Teachers often give students plenty of time to practice answering questions without dedicating sufficient practice time to asking them. For example, Crisscross is a very simple warm up activity where students answer questions such as “How’s the weather?” but after nearly a year of doing this activity, students may struggle to come up with the correct question for the answer “It’s sunny!” Students can become accustomed to hearing key words in questions, in this case weather, and answering correctly without paying any attention to the question’s structure.
Here are some ideas to help students focus on this more.
So, How Do I Teach Question Structures?
Introduce Questions and Answers Together
During the introduction of new materials, you can ask the target question when trying to elicit vocabulary. This way, students will hear it while they are focusing on the structure of the answer and after practicing the target answer you can go back and do some pronunciation practice with the question too. Question and answer structures are normally introduced together because for example “How’s the weather?” and “It’s ~.” are a pair and learning one without the other is not very beneficial.
Practice Them Together, Too
Practice activities should also include both structures. For speaking practice this is easy because interview activities and model dialogues will certainly include both. Written exercises usually make students focus on answering the questions and not on the questions themselves. For structures where students have to compose their own responses such as “What’s your favorite sport?” it makes sense that students would be more concerned with what they should say in response. On quizzes, exams, and in real life however, students are going to need to be able to ask as well as answer questions so include some activities that draw attention to a question’s word order. You can do this by adding a section of answers where students have to write the question for each answer. If this is too challenging you can have students match questions with answers or, better yet, fill in blanks within the question. These exercises will help students practice question structures more extensively.
During production exercises, questions are usually provided so that students have some guidelines or organization for their activities. Model dialogues and role-plays can be adapted to give students more practice forming questions. You can also play Fruit Basket by asking the student in the middle to say a question and having everyone who would answer “Yes” change seats. Example questions might be “Do you like blue? Have you eaten sushi? Are you a student?” This can be used for many different question structures and levels. You could play Fruit Basket as a review activity at the end of the first lesson using the answer structure and as a warm up in the next lesson using the question structure. Students may struggle at first but the more familiar they are with asking questions the easier it will be for them to learn new ones.
Focus on Question Words
Make questions part of general review material and activities before exams or quizzes by dedicating a section to them. If you have a study guide for students, make sure that students write their answers to questions as well as complete the questions. This will make them more aware of often overlooked words in questions. For “How’s the weather?” students may be tempted to say something similar to “What weather?” as the target question because many questions in beginning and intermediate English lessons start with what and because they recognize the word weather as the word that links it to the answer. When creating blanks in the questions, leave in words such as weather and focus more on who, what, where, when, why, and how as well as words such as your in questions like “What’s your favorite sport?” When conducting review games, you can include a section where students have to give the question for the answer provided. This may be the most challenging section of the game so awarding extra points for correct answers may be appropriate.
While many classes concentrate on having students answer questions, real life does not work this way.
Students are going to have to be able to both ask and answer questions when given the opportunity to speak English outside the classroom so teachers need to devote plenty of time to question related activities. Once your lesson plans start including more of these, students will have better success remembering and using questions.
Tara Arntsen has worked with English Language Learners of all ages for many years and has taught in Japan, Cambodia, and China as well as online. When she is not teaching, she enjoys cooking, traveling around the world, and scuba diving. She is a member of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Teaching-TESOL at the University of Southern California.
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