Classifying classroom questions

Analysing the kinds of questions you and teachers generally use in class can be useful for thinking about increasing the amount of English used in class (and therefore cutting down on L1), increasing involvement and speaking time for the students, increasing the variety of interactions and language produced in the classroom, and shaking up your usual classroom routines. There are many ways of categorizing such questions to help you think about what kinds you usually use and what others you could try, 15 of which are given below:

1. Eliciting instructions and eliciting language

Elicitation (getting the answers from the students as much as you can) is a standard part of almost every English teaching course, especially when it comes to learning how to teach vocabulary and grammar while keeping students involved. Less well known is that you can use similar techniques to help explain what students should and shouldn’t do during classroom activities and other parts of the lesson. For example, with classroom games there are two good ways of doing this. This first is eliciting the rules of the non EFL version (= everyday version) of the game first, e.g. pellmanism (= pairs) with a pack of normal playing cards, before moving onto the language learning version. The second method is giving them the cards and other things they will need to play the game and seeing if they can guess the rules. Examples of these uses are given below:

Eliciting instructions Eliciting language
“What’s this? That’s right, a dice. What do we do with a dice?”

“How do you think we move around the board?”

“And the winner of the game is?”

“You can’t guess what is in my hand, can you? It’s a cube and is used to play lots of games.”

“Jimmy, what did I tell you about flipping the coin too high in the air?”

“What happens to teams who are too noisy?”

“How do you play dominoes? If this is the first playing piece, which pieces can go next to it? Here are some cards with nouns on. How do you think you play dominoes with these?”

“If we throw a one or two we have to ask a question about the past. Can anyone give me an example of a past question?”

“If the answer is ‘Yes, I did’, what is the question?”

“What’s the name for a person who helps a doctor that we studied last week?”

“Which verb goes together with karate, aerobics and exercise?”

“Is the question ‘What have you been doing?’ talking about the past, present or future?”

“How many different animals can you tell me?”

“Can anyone guess Steven’s favourite fruit?”

2. Questions about the language and questions about information

Asking questions about the language (eliciting) is a great way of checking what language students already know and making them think about the language systems for themselves, but language should of course usually be used for real communication and interactions between the teacher and the students should also be as close to a genuine conversation as you can manage. Both uses are included in the sentences below:

Questions about language Questions about information
“What’s the opposite of ‘under’?” “Where is the pen?”
“Do we use ‘how many’ or ‘how much’ with uncountable nouns?” “How much liquid did you drink yesterday?”
“How many adjectives can you think of to describe this picture of a family?” “How much do you look like your mother and father?”

3. Questions the teacher already knows the answer to and questions the teacher really wants to know the answers to

Another aspect of using language mainly for real communication is not only asking students questions about things you already know like “What’s my name?” or “What is Joey doing?”, a common habit in both EFL and general education classes. Asking about things you already know the answer to is perhaps unfairly criticized, however, and such questions are very useful for checking student knowledge and comprehension, and for eliciting language.

Questions you already know the answer to Questions you really want to know the answer to
“What kind of word is “happiness”?” “What is the secret to happiness, do you think?”
“What was Dave doing when we shouted ‘stop’?” “Was someone opening and closing their desk while I had my eyes closed?”
“What does this flashcard represent?” “What is Gabrielle trying to draw?” (drawing from a randomly chosen card that the teacher hasn’t seen)

4. Grammatical questions, tag questions, statements as questions, and uncompleted statements

Although we tend to think of questions as ones including question words and auxiliary verbs (what I am calling here “grammatical questions”- because they are what we traditionally consider to be grammatically correct questions), both in natural conversation and in the classrooms of native speakers other kinds of structures fulfil the same questioning functions and are pronounced with the same intonation as a question. Examples of four kinds of structures you can use as questions in the classroom are given below:

Grammatical questions Tag questions
“What do we call this tense on the board?”

“What’s the opposite of ‘hot’?”

“What’s your favourite colour?”

“Do you mean ‘van’ or ‘ban’?”

“Where is your house on the Google Earth map? How do you get there from the school?”

“This tense is different from that one, isn’t it?”

“Jaime, I’ve told you about leaning back on your chair, haven’t I?”

“That word is ‘notice board’. There’s a notice board somewhere in this room, isn’t there?”

Statements as questions Uncompleted statements
“A bear lives in a house?”

“The cat is under the elephant?”

“Shorts are summer clothes?”

“Penguins live in South Africa?”

“And the green thing the caterpillar is going to eat is …?”

“And your favourite animal is…?”

“Number 1 is ‘I hate’, number 2 is ‘I don’t mind’, number 3 is ‘I like’, so number 4 is…?”

5. Yes/ no and Wh questions

Yes/ no questions are easy for students to understand and answer, but take much longer to ask than to answer and so can lead to too little speaking by students and too much speaking by the teacher. There is also a 50% chance of students answering the question correctly without even understanding it. A good general scheme is the one followed by FCE, IELTS and other speaking exams – one short or other easy question followed by a more difficult but productive Wh question. Examples of typical classroom questions in different tenses and with different question words are given below:

Yes/ no questions Wh questions
“Do you like apples?” “Yes, I do”

“Were you scared of spiders when you were younger?” “No, I wasn’t”

“Have you ever eaten chicken’s feet?” “No, I haven’t. Yuck!”

“Is there an armchair in your bedroom?” “Yes, there are two!”

“Has a crab got 10 legs?” “No, it hasn’t”

“When you arrived at school, had you already eaten something?” “Yes, I had.”

“Why don’t we say ‘beautifulest”?”

“What time do you usually get up?”

“Which is taller, a giraffe or an elephant?”

“Who is your favourite actor?”

“How many times have you been to the beach?”

“How many cards are there? And how many people in each team? So, how many cards each?”

“How long before the end of the game?”

“How can we change the statement into a question?”

6. Questions demanding whole sentence answers and questions allowing shorter answers

For example, “What is your favourite sport?” is usually followed by a single word answer, e.g. “Football”, unless we ask students to give a (rather unnatural) full sentence in their answer, whereas other questions like “What is your opinion about…?” are usually naturally followed by fuller answers.

Full answers likely Short answers likely

“What do you think about…?”

“What does… look like?”

“What is … like?”

“What is your daily routine?”

“What things do… have in common?”

“How do you get from… to …?”

“What’s your favourite…?”




“How often…?”

“How many… (are there)?”

7. Questions that are likely to be followed by pause for thought and questions that are likely to be answered instantly

Students pausing for thought can actually be a good thing if it is making them think about something more deeply, but students who usually pause too long anyway (a particular problem with some classes in some countries or with some ages) will need to be given quite a lot of questions they can answer quickly in order to raise their confidence and get them into the habit of replying without too long a pause.

Questions likely to be followed by pause for thought Questions likely to be answered instantly
“What is your first memory?”

“What can you remember about…?”

“What were you doing this time last week?”

“What is in your bag?”

“How do you get from … to …?”

“What kind of paintings do you like?”

“What is the difference (in meaning) between the Present Perfect Simple and Continuous?”

“What’s your mother’s job?”

“Where do you live?”

“What’s your favourite … team?”

“What kind of music do you like?”

“How many different names of hot drinks can you tell me?”

“What is the difference in structure between the Present Perfect Simple and Continuous?”

8. Planned questions and unplanned questions/ Questions that are written on your lesson plan and questions that are not

Some of the questions you use in class cannot be planned because they are a response to unexpected things people said or the result of the lesson being allowed to drift off track for a while. This can be a good thing sometimes as it usually means that the teacher is asking questions that they honestly want to know the answer to and so approaches questioning in normal conversation outside the classroom more closely than most classroom interactions. Usually, though, teachers will need to closely plan questions that are meant to lead to particular topics, prompt discussion, aid comprehension or elicit particular language. This is particularly true for teachers who lack the confidence to improvise, such as most beginning or trainee teachers and some non-native English speaking teachers. Especially for such teachers, any questions you plan to ask should in some way be written on your lesson plan. Writing the questions as whole sentences can be useful but make their use somewhat unnatural and make the LP too long to be useable, so you could just write a few words to prompt you or have all the classroom language such as questions written on a separate sheet to the lesson plan.

9. Questions for going off topic, staying on topic and getting back on topic

Some questions are used by the teacher to take a diversion from the lesson plan. This could be to give further explanation or practice of a language point students are struggling with, to change the classroom interactions and prompt interest before going onto a difficult planned stage, following a topic that students find particular interesting or relevant, or making sure that stages closely match the timing of the lesson. Such diversions could also be led by student questions and comments. Questions are also useful when bringing such a stage (whether prompted by the teacher or a student) to a close, or even avoiding such a stage when it is undesirable.

Questions for going off topic Questions for staying on topic Questions for getting back on topic
“That’s an interesting point. What does everyone else think about that?”

“As we’re talking about ecology, can anyone remember what we learnt about global warming in unit 2 a few months ago?”

“Can we come back to that later?”

“Can we answer this question first?”

“Getting back to the book- what is the answer to question three?”

“Can anyone remember what we were talking about before we started that discussion?”

10. Key questions and supplementary questions

The key question is the one that you want students to be able to understand the answer to, and probably to be able to give an oral answer to, by the end of the lesson or that stage of the lesson. In other words, it is your main aim converted into a question they don’t know the answer to at the beginning of the lesson but need to by the end. When that key question should be introduced depends on the difficulty of the question, what teaching technique you are going to use, how well the students can cope with a question they can’t answer straightaway etc. Before and after introducing the key question, you can use additional questions to lead students up to the answer to the key question, get their interest, remind them of previous knowledge that is relevant, check their understanding and approach the same topic another way (for example, to cater for different kinds of preferred learning styles in the class).

Key questions Supplementary questions
“What’s the difference between going to and Present Continuous for the future?” “What’s the difference between a plan and an arrangement?”

“Which tense do we use for an ambition/ goal?”

“How do we make the Passive voice?” “How do we know which tense to put ‘be’ into?”

“How does the word order change from the active to the passive?”

“What method of learning vocabulary outside class should you try to help prepare for the end of level test?” “What different methods are available?”

“What ones have other students in your group tried?”

“What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?”

“How can you tell if the one you are trying is really working?”

11. Leading questions, final point questions and follow up questions

Another way of looking at key questions and others is to think of the key question as the final point you want to get to and the other questions as leading up to that point. Further questions can then be used to check understanding and give improvised practice.

Leading questions Final point questions Follow up questions
“What tense did I use when I was asking you those questions?” “So, what is the difference in meaning between the Present Perfect tense and the one in the example above?” “Can you find any other examples of that tense in the book?”

“This group, what have you eaten today?”

“What do you do outside the classroom to improve your English?” “So, what is the best of all those ways of studying outside class for you?” “When shall we talk about these again and check how they went?”

“So, did anyone try any of the techniques from this list last week?”

12. Main questions and follow up questions

Another way that supplementary questions can be used is to reinforce or clear up the meaning of the initial question you asked. This is again something familiar from examiner scripts in EFL speaking exams like CAE and BULATS.

Main questions Follow up questions
“What is the name of this tense?” “What is the auxiliary verb? What tense is it in? What other tenses does it look like? So, it must be called …?”
“What is your main goal or ambition?” “What job would you like? Do you want to achieve something with your hobbies? Where do you see yourself in 20 years?”
“Do you have a large family?” “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

13. Questions looking forward and questions looking back

This categorization can be used to look at the types of questions above in a different way and to include uses like revision, clearing up misunderstandings, giving practice of a point you have just introduced (all looking back), and eliciting language needed later, eliciting game rules, eliciting communication techniques and exam techniques, trying to make them more self-sufficient learners, or getting students interested in a topic that they will be reading, listening or speaking about (all looking forward).

14. Questions on the syllabus and questions off the syllabus

Reasons you might want to use questions that include grammatical forms, vocabulary or functions that are not on the syllabus include: to help students get used to responding to speakers who are at a higher level even if they don’t understand every word of the question; questions that are vital for classroom control and cutting down on L1; questions that they will probably pick up the meaning of from repeated use in the classroom; and questions that they can learn to use as a whole sentence without having to understand every word in it. At other times, teachers unwittingly use types of questions which aren’t covered in the book and can cause problems if not explained, such as subject questions (the difference between “Who kicked him?” and “Who did he kick?”), difficult question words they haven’t explained (“how”, “how far”, “how much” with uncountables, the difference between “what” and “which”, the difference between “how often” and “how many times” etc), and other common confusions (“What is…like?” and “What do you like?” etc). Any questions that include vocabulary, grammar or functional language not included in the syllabus of that level class will therefore have to be carefully analysed before you decide whether to include them or not.

15. Questions modelling the question and questions seeking an answer

We occasionally ask questions because we want students to ask similar questions to the teacher or, more often, each other. To demonstrate pairwork and groupwork, this could include the teacher asking a few questions at the beginning of The Alibi Game to get the game going, picking a card from the pack you will give them and making a discussion question from it for them to discuss, or making personal questions from the vocabulary on the mind map you have all brainstormed onto the board. For student-teacher interactions, it could be giving examples of questions they could ask you if they don’t understand, or questions they could ask you in order to work out if the anecdote you just told them is true or not. When it comes to the much more common situation of using a question to get a particular answer, that could be to elicit a particular piece of vocabulary or grammatical form, to get their views on something, or to check their comprehension.

Modelling the question Seeking an answer
“Any questions, for example ‘How do you spell it?’ or ‘Can you write it on the board, please?’” “Can anyone spell ‘dandelion’?”
“What do you call frozen water? Good, that’s the word on the card (showing the card to them). Now, ask the same kinds of questions in pairs until your partners guess the word on your card.” “Can you think of any other words we can put here connected to winter? For example, what’s the word for frozen water’”
“Ask yes/ no questions until you guess which job they are thinking about, e.g. ‘Do you work outside?’ and ‘Do you have to wear a uniform?’” “Do you know what the difference between a vet and a doctor is? Which one works with animals?”
Written by Alex Case for January 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

One Comment

  • amir says:

    it is useful for teachers who are in the first years of their teaching.tanx

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