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More ways of classifying classroom questions

A classroom teacher asks many millions of questions over their teaching life, and this can result in the types of questions and even the exact same sentences being repeated all the time without too much thought. It can therefore be useful to think about and monitor what kinds of questions you use and what the effect of those questions might be, e.g. by asking an observer to watch for your use of questions or taping your lesson and analysing the kinds of question you use. Below are 15 ways of classifying such questions:

1. Questions decided by the target language and questions decided by the topic

In a perfect world the questions you use would all be connected to both the grammar point in the textbook unit (e.g. Verb Patterns) and its topic (e.g. Shopaholics), but in reality most of the best have already been taken by the writers of the textbook and any connected supplementary materials you may have found. One way of getting round this is to use questions mainly focused on the topic as you move towards eliciting and explaining the target language, and then using questions that are mainly focused on the target language for concept checking and controlled speaking practice. If when thinking of such questions you come across a topic that practices the target language better than the topic you started the lesson with, there is no harm in moving into that new topic for the controlled practice and free speaking stages and then getting back to the original topic in later lessons – this is, after all, how normal conversations often develop.

Questions decided by the target language Questions decided by the topic
“What can you use a spatula for?” “What things do you help your mother with when she is cooking?”
“Can you tell me something you’ve done exactly three times in your life?” “What is the most memorable experience you’ve ever had while travelling?”

2. Questions focused on accuracy and questions focused on meaning

Another way of looking at the distinction above is questions that aim to get the target language out of them with as few mistakes as possible and questions to get them communicating what they want to say as well as possible. The former could be questions aimed at them correcting their own errors, or just questions that are likely to produce the target form. Like “controlled practice activities” and “free speaking activities” (the last two stages of the PPP teaching technique), these two categories are ends of a continuum rather than true opposites.

Questions focused on accuracy Questions focused on meaning
“My brother have two bicycles?” “How many bicycles do you have in your family?”
“What should the preposition be?” “What is the man in the picture looking at, do you think? Is he looking for something?”
“Do you mean ‘work’ or ‘walk’?” “Do you have to walk around a lot in that job?”
“Can you say that again and concentrate on pronouncing ‘th’ as we practiced?” “Which of the things starting with ‘th’ in the picture do you have in your bedroom?”
“What other words can we put in this gap?” “What words would make this sentence true about you?”
“How many other ‘Have you ever’ questions can you write in two minutes?” “What do you think you have done but no one else in the class ever has?”

3. Questions for keeping control and questions for letting control go

This is yet another example where the typical EFL or general education classroom uses much more of one type of question than the other- sometimes for very good reasons, but sometimes just out of habit. Reasons for using more questions that give control to the students include making them self-sufficient and therefore hopefully more likely to take responsibility of their own learning, using peer pressure for classroom control, and making the times when you take control back have more impact

Question for keeping control Questions for letting control go
“What is the answer to number three?”

“What did I tell you about talking during tests?”

“Are you going to play the game sensibly, or should we check the homework instead?”

“Time up. Do you want me to choose a team name for you?”

“Why all the noise?”

“Is it the end of the lesson already? I didn’t think so! So, why are you already packing your bags?”

“What one word can go in this gap?”

“Any questions?”

“Good work today. What game do you want to play to finish the class?”

“Do you want to have team names or not this time?”

“What should the person who is last have to do in the next round of the game?”

“Who wants to go next?”

“Can you give me any other interesting questions on this topic?”

“What am I drawing? An elephant? Oh, okay, I guess it could be an elephant.”

4. Questions with a limited choice of answers and questions with an unlimited choice of answers

Questions with an unlimited choice of answers can encourage lots of student involvement and allow the students to take the lesson into an area of particular interest to them, but can lead to the lesson being unfocused and make timing difficult.

A limited choice of answers An unlimited choice of answer
“What would win the fight, a tiger or an elephant?” “What is the scariest animal of all, do you think?”
“Do you like baseball?” “How many foods can you think of that at least one person in the class likes?”

5. Questions to find out what they know and questions to help them learn something new

As with many of the pairs of categories in this article, teachers are often criticized with overusing one of the two types, in this case questions to find out what students know much more than ones that help them learn something new. That criticism is both fair and somewhat overdone if it makes teachers think that either category is necessarily a bad thing.

To find out what they know To help them learn something new
“Do you know what this tense is called?” “If it has the same structure as the Present Simple Passive but ‘be’ is in the past, what do you think this tense is called?”
“How many words can you add to this beach vocabulary spider diagram?” “Can you find any more new words for things on the beach in your picture dictionaries?”

6. Cognitive, affective and social questions

This is a fancy way of saying questions dealing with knowledge, feelings and relationships. Teaching techniques tend to focus on the first of the three categories, which is one of the reasons why some teachers who are just “nice” and treat their students naturally (i.e. use the other two categories more, probably without even thinking about it) get far higher ratings from their students than from other teachers.

Cognitive questions Affective questions Social questions
“What things in the picture do you know the words for?”

“What sound do these two words have in common?”

“How does the picture make you feel?”

“How do you feel when I pronounce the same sentence with this intonation?…”

“Is your mother feeling any better?”

“Have you had your hair cut?”

7. Questions to the whole class, groups, pairs, or individuals

Reasons for aiming some questions at specific groups or individuals include giving all students a chance to speak, keeping control, and helping the students learn from each other.

Questions to the whole class Questions to groups or pairs Questions to individuals
“Does anyone know the answer to question 1?” “Can team B answer team A’s question?” “July, you are from Catalonia, aren’t you? How is the weather there this time of year?”
“Do you all agree with Wendy’s answer?” “This group- what did you get for number 6?” “Harold, what did you suggest as an answer to number 7?”

8. Questions anyone can answer, only some can answer, or only one person can answer

This is a slightly different way of looking at the categories above, because you could ask a question to the whole class so that everyone listens, but knowing or guessing that only one or a few people know the answer to that question due to better language knowledge, local knowledge, general knowledge, or personal experience.

Anyone can answer Only some can answer Only one person can answer
“How many people prefer cats to dogs?” “If you have a bird as a pet, what colour is it?” “Who said earlier that they had a snake as a pet?”
“Where did Juan hide my board eraser?” “Where is the nearest bank?” “Does anyone know the way to skateboarding park?” (if you know only one person is interested in skateboarding)

9. Questions when you know who will answer and questions where you don’t

This is a slight variation on the categories above, as it could be that you think only one person will be able to answer the question but you don’t know who.

You know who will answer You don’t know who will answer
“Which team won that game, then?”

“Who wants to go first? The boys’ team? Surprise, surprise!”

“Who wrote the piece of paper that says ‘I have been to the Himalayas’?”

“Who said that …?”

10. Managerial, information and higher order questions

Managerial questions are ones concerned with getting the class doing the things they need to, such as behaving properly and working in groups. Information questions are what you would expect from the name, and higher order questions are ones that get students thinking rather than just producing the answers to factual questions.

Managerial questions Information questions Higher order questions
“What do you say before you leave the class?”

“How many people will there be in each group?”

“What is this tense called?”

“What is the noun of ‘inform’?”

“What is the difference between the polite sentences and the impolite ones?”

“Is it important to sound like a native speaker when you speak English?”

11. Questions to achieve short term goals and questions to achieve long term goals

For example, a question that makes them think deeply and pause before answering might not be the best way of quickly getting the answer that you need for that lesson but might fit in well with long term goals of making students think about the language for themselves rather than relying on the teacher.

12. Questions in natural English and simplified questions/ Graded and ungraded questions

Grading questions could be a case of sticking to “standard English”, i.e. speaking as you write. At lower levels, though, it could be a case of simplifying the language even more so that it approaches pidgin English (but hopefully avoiding saying anything that isn’t actually correct in spoken English). Other factors that can make questions easier to understand include splitting long sentences into two shorter ones, avoiding linking sounds together, and exaggerating sentence stress to make important words stand out more than usual.

Using natural English questions will get students used to responding when they don’t understand every word and interpreting by context, but won’t help them pick up the component language of the question and so might mean that they never get to the point where they can ask similar questions themselves. Using too many questions that they don’t understand might also hit their confidence- even if you think they have successfully understood because they responded correctly, they might think of that as a failure if they didn’t fully understand what you were saying. A good technique is to use a question with more natural language at higher speed than they are used to first, and then use a back up question that is slower and simpler if they need more help understanding.

Natural English questions Simplified questions
“So, you’ve got three sisters, right?” “Opposites. Hot – cold. Big- …?”

“How was your weekend? (Silence) How are you? And last weekend?”

13. Questions that are one level above their level and questions that are one level below

This is another way of looking at the factors above. The first category is to get them used to picking out the important words and context clues when confronted with natural English or to introduce language you want to present more formally later in the course. The second category is more useful for explaining very complicated games that students tend to misunderstand, for gaining the confidence of a class that is not used to instructions in English, or for making sure they can pick out particular words such as phrasal verbs that you are trying to revise.

14. Questions that demand one tense in the answer and questions where a variety of tenses is possible in the answer

Demand one tense in the answer A variety of tenses in possible
“Can you tell me what you learnt about your partner’s routine?”

“What experiences have you had that no one else in the class has?”

“Can you predict what happens next in the video?”

“What did you do at the weekend?”

“What will you life be like on this day in 2050?”

“What story did you make from the vocabulary cards?”

“How are your hobbies different now to when you were a child?”

15. Questions where the answer is for the teacher and questions where the answer is for the other students

Until students are happy to ask each other questions in English, most of the things that they hear from other students, take interest in and hopefully respond to will be prompted by teacher questions. This is particularly true of whole class discussions. This is therefore obviously a category of questions that most of us could usefully ask more of, but there is still a range of uses for questions where you are the only one who really needs to listen to the question.

Answers for the teacher Answers for the other questions
“How many people found the last homework difficult?”

“Is Gerhardt absent today?”

“Team B, you had a good idea for question 2. Can you tell the class?”

“Does anyone else think the same?”

“Any more questions for Jose?”

“Do you believe Ahmed’s story? Why not? Anyone else?”

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net January 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

3 Comments

  • maia says:

    alex, you are great.Your articles are very useful 🙂 thanks

  • sami says:

    Actually;it was great then i took benefit from every way of classifying questions in a classroom.that’s really very fine

  • Ian says:

    Excellent use of tables 🙂

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teaching : More ways of classifying classroom questions