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X to the Power of Question

November 27, 2011

As part of my recent action research project , I am trying to analyse the levels of control which are present in my job as a teacher trainer. The last couple of weeks I have been focussing on teaching practice preparation sessions by making notes on how I go about prepping a couple of the trainees I’ve been working with. This has brought me back to some action research I did last year on the power of questions. Back then, I was focussing on my use of questions with learners, but there are many parallels to be drawn between the teacher and the teacher trainer.

Just as we can open up communicative channels with our learners by asking questions which encourage longer answers or developed arguments (which is of course a feature of the more communicative classroom, and especially the unplugged one), so can we aid the evaluative and developmental thought processes in our trainees.

There are two types of question often employed in the classroom –

“Display questions [which] ask the respondent to provide, or to display knowledge of, information already known by the questioner, [and] referential questions [which] request information not known by the questioner.“ (Brock, 1986:48)

For example –

Display: “What’s the past participle of ‘see’?”

Referential: “What did you do after that?”

Brock goes on to explain that display questions are placed at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, whilst, unsurprisingly, referential questions are at the highest level, because they often require evaluation or judgement.

I have noticed that I use a range of question forms in my teaching practice preparation sessions, but that when I am under time pressure (as is normal…!) I am prone to use questions like this:

“So are you planning to do this as a jigsaw reading or are they all reading the same text?”

This gives the trainee only two options, and I am sure my tone of voice indicates which one I think is the better of the two. I would say this sits about half way up Bloom’s model at the Application level.

Now, it could be worse – I could not ask a question at all and say:

“Do this as a jigsaw reading.”

Naturally, there are times when this is needed, for example nearer the beginning of the course or when a trainee doesn’t know/isn’t able to come up with ideas. However, I would argue that it is my responsibility to be helping the trainees become as independent as possible.

To do this, I therefore need to ask more questions like this:

“How are you going to use this in class?”

And this is what I began to do consistently, attempting as much as possible not to ask any closed questions. It was interesting to see how the trainees responded by appearing to feel a closer bond to “their” ideas and being much more creative, evaluative and confident in their lesson planning and execution.

Just as I ask my trainees to think about their language in the English classroom, I am now expecting the same of myself, and thereby reaping the rewards of creating more empowered teachers and yet again learning more about my own behaviour.

Have you ever thought about your use of questions in class? Do you think there’s a place for display questions? Would you say that I should be telling my trainees what to do? Would love to hear your thoughts!


Brock. C.A, 1986, The Effects of Referential Questions on ESL Classroom Discourse, TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 47-59

20 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2011 3:01 pm

    Would it perhaps be even more interesting to ask a question like
    “What is interesting about this text?”
    before you even ask how you are going to use it? I wonder how many (looking at myself here) think about the actually content or purpose of the text before then thinking about how they will use it in the class.

    • November 27, 2011 3:12 pm

      Absolutely, Christopher! In fact, we have an input session on genre analysis which does exactly this, and I actually do ask this question quite often when trainees arrive at prep sessions with a text, but I think this could also be an area to think about more.

      Thank you, and thanks for reading!

  2. Claudia permalink
    November 27, 2011 3:32 pm

    Good question! I definitely think that in order to help people become creative teachers it is useful to ask open questions and let them come up with their own ideas.
    When I took the teacher trainer course in order to analyse certain scenes observed we were often given a concrete task and our understanding of it was ensured by the kind of either-or-question that you mentioned you employed under time pressure.
    I can see the value in that. However, these kind of questions, particularly used with a certain inflection of the voice, really bugged me. I was annoyed by them because they gave me the feeling of being extremely slow-witted – so admittedly, I usually chose to ignore them and not to react. Particularly, as our trainers were always very clear about the task set-ups.
    So, as part of teaching method were you want to make sure that students of the language grasp the concept of word or of a grammatical structure these kinds of concept questions might have their purpose. Though, I am still not too fond of these questions.
    When it comes to certain tasks and their evaluation (so when you train teachers): let them have their own ideas and help them evaluate these ideas. I’d compare that to guided discovery tasks for grammar. With the help of some scaffolding (to go with Anthony’s recent blog post) you help them come up with their own ideas, the advantages and the disadvantages to them. Although this might take up more time than simply telling them what to do it will better help enabling them – and this is what teaching is all about – teaching any kinds of students, or isn’t it?

    • November 27, 2011 7:37 pm

      Hi Claudia,

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      You are completely right, open-ness in general is a good thing to have in the classroom, in fact – it’s essential.

      It’s a false economy to use leading questions or to exert authority by telling people what to do, but yet it’s a main feature of many classrooms and techniques.

      YOu mention you don’t like concept check questions. You are not alone. The trainees I work with all have problems getting their head around these, and, even if they do use them by the end of the course, I can imagine that they stop as soon as they go out into the “real world”. What don’t you like about them? What could have been changed in the way they were introduced to you to make you feel differently?


      • Claudia permalink
        November 28, 2011 12:08 am

        I have to say the way the questions were introduced was fine (although sometimes used too often, ie constantly). I also used them in class – during the training course and am using them (sometimes) now.
        My personal problem with concept questions is that to me (as a student) the answers often seem so blatantly obvious that I feel that a teacher must think I am dumb because he/she asks the question in the first place. (And this is certainly not because I am particularly smart and always know all the answers). The employment of these kinds of questions just sometimes feels a little too much and maybe therefore ridiculous. And I think that this is sometimes also true for the students whom I ask these types of questions. What is your experience with this – do students in the classroom usually take well to the questions or does it involve a lot of eye-rolling?
        I guess part of the aversion is caused by the questions not only being used to check whether students really grasped the concept of some grammar issue or bit of vocab but also because they are used to check any kind of understanding, e.g. task set ups – and with more advanced speakers in courses (or even teacher trainers) that seems like mockery. And I find that particularly for task set-ups (if these are wanted) one doesn’t necessarily need concept questions because close monitoring of the students quickly shows if they got what they were meant to be doing – and here again: sometimes they do adjust tasks and do something that is far more logical (and meaningful or communicative – still reaching the self-same aims) that might have been intended by the teacher. (Although, the conclusion of this might be that the teacher should have done his/her homework better… – or maybe he / she has calculated for this much freedom?)
        Apart from that, I do wonder if there is a good alternative to concept checking without questions of the kind of “is it this or that?” Probably a ton… but none that quickly done?

      • November 28, 2011 5:08 pm

        Hi Claudia,

        I think I have actually answered a lot of your points in my reply to Dale below.

        I think it might be worth you actually telling the students why you are asking them such questions?

        In terms of task set-up, I agree these could be misconstrued as dumbing down. However, in my experience, it is more efficient to ask these questions before the students get going than having to stop them all fix something once a task has started. I do not use questions to check instructions which are easy, obvious or those which have been demoed (unless they are complicated). But, that said, even with my C1 groups, they often hear the instructions they want to hear, not those which are given, so it’s worth checking just to make sure!

        In response to your Q about a better alternative, I very often elicit examples from students, rather than asking an actual CCQ. This doesn’t work for everything, but for a lot of vocabulary it can be incredibly useful and also adds to the bank of collocations for the words too.


  3. November 27, 2011 4:43 pm

    This is interesting because it’s been running in the back of my mind for about 5 years, ever since I was observed and the DOS mentions this area. Since I’ve worked a lot on questionning and giving inititiations to get maximum responses. In speaking/discussion classes I’ve had great success with less questions as 1)Students need motivating first 2)Some questions are too limiting

    So, after 4 years of teaching debate and 12 years of doing communicationsy classes I/students select a topic, there’s some chosen/given input (video,interview,text) and then I ask groups to just talk in groups/pairs and then I listen to opinions/comments and comment on them. I always play devil’s advocate and challenge ideas.

    I also give my opinion or make a controversial one.

    Over the years I’ve found that questions just get answers while space gets conversation.

    For TT could you do the same by giving space and input following by open discussions?

    I practise my questioning on my debate blog which is like a post lesson from my discussion classes. It also helps me practise making more higher order/deeper processing questions.

  4. November 27, 2011 7:44 pm

    “Questions just get answers while space gets conversation.”

    What a great quote! I love the idea of leaving space for language to enter. However, I find that when you are given a 30 minute window in which to help 2 or 3 trainees prepare their lessons for the following day, this “space” often gets filled with questions in order to push the proceedings along. Once the trainees begin to come to prep with their ideas in order, then the conversation can take a different route, but until then, questioning of some kind seems essential. In fact, even then questioning is essential.

    I think it’s so important for us teachers to realise how we use our language in class, and this idea of questioning behaviour is at the core of what can make or break a lesson. It’s a common conversation to have with trainee teachers that they should respond to the content of what was said before correcting it or praising it or even echoing it. I think we should all ask an observer to write down all the questions we use in class to find out what we actually do, and compare that with our beliefs about teaching. It’s surprising what comes up.

    The idea of asking “high order/deeper processing” questions is something all teachers should be practising.

    Thanks for commenting, Phil.

    • November 27, 2011 7:49 pm

      Hi Jem,

      Cheers for the answer.

      Here’s a quick moan.

      After I finished my CELTA I taught CAE/CPE levels and all my gist/detailed questions and CCQ’s were not met favourably. Most material they got pretty quickly and just found it childish. I had to adapt quickly.Same thing with drilling.

      How do you think the CELTA people should address these issues?


      • November 27, 2011 8:01 pm

        I think it would be great if we could provide access to more different levels on the Celta, so that the trainees could work with beginner students and also high level students like CAE/CPE. Or at least observe their tutors/experienced teachers working with such levels. This would then provide an opportunity for discussion and a development of techniques for teaching them. This is, unfortunately, not feasible within the time and constraints of institutions. An input session on it wouldn’t go amiss, and there is has to be an input session on literacy as part of the course, but alas not one for C1/C2 level learners. The closest trainees come is if they have such a student within the higher level group they teach, but this student often becomes more of a struggle than any kind of learning opportunity because they are the one who knows all the answers, finishes quickly and perhaps gets bored, so the trainees often struggle to deal with the differentiation (another matter altogether…!).

        Interesting that your higher level students didn’t like the drilling though. I find that my higher level students love it, because they know that their accent is one thing that “gives them away” as a NNS. I think this is a case of how you sell it to them, perhaps?

        And in fact, the same with concept check Qs. With my current CAE class, I use them a lot, and they have commented that they find them useful, because it let’s them know they definitely have the right idea. We were discussing “They told me the course will be on the 3rd floor” vs “They told me the course was on the 3rd floor” vs “they told me the course would be on the 3rd floor” the other day, and without these questions to check their understanding of the difference, I don’t think we would have finished the lesson before midnight!
        I admit that after I finished the Celta, I stopped asking them for a good while. Then I realised that they were an invaluable tool to help all of us, and not just an annoyance.

        Does that even answer your question?!

      • November 27, 2011 8:12 pm

        Perhaps it was because I had students who’d ‘learned English’ as they said and then went to England to learn culture. Many said “this is like primary school” or “we’re not parrots”.

        As you said, repackaging it was a solution but when I had very high levels doing CPE they realised that they had to do pron and some reading questions.

        At BA and MA level I tried pron and it had to be fun and questions were dealt was as quickly as possible and finished off with a ‘what next’ face.

        As you also said, the CELTA doesn’t cover enough as it can’t but with EFL changing and more and more uni prep perhaps it should or become longer. After all, a 4 week beginners course compared to a 3 mth or 9 mth PT advanced course seems strange. Don’t we do 4 year degrees then 1 year MA’s?

  5. November 27, 2011 8:19 pm

    Very good point, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Perhaps this is because there are so many non-career-TEFLers out there, and Cambridge (and the centres) know that there wouldn’t be such a high uptake of the Celta (or Trinity Cert) if it were a longer course?

    The amount that the Celta candidates are supposed to digest is madness, but then it’s also madness on the Dip too, but just over a longer period. Oh, if only life were full of time! 😉

    I, of course, have students who look at me like I’m an idiot when I ask them CCQs! I think it can be a cultural thing when it comes to being open to concept check qs etc.. Just as it is when we are discussing Dogme or any method/technique etc… By that I mean the national culture, as well as the classroom/institution culture too.

    • November 27, 2011 8:23 pm

      Yes culture. Next week I have to do about 300 speaking tests and one part involves students reading a text where I will interrupt whenever I want and ask gist/detailed/inference/opinion questions.


      • November 27, 2011 8:25 pm

        Oh my god, that sounds crazy! They actually read from a text that you give them or is it their own? Surely a conversation on the topic of the text would be more realistic? Although, it depends what it’s for. What’s it for?!

      • November 27, 2011 8:27 pm

        I give it. This is France, also the same in China. In fact TOEFL iBT has something similar.

        don’t get me started on the grammar translation questions.

  6. November 28, 2011 10:17 am

    Great post Jem, nice to see the action research is coming along nicely. Your post reminded me of my DELTA tutor and the questions we were asked during module 2. Those were really top of the taxonomy, make-you-dig-deep questions. My brain still hurts from having to answer them. But you know what? They had a lasting effect on me.

    So now I try to ask my students the same sorts of questions in an attempt to get their cogs moving in the same way. CCQs though most of the time pass them by, they don’t even hear them as questions and I have to say “Guys, that was a question, you have to answer it”…

    I think though, even if we have students used to a teacher talking AT them, not stimulating them or encouraging them to think for themselves or as Phil said providing space, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, it just means we’ve got our work cut out for us when we inevitably do.

    • November 28, 2011 4:58 pm

      Hi Dale,
      Thanks for reading! Yep – the research hasn’t been particularly ground-breaking, but it’s certainly made me think about a few things so far.

      I know what you mean about those Delta questions, perhaps I wasn’t subjected to them as much as you because I did the Distance Delta, but still – they certainly had an effect.

      I see this problem you mention with CCQs happen a lot in TP. I think it is related to the following things –

      – Learner training. If they aren’t used to being asked and then answering these questions, they won’t do it. As a teacher, we should perhaps explain why we are asking them these questions, if we meet any reluctance to them?
      – If the teacher asks the question in the same breath as giving the definition/meaning/whatever, then it doesn’t sound like a question and therefore isn’t answered.
      – If the answer is too obvious, the students will think it is below them to answer. Again, perhaps explaining the reasoning behind such questioning would be useful?

      Do any of these fit with your experience of CCQs?

      I’ve often had the experience of taking over lessons from other teachers who have a very different style to me, and therefore the students have taken a while (and some explaining from me) to get used to it.

      I find it interesting that CCQs have come up in the comments so much, as I wanted to discuss them in the original post too, but felt it warranted a separate post altogether, but all you commenters have solved that for me! 🙂

      Thanks again for reading.


      • November 28, 2011 5:12 pm

        I can’t remember where but I’ve met quite a few people who argue that just asking ‘what is it about?’ or ‘summarise in 1 line’ are enough.

        I’ve drawn pictures, made lists of topics, T/F questions, MCQ’s, open/closed questions, you name it and I’d say most wtere just too easy. If your text is int and your class to then having loads can be daft, yet with a pre-int or elementary they are enough and needed (don’t ask why the text/level don’t match, many of my bosses don’t agree in levelling as it makes testing unequal and harder).

        With a big text an EFL exam style paragraph/heading matching activity seems useful and valid for long texts but I prefer having demanding questions which require skimming/scanning as part of the process to get the info to answer the questions.

        The numbers questions always annoy me eg ‘what do the following numbers refer to?’.Fine if it’s a technical report or an accountancy spreadsheet but a general reading?

        Questioning can really kill texts when most people actually enjoy reading so shouldn’t we be fostering this enjoyment. If so, give the texts for HW so people can take time over them and come to class with notes, ideas, responses etc.

  7. November 28, 2011 10:52 am

    Hi Jem,

    this is a really nice post – and speaks to the heart of what it is to be a teacher trainer at CELTA level, I think.

    A number of questions occur to me (same ones as ever, but asking them again never hurts):

    1 If ‘check questions’ are clunky and unattractive, what ARE the best ways of making sure students know what’s going on – because we do need to be sure about that, don’t we?

    2 On a 4-week course, how much ‘opening up’ as in ‘referential questions’ is actually possible (given the scarcity of time)?

    3 Why did you tag this post as ‘dogme’? I didn’t get that at all!!

    I particularly like Cullen, R (2002) Supportive teacher talk: the importance of the F-move. (ELT Journal 56/2) as a discussion about how teachers ask questions – or rather what they do when students speak. I think you might enjoy it in the light of this discussion too.


  8. November 28, 2011 6:11 pm

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for reading, and for your questions too, here goes on some replies to them –

    1 – I think I have dealt with this above in reply to Dale and Claudia. But, yes, you are right we do need to be sure “what’s going on”. As I say to Claudia, I am a fan of asking for examples rather than the typical CCQs such as “Did this happen in the past or the present?” etc… I like examples because they not only check understanding, but they often also help to build up collocations and have the added benefit of not making the students feel under-challenged.

    2 – This is exactly the issue that I am grappling with. It’s all very well when working with a strong candidate to ask referential questions and see where it takes them, but when working with weaker candidates, this could be seen as neglect on the part of the tutor insofar as they haven’t helped the candidate to notice or attempt things (techniques/lesson shapes/task ideas) which they are unable to do alone. Just as we would give more support (perhaps by feeding in more vocabulary etc…) to a lower level English learner, we should do the same for the different abilities that our trainees come to the course with, shouldn’t we?

    3 – Yes. I don’t know either.

    Thanks for the suggested reading. Am in the middle of it at the moment and will save comment until I have finished it (which won’t be today), except to say – “It’s you that doesn’t work.” (pg. 119) could prompt some interesting classroom situation, eh?!


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