Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Question and answer revisited

Here's one in English:

When I was trained in the 70's at the West London Institute of HE (London University) question and answer technique was the established othodoxy in modern language teaching. It had been the practice of teachers like Alan Hornsey and David Harris and before them a certain Mrs Hodgson, if I recall correctly. It was the staple diet of Mark Gilbert's Cours Illustré de Français, which was forward-looking for its time and which I had used as a secondary student.

Question and answer technique has its limitations, but it remains a powerful tool in our armoury. Why is it so good? And how do we do it?

Let's take the second point first: we use a hierarchy of question forms, starting with the easiest (yes/no or true/false) and working up to the hardest (open-ended questions with a "what" idea). In between we have either/or questions and fairly closed question-word questions using "when", "where", "what time" etc.

You have to work at pace to stop a class flagging and it may only work well for a limited time, maybe 20 minutes with able students, 10 with less able. The teacher can ask questions, pupils can ask questions to the teacher or to each other. The teacher can ask as pupils write down answers (good for a calming afternoon session). The teacher can give false statements which pupils correct (they like this).

Pupils usually put up their hands, but you can put them on the spot a bit - this can make them sit up and concentrate harder. You can mix up individual questions with repetition (group or individual).

Visual aids are great for QA, but texts offer a lot of variety too.

So, why do it?

Good for teaching listening skill, brilliant for controlling the release of material at the right level (selection and grading), good for class control, provides lots of target language input, encourages pupils to induce grammar rules, suits the teacher who enjoys leading, good for modelling good pronunciation, it's demanding, plays on the behaviourist learning model (plenty of repetition and drilling), it's good for promoting accuracy (teacher's model is better than a partner's) and it is form of communication, albeit artificial. Don't forget what it replaced: grammar-translation.

Downsides? Yes, it's not authentic communication, but we are in a classroom, not on the street, so plausible is fine, authentic not vital. Only one child speaks at a time, what are the others doing? Listening? Who knows?! But if you work fast and keep them on their toes you can keep them on task. It's demanding on concentration and some groups may not take it for long. is it fun? Does it have to be??

Overall we would be foolish not to make the most of this most basic of techniques. I am less gung-ho about it than when I started teaching. I was more dogmatic then, less pragmatic. But I do wonder whether young teachers receive any training on questioning techniques and the value of question-answer as a pedagogical tool.

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