Skip to main content

Why is question-answer technique so important?

The extensive use of question-answer (QA) in language teaching is associated most closely with two quite contrasting approaches to language teaching. The first is what is sometimes termed the British oral-situational approach (developed most notably in the 1960s), the second is the TPRS approach where it is called circling. Most teachers use QA to a considerable degree whatever their pedagogical view about second language learning.

In the oral-situational context, QA was was developed by teachers as one form of direct method, with the principal aim of developing grammatical awareness and proficiency through the recycling of heard and spoken language rather than translating. Rules would be "internalised" through repeated use. The teacher took the lead and pair and group work was not very common.

Oral-situational QA is often, at beginner level, very focused on grammatical form, putting specifically chosen grammatical points in quasi-communicative contexts.("Where is the monkey? It is in the tree." - even though everyone can see it is in the tree.) Questions are often "finely tuned" to elicit answers featuring the grammatical or vocab point being targeted. Critics argue therefore that it is too focused on grammar, not enough on meaning and real-life use of language.

In the TPRS context question-answer is much more focused on communicating authentic meaning and is less focused on grammar, although its proponents may argue that grammatical awareness and proficiency are its ultimate aims. Although grammatical and lexical points may be repeated, question are far less finely tuned to grammatical structures (more typically a small handful of target words or phrases). In fact, strong proponents of TPRS would argue that grammar should not be targeted at all.

Whatever your theoretical bias, QA needs to be done well to work. When this is the case it has the following advantages, I would argue:

  • It provides good teacher models for listening purposes (in fact this may be its main goal).
  • It provides repeated practice in chosen lexical and grammatical areas.
  • It represents communication, albeit in a somewhat artificial form. Most academics believe that language is at the very least partly acquired by hearing comprehensible input and "negotiating meaning".
  • It allows for subtle scaffolding in the classroom (you can choose questions for specific pupils - forget "lolly sticks!").
  • It can form part of a broader lesson plan, e.g. after oral teacher-led QA you can do pair work QA, oral-written QA or written-written QA.
  • It is often a low preparation task once the skill has been mastered.
  • In the right hands it can bring the class together and reinforce good classroom discipline.
  • When pupils take the lead they get to practise lots of question forms.

When I trained back in 1979-80 at London University the QA approach was dominant, too much so (at the expense of other types of communicative work, including information gaps and pair/group work which were soon to come along from EFL). Nevertheless, I would suggest that it still has an important role. Below is a table which presents a hierarchy of question types which can be used at all levels. In the classroom, by exploiting all these question types and other forms of interaction, you can encourage pupils to listen well, understand everything and produce good models of language themselves.

Don't forget that all these question types can be used in both oral and written form. With beginners you might choose to work quite systematically from the top to the bottom, i.e.from easiest to hardest.

Question type
Example
Commentary
True/false statement.
Tom is a cat. True or false?
Students simply process a statement rather than a question form with its varying sentence structure. Students just have to respond true or false.
Yes/no question through intonation.

Tom’s a cat?
Students just say yes or no. There’s no question form to decode. The intonation of the voice shows it’s a question.
Yes/no question.

Is Tom a cat?
Students have to do a little more decoding here, but still only have to say yes or no.
Either/or question.
Is Tom a cat or a dog?
A little more decoding is required, but students only have to choose between the two options they’re given.
Multiple-choice question.

Is Tom a dog, cat, elephant or crocodile?
Slightly harder than the above because of the added options.
Question word question.
What is Tom?
The hardest question type since the students can’t use much in the input to help them produce their answer.


I would just like to reinforce two points:

QA being is a great scaffolding device. Random questioning of pupils, to my mind, seems to be inappropriate since it deprives you of your ability to match questions to pupils. Why ask a really hard question to a struggling pupil? Why give a really easy one to your best student? QA allows to exercise your professional skill pushing each student to the their limit.

Secondly, QA is an excellent way to develop listening skills as you are constantly releasing carefully controlled language in understandable chunks, gradually building up complexity over time.

To conclude, QA is usually best done at pace to encourage quick responses and you can maintain whole class involvement by mixing up QA with individual and choral repetition of answers and by getting pupils to write down answers they hear on paper or mini-whiteboards.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond…

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…

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 frenchteacher.net 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
http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/french/ (Foundation/Higher) http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/french/ (Foundation/Higher)
http://www.audio-lingua.eu/spip.php?rubrique1&lang=fr (Foundation/Higher) http://www.ashcombe.surrey.sch.uk/07-langcoll/MFL-resources/french/fr-video-index.shtml