The Whole Enchilada: How to Elicit Full Sentence Answers

The Whole Enchilada
How to Elicit Full Sentence Answers

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 15,064 views

If asked, more than a handful of my students would tell you that I’m something of a pain in the behind.

Why might this be? I’m a tolerant and reasonable guy, well-prepared and professional, and always ready to laugh. But I have a habit which some of my students just hate: I insist on receiving full-sentence answers all the time, whether it’s necessary or not. Thousands of young ESL learners from all over the world have tried and failed to fob me off with short, broken responses. Contrary to my true nature, they find me demanding, hard to please, and intolerant of only one thing: lazily incomplete English.

Try These 5 Awesome Tricks to Elicit Full Sentence Answers

  1. 1

    We’re in the Production Business

    The very best way to improve your language (or cooking, or bike-riding, or piano) skills is to practice; very literally, the more production our students are persuaded to do, the faster their language skills will develop. Permitting short, broken answers is squandering an opportunity. No matter what the student might want to say, we’re interested in pulling as much language out of them as possible.

  2. 2

    Production Demonstrates Fluency

    I hope you agree that there is a massive and important difference between comprehension on one hand, and fluency on the other. Try this: if you’ve taken some language classes, and maybe traveled in a country which speaks that language, I’m sure you’ve found that you can understand more than you can say. Well, in ESL classes, we’re there to bridge that gap, to enable the student to independently and spontaneously express everything they want to, far more than simply understanding some of what’s happening around them. This is fluency, and it’s the true aim of language learning, in my view. Full sentences show us that the student has no only understood the question, but can compose and articulate a nuanced, precise response.

  3. 3

    Complete Answers Help Dispel the Influence of L1

    In recognizing that many of our students’ first languages are completely different to English, it’s important to steadily weaken the influence of L1. Younger students tend to rely on a direct translation from their first language, which normally produces broken, ungrammatical, unsatisfactory results. Requiring the complete structure can help in this process, reminding the students that they’re really in another linguistic world, unrelated to the one with which they’re most familiar.

  4. 4

    It Sounds Professional

    Habituating full-sentence answers early in the language learning process helps your students to sound competent, fluent (eventually , we hope, to native level) and professional. It will impress during job and university interviews, and the spoken elements of their exams, as it conveys a sure-footed confidence which speaks of a strong language background - even if that’s not necessarily true.

  5. 5

    The Target Language Probably Demands Completeness

    Consider the last time you taught a complex grammatical structure, like a perfect form, or the conditionals. The only way to ensure that your students have understood the language, and can now use it themselves, is to require complete production of the target structures. Take these two exchanges, both genuine; the first (dealing with the ‘have you ever / no I have never’ structure) is from a class I observed in China, while the second (working on conditionals) is from my own classroom in Boston:

    Teacher: So, have you ever been to Beijing?
    Student 1: No.
    Teacher: Would you like to go?
    Student 1: Yes.
    Teacher: And you?
    Student 2: Never.
    Teacher: You have never been to Beijing?
    Student 2: No.

    While I applaud this attempt to engage the students, the teacher was far too ready to accept single-word answers which included none of the target language. For me, these are the two greatest no-nos in the ESL world.

    Teacher: OK, time for a little practice. Tell me, what would you do if I cancelled classes for tomorrow?
    Student 1: Be happy!
    Teacher: Yeah, I’m sure you would! So, if I cancelled classes for tomorrow… ? (waiting)
    Student 1: I would happy!
    Teacher: You would happy? (open palm gesture, inviting improvement)
    Student 2: I would be happy!
    Teacher: Good! Now show me the whole thing… If Graham…
    All: If Graham cancel / cancels / cancelled classes for tomorrow, I would be happy.
    Teacher: Oh, convince me on that verb, guys… Am I really going to cancel classes?
    All: No! / Hope so!
    Teacher: I’m not really going to. I’m sorry. So, which conditional is this?
    All: Second / Two!
    Teacher: And is our verb in the past or present?
    All: Past!
    Teacher: One more time? If Graham… (circling, ‘carry on for me’ gesture)
    All: If Graham cancelled classes for tomorrow, we would be happy.
    Teacher: Awesome work. Now, what would you do if…

    Sometimes, it can be as simple as requesting the students to ‘show me the whole thing’. Here are some proven methods for eliciting full-sentence answers:

  6. 6


    Use an expanding gesture, with your hands gradually separating, or a circling ‘carry on’ gesture to indicate that you want more. An expectant facial expression, or a hand to your ear, can also get this across.

  7. 7

    Use Your Examples

    If the student stops half way through a structure, or forgets an important element, point to example on the board, or in the textbook, to guide them to the finish.

  8. 8

    Provide the Next Word

    Combine a gesture with one or two of the remaining words of the structure to help things along.

  9. 9

    Invite Others to Help

    I like to repeat what the student has said, with a quizzical expression, and invite others to complete the structure. I then return to the original student and make sure they can produce the whole thing.

  10. q

    Make a Joke of It

    With more advanced students - who are being a bit lazy, rather than lacking language - I tend to pull their leg a little. “OK, good job with the ‘beginner’ version. Can I have the ‘intermediate’ one now, please?” Or I remind them that words aren’t being rationed this week, and they’re in no danger of running out.

Finally, I remind my students constantly that production is key: “Every word, phrase and sentence you speak or write makes you better at English.”

This tends to hit home; after all, it’s the fastest way to achieve our objective of improving language skills.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking one of those sharing buttons below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow our Facebook page where we share more about creative, non-boring ways to teach English.

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