Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

GCSE and IGCSE revision links 2018

It's coming up to that time of year again. In England and Wales. Here is a handy list of some good interactive revision links for this level. These links are also good for intermediate exams in Scotland, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. You could copy and paste this to print off for students.

Don't forget the GCSE revision material on of course! How could you?

As far as apps for students are concerned, I would suggest the Cramit one, Memrise and Learn French which is pretty good for vocabulary. For Android devices try the Learn French Vocabulary Free. For listening, you could suggest Coffee Break French from Radio Lingua Network (iTunes podcasts).

Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)