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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.

Why?
  • 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.
Conclusion
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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