student: Yes, I can.
Teacher: Can you type?
Student: Yes, I can.
A: These are nice pants!
B: Can I try them on?
A: This is a nice sweater!
B; Can I try it on?
What is it? Its a car.
Who is it? Its Sandra.
Whose car is it? Its Sandras.
(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.
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
Here the student may either hold up his pen and answer "Heres 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 readers 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 Ill look at the clock. I will not look at it again.
Its ten minutes past seven. He said he would telephone at five oclock.
"Ill call you at five, darling." I think thats where he said
"darling." Im almost sure he said it there. I know he called me
"darling" twice, and the other time was when he said "good-bye,
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 students 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.
In conclusion, the following guidelines might prove helpful in forming classroom
1. Always have a purpose for your questions, other than testing the students
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.
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,
Hartley, B. and P. Viney. 1989. New American streamline. Oxford: Oxford University
Kasper, G. 1984. Pragmatic comprehension in learner-native speaker discourse. Language
Learning, 34, pp. 120.
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
M. R. Talebinezahd teaches in the Department of English Language