Skip to main content

Asking questions

Modern language teachers ask a lot of questions. What's the best way of doing it? The question is worth asking. It is fundamental to what we do. I was trained meticulously back in 1980 on how to ask selected and graded questions. We learned a hierarchy of questions from simple yes-no questions, through either-or, on to the toughest type of question, the open-ended question. This was good and I have continued to ask questions a good deal, though fewer than before as pair work has rightly gained ground.

I was reading the other day a section of a booklet about assessment for learning written by academics at King's College, London. In their section on questioning techniques, they cited research which showed that pupils attain more if you do not let them put up their hands to answer questions. You should choose who answers yourself, but maybe allow students to "phone a friend" if they are stuck, so as not to put too much pressure on them. Their rule of thumb was: only put up your hand to ASK a question. The argument goes that if you let kids put up their hands it will always be the same ones who answer and that it will be these students who make most progress whilst the quiet ones fall behind.

I guess we can all relate to that. But should we abandon "hands up" and go for just choosing students to answer questions? Now, I have often done that in the past for parts of a lesson because I know that some kids sit back and let others do the work, but should we do it all the time?

I have some doubts. We are told (and I tend to believe it) that children learn best in a supportive, unthreatening environment. Now, I don't know about you, but if I am in a classroom situation as a student, I feel a little fearful if I think the teacher could ask me something at any moment. I like time to reflect and maybe even switch off occasionally. On the other hand, maybe this is just a bit soft, and putting a little pressure on kids is a good thing. Maybe it keeps them focused, a bit on edge, more alert. Instant response in language learning is rather important after all.

Maybe next term we'll do a little departmental experiment on this. We could choose a class (maybe Y8 or Y9) and try the "no hands up unless it's a question" approach for a limited period to see how it goes. If managed sensitively it might be productive.

My guess is that I shall conclude that "hands up" is generally alright, but that more frequent sessions of "picking on students" would be productive.


Popular posts from this blog

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

Making words memorable

Most teachers and researchers would agree that knowing words is even more important than knowing grammar if you wish to be proficient in a language. As linguist David Wilkins wrote in 1972: "Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed."One of the frustrations for teachers is pupils' inability to retain vocabulary for productive use. A good deal of research has been done over the years into how pupils might better keep words in memory. Two concepts which have come to the fore are spacing and interleaving.

Spaced practice

A 2003 review of the literature by P.Y. Gu reported that most studies show that students frequently forget words after learning them just once.  Anderson and Jordan (1928) discovered that after initial learning, then one week, three weeks and eight weeks thereafter, the recall success was 66%, 48%, 39% and 37% respectively. Other studies have produced similar results. Unsurprisingly, these researchers recommend, space…

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…