Discussion Questions – problems & solutions

Perhaps because of their ease of use or for lack of better options, discussion questions are often overused and misused. This article looks at some solutions.

Perhaps the easiest way of getting away from a silent or grammar based classroom is to give students lists of discussion questions to talk about in pairs or small groups. To make it even easier, you can use or adapt from the huge lists of questions that are available on the internet and so should be able to write ten questions on almost any topic in 10 or 15 minutes- a whole lot less preparation time than designing a new speaking game! That ease of preparation is echoed in the lesson, where the instructions to make students ask each other questions are much easier to explain than the rules of a new board game for speaking. Perhaps because of these advantages or for lack of better options, discussion questions are, however, often overused and misused. There are also several problems with thinking of discussion questions as a way of promoting “communication”. These factors are dealt with below, along with some suggestions on how to lessen or take away those disadvantages.

1. There is no evidence that just talking helps language development

Luckily, discussion questions can be tied into things that stretch your students a bit more. For example, you could design the questions so that they include a particular grammatical form or are likely to elicit answers with that structure (e.g. “How could your life have gone in different directions?” for third conditionals). You could also give the questions with errors included (e.g. “How do you think about global warming?”) for students to correct, or give possible answers in the same way. Another option is to include certain vocabulary in the questions (e.g. words you want to preteach for a reading that is coming up, vocab from last week’s lessons, or phrasal verbs), or ask them to include certain words, expressions or sentence stems (e.g. “I understand where you are coming from, but…”) in their answers. With any of these, students could read or listen to other people’s answers to give them ideas and show them some more complex language in context, making the approach similar to Task Based Learning. Alternatively, you could make it more of a Test Teach Test (TTT) approach by correcting their mistakes and suggesting more complex language before you ask them to change groups and discuss the same questions again.

2. Students are unlikely to be asked their opinions all the time outside the classroom

As great as discussion questions can be for prompting speaking and practising agreeing and disagreeing language like “You took the words right out of my mouth”, students are very unlikely to have much chance to use exactly that language outside the classroom, e.g. when shopping, going through immigration, or even just chatting. One way of getting round that is to include questions where you give personal information (e.g. “What was the best holiday you have ever had?”) along with ones where you give your opinion. A good source of these different kinds of questions is combining questions from parts one and three of the IELTS speaking test. Students can also discuss things related to language of everyday use, e.g. “Which of these responses to an invitation is less likely to hurt someone’s feelings, do you think?” More generally, try to keep in mind whether the things you are asking them to talk about are likely to be things they talk about in English outside the classroom. For exampke, will the friends they make when they study abroad want to talk about those things?

3. Students can just read the questions without needing to listen

Among many unrealistic aspects of using discussion questions, perhaps the greatest is that the questions are written down and only the answers are oral, making them unlike almost any real life interaction in English. The easiest way to solve this is for students to turn over their worksheet or pass it to their partner when it’s their turn to answer. The problem then is that they still might have seen the question and so be somewhat prepared for it, which can be solved by having different Student A and Student B questions for them to ask each other. A simpler solution is for one person in each group of three or four to have the questions, which they read out for the other people to answer (maybe nominating people each time) before they are also allowed to comment themselves.

4. Students often read out the questions without even thinking about what they mean

As many times as I’ve seen this happen, it still amazes and annoys me- a student listens to the question that their partner has just read out and asks for clarification, only to be told that the person asking it out has no idea what it means either! A simple solution is to ask them to read through all the questions before they start speaking and ask you if they have any questions. Alternatively, if students are used to reading questions off a worksheet and then answering them you could let the Student As answer the question they have in that way together before they split up and read out their questions to a Student B. Another way is to give them some tasks to do with the questions before they ask them to their partner, e.g. matching halves of sentences, matching questions to sample answers, predicting their partner’s answers, or selecting the most interesting questions to ask.

5. Students often read out the questions with unnatural rhythm and intonation

This is understandable, as reading out loud is a skill that even many native speakers don’t have. A simple way round this is to drill the questions first. You could combine or replace this with a stage where they mark stressed words, weak forms and/ or sounds that link together on the questions. Alternatively, you could stop them reading out loud at all by asking them to remember the gist of the question and then turn over the worksheet and ask it in their own words. A similar effect can be achieved by just giving them prompts to make the whole questions from, e.g. “Advantages?” to prompt them to ask their partner “What do you think the advantages are?”

6. Question answer exchanges aren’t realistic and don’t stretch them

Real communication includes lots of interruption, very short turns punctuated by long anecdotes and asides, getting off topic and back on again, etc. Discussion questions don’t naturally prompt any of these. One way round this is to put students into groups of three or four with one person having the questions and the other people being able to discuss the questions as they wish rather than just taking turns.

7. It can get tedious

Students who have never come across discussion questions in class before are often overjoyed to be asked their opinions and to find that they can often say what they want to in (some kind of) English. As with everything, though, the thrill soon wears off. The simplest way round this is to use some of the variations from other parts of this article. There are also ways of turning discussion questions into a game, such as choosing a question you want answered and then flipping a coin to see whether you have to answer it yourself or can ask someone else. You can also do similar speaking exercises that don’t involve lists of questions, such as statements to agree and disagree with, roleplay debates, and pyramid ranking activities.

8. It gets students used to being the ones that answer the questions rather than ask them

This is the last thing you want in a communicative classroom, so it is often better to get students making up and asking their own questions. You can keep them on topic and stretch them by giving topics, sentence stems and/ or vocabulary they have to use in those questions. If they are likely to get stuck for ideas the first time you try this, you could brainstorm questions as a class or in groups.

9. Discussion questions can lead to too much thinking time and not enough speaking

Unlike asking how many brothers and sisters you have, asking students opinions on genetic engineering of foodstuffs is likely to lead to pauses for thought even in their own language, let alone in English. We should be cautious of giving students the idea that they can’t think before they speak, but silence is less common in English than fillers like “Hmmm, interesting question” and “Let me see”. These kinds of phrases can be presented and practiced before the discussion questions stage. Even with these, too much pausing for thought can really start to cut into the amount of speaking they can get in your class. Ways round this include allowing them to make or choose the questions, and letting them read or listen to a text on the topic to get ideas.

10. Students can get stuck because they can’t express what they want to say

As well as taking time to start speaking, students might find themselves unable to express the viewpoint they want to get over in English halfway through explaining themselves. This is particularly annoying for the students when you have done your job and got them really interested in a topic! Letting them use their dictionaries or ask you or other students for translation could help, although they can become too dependant on this and so you will need to decide on your policy on this on a class by class basis. An alternative is to teach them exactly the things you think they will need before you give them the questions. It is also very useful to spend some time on ways of explaining yourself when you can’t think of a particular word, e.g. using relative clauses and for + ing to define things.

11. Discussion questions are difficult to use with lower level students

One obvious reaction is just not to bother, as personal questions on hobbies and family can be made just as interesting and are much more of a match to the kinds of things Elementary students are expected to be able to do, e.g. in the Cambridge KET exam. When you do think it is time to introduce opinions, lots of sentence stems and other support such as hearing other people discuss the same points can help. It is also possible to preteach vocabulary for discussion questions in the same way as you would for a reading or listening.

12. Some questions could get students actually arguing

Some teachers seem to bring controversial topics into the classroom precisely with the aim of provoking passionate and fiery debate. As with native speakers, however, getting too involved in the argument could lead to a loss in complexity of language (“No, it isn’t” “Yes, it is” “No, it isn’t” “Idiot!”), saying things you will later regret, and bad feelings that persist into future classes. If you don’t think you can predict which questions which tip them over into this state, giving them some choice over which questions to ask could help. Teaching them polite ways of disagreeing or asking them to express views which are not their own could also help with this. Another technique is to arrange the discussion in a more controlled way, e.g. as a parliamentary debate.

13. Some questions could offend

If you have a class from a single country, it should be fairly easy to find out what taboo topics are from a Google search or from books like Culture Shock.

14. Students could be reluctant to disagree or give their real opinions

This might be a cultural thing, especially in countries where they are used to deferring to older people while speaking to them. Alternatively, it could just be due to the personalities of particular students. They may be happier expressing their opinions if you give them polite language with which to do so (e.g. “That’s a good point, but…”). Another idea is to get them to give other people’s ideas by asking them to answer the questions in the role of someone else, e.g. a typical old man or a right wing politician. The person who asked the questions could then try and guess which role the person answering was taking and whether their real opinion would be the same. Another way of forcing some disagreement is to get them to disagree with everything their partner says, whatever their real views might be. A variation on this is to toss a coin each time, with heads meaning they must agree and tails making them disagree.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net February 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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