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The pros and cons of teacher-led question and answer

I am returning to an issue I have blogged about previously, but one which merits careful consideration by young teachers since it is such an integral part of teaching and can reflect a teacher's views on language learning and teaching pedagogy.

Some teachers make great use of whole class questioning, others try to move away from it as soon as possible. What issues are involved in our choice of oral dialogues in the classroom?

In favour of question-answer

  • It allows the teacher to carefully control the input students receive.
  • It provides a lot of listening input, released in small manageable chunks. So question-answer should not just be seen as oral activity, but, more importantly, a listening activity.
  • It is part of a whole pedagogical approach which assumes grammar and vocabulary can be internalised by controlled practice.
  • It can be effective as a class-controlling activity. The teacher controls the pace and is the only person talking.
  • It can be entertaining and motivating for pupils when done well.
  • It can be an effective way of differentiating between faster and slower pupils. With a "hands up" approach, the teacher can direct harder, more open-ended questions at faster pupils, easier closed questions at slower pupils.
  • Cleverly scaffolded question sequences can encourage pupils to infer language rules on their own.
  • Many pupil enjoy taking part in whole class question-answer, Younger ones especially often enjoy showing off what they can do.
  • A "hands down" approach should encourage all pupils to listen intently and be ready to answer.
  • At higher levels it allows the teacher to adapt instantly to student answers, challenging them further and taking conversation in interesting directions.
  • It is highly adaptable. You can do all kinds of variations on question-answer e.g. giving false statements, seeking questions to answers, getting a pupil to play teacher at the front, doing true/false or instant multi-choice and so on.
  • It is a useful starter or what used to be called oral warm-up. It brings the group together and allows the teacher to review previous work, giving the class confidence in what they have already learned.
  • Although an artificial form of communication, pupils are willing to play the game, especially if you explain to them why you are doing it.
  • It can be part of a multi-skill activity e.g. teacher asks question, pupils answer orally then write down the answer.
  • Skilled question-answer allows you to keep the class running in the target language.
Against question-answer
  • When used to promote oral practice it has limitations. Only one person can speak at a time so it is highly inefficient. Pair work is far more productive.
  • It places high demands on concentration so can be hard to make work with some classes. It can be boring.
  • Although the teacher is in control, it places demands on the teacher's energy and, at higher levels, oral skill. If the teacher's skills are limited the quality of input will be low.
  • You can never be certain if pupils are actually listening, even with a "hands down" approach. Students would appear to be very inactive most of the time.
  • With both a hands down and hands up approach it puts pressure on pupils to perform in front of their peers. Many students dislike this and some argue that it hinders progress. We learn less well when anxious. Many pupils prefer pair or small group work where there is less pressure to be correct.
  • Some classes may be less well-behaved during question-answer than is pair or group work situations.
  • If the main role of question-answer is to promote listening comprehension then there may be better ways to do this. Question-answer exchanges are usually very artificial in a classroom setting. "Where is the pencil"? "It is on the table." (It's pretty obvious where the pencil is, so it's a redundant question.)
  • Some would argue that the "accoutrements" of question-answer (powerpoint slides, flashcards etc) are an unnecessary and inefficient way to improve students' skills. Translation, they might argue, is more effective.
Perhaps you can come up with other arguments. 

As with many MFL classroom activities, much depends on how well the task is managed. Some teachers may be very skilled with question-answer, they may thrive being the centre of attention and their classes may enjoy the process. Others may be more comfortable and successful developing listening in other ways and promoting oral fluency primarily through pair and group work.

Remember, of course, that these approaches are all rooted in your explicit or tacit view of how languages are learned. Some practitioners believe proficiency/fluency only emerges through receiving lots of comprehensible input. American fans of the TPRS approach (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) value question-answer, or "circling" as they call it, because it provides lots of meaningful input, not because it provides opportunities to speak. They believe that spoken fluency does not improve by the process of speaking itself, but rather just by listening and reading. Most teachers do not hold this view and assume that practising speaking makes pupils better speakers.

From a personal point of view I usually liked my lessons with younger pupils especially to contain variety so included chunks of whole class oral work, chunks of pair work (not group work since this seemed less efficient and controllable to me), chunks of "pure listening" (playing CD or video) and small chunks of reading and writing. As students grew older I would do less whole class question-answer and more pair work. 

At A-level I would return to considerable amounts of question-answer/discussion as classes were smaller and it was a chance to provide large amounts of high quality comprehensible input, thought-provoking questions and responses to student answers. (I was fortunate in being quite fluent so this approach seemed natural to me.) 

On mature reflection, I believe that the primary role of question-answer is to develop listening skill and to be a route into a whole range of multi-skill tasks. My hunch is that fluency emerges over time thanks to exposure to large amounts of controlled and less-controlled input.


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