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Asking Questions

One of the most basic functions in communication is asking questions. Language teachers ask students questions all the time. This turns their students into clever responders. However I have seen evidence that students do not get enough practice asking questions. In my opinion, asking a question is the most important speaking function to teach.

  • Questions are essential to survival. For example, "Where is the bathroom?" or "Is this train going to New York City?"
  • Questions demonstrate curiosity and a willingness to learn and understand the language and content of the course.
  • Questions are essential in the negotiation of meaning.
  • Questions are useful when one cannot answer. For example, "Could you say that it again more slowly?" or "Are you asking my opinion?"
  • Students who need and want to understand ask questions.
  • Students with inquisitive minds ask questions.
  • Students get more answers when they ask more questions.
How can I get my students to ask (more) questions?
  • The teacher must train students to ask questions.
  • For example, in some of my classes, I require students to ask as many questions as they answer.
  • If my students claim that they don't have a question, I still require them to ask one. If it's not about the subject, then I train my students to announce that the question is about something else or a "silly question."
  • Remind students that "There is no such thing as a stupid question." And discourage laughter and mockery when a student asks a question.
  • I sometimes say one silly question is worth two good answers and one good question is worth all the answers of the day.
  • Silly questions break the ice and demonstrate the language learning doesn't always have to be serious.
  • Tell students that questions demonstrate curiosity, interest, and a willingness to learn.
  • When a student asks a spontaneous question for the first time, I always praise him or her.
  • When a student asks a critical thinking question, I give high praise and then write the question down in my notes. I let the class know that this question is very valuable for me as it demonstrates both the linguistic and academic achievements of my class.
  • A spontaneous critical thinking question is the precious gem of my class.
Question Follow-up Training
  • Outside of the classroom, I meet many non-native speakers who are poor at asking questions.
  • The most recent example I encountered was a personal question with no follow-up.
  • As teachers, we must teach our students to provide follow-ups to many informal questions.
  • For example, asking "How old are you?" or "Are you an American?" requires a follow-up to the answer.
  • If there is no follow-up, most native speakers feel uncomfortable. They think, "Why did he or she suddenly ask me that?"
  • Informal questions are excellent to start small talk or an informal conversation, but this conversation will fail if there is no follow-up.
  • Example: "How old are you?" -> "I'm thirty-one." -->
  • Follow-up suggestions: "Me too." "You're older than I thought." "You look young for thirty-one." "My son is thirty-one." "What's it like being thirty-one?"
  • Second example: "Are you an American? -> "Yes, I am." -->
  • Follow-up suggestions: "You're the third American I met this year." "You don't seem American." Plus many compliments or safe opinions (at first) about America, or any number of "why" questions about leaving America and visiting another country.
I can tell that many non-native speakers received poor speaking lessons when they have problems maintaining conversation. I do not doubt their command of grammar or vocabulary, and I do not usually blame them. I know it is often times the teachers that did not give them opportunities to ask questions in class.

I met many non-native speakers from many countries who are good at a answering my questions, but cannot ask any engaging questions or follow-up to informal questions. And it often falls into my hands to keep the whole conversation going, but in the end I often feel as if I am an interviewer or a teacher--not on equal terms as far as the conversation going. So the conversation becomes less enjoyable and more like work. I feel very bad and sometimes guilty for ending conversations with a great person whose speaking skills are not balanced. If only they learned good question skills.

For more information on building critical thinking question skills, visit The Critical Thinking Community.

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