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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
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.


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