Questioning Techniques for Discussions in ELL Classrooms

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

One important aspect that is often overlooked when teaching English language learners (ELLs) is the importance of how questions are formed and delivered. This lesson explores questioning techniques that can be used for discussions in an ELL classroom.

Questioning Techniques

While writing, reading, and listening skills all carry great weight in an English language learner (ELL) setting, speaking is perhaps the most immediate and impactful aspect of an English education. Students who are able to speak well greatly increase their chances of academic and social success. One of the best ways to develop and assess speaking ability is through the use of question-heavy discussions. When you incorporate discussions into your curriculum, it is vital to use appropriate questioning techniques.

Questions that are properly formed and asked provide ELLs with an opportunity to demonstrate the language skills they have worked so hard to acquire. They also encourage students to form thoughts quickly and present information in a manner that can be easily understood. With this in mind, the two main components of utilizing questions are choosing the types of questions to ask and determining how to ask them.

Questioning Choices

Students, especially lower-level students, will often try to answer questions with as few words as possible. To prevent this from happening, you'll want to avoid asking ''yes'' or ''no'' questions. However, ''yes'' or ''no'' questions can be used as a basis upon which to develop a question that requires a longer response.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • ''Yes'' or ''no'' question: Do you have a hobby? (Many ELLs will answer this type of question with a ''yes'' or ''no'' because this type of answer fulfills the minimum requirement of the question.)
  • Adapted ''yes'' or ''no'' question: Can you describe one of your hobbies? (This question requires the student to not only name a hobby, but also to describe its key features.)

Multi-Layered Questions

Intermediate and advanced students can benefit from multi-layered questions because the responses for these types of questions encourage students to prepare and plan a response that addresses all aspects of the question. If you use multi-layered questions as part of a larger discussion, you'll want to structure the question so that each part builds on the one that came before. For instance:

  • How did you meet you best friend, why are you best friends, and what types of activities do you like to do together?

Here, the student must break down this type of question before he or she can organize a structured response. If a student omits part of the requested information, be sure to ask for any details he or she left out. For instance:

  • Student: We met in elementary school and we like to go swimming together. (The student neglected to mention why they are best friends, so you'll want to ask a follow-up question to reveal this information.)
  • Teacher: Can you explain why you are best friends? (This question addresses the part of the original question the student missed without making him or her feel a mistake was made.)

Exam-Related Questions

It can also be helpful to ask students questions from an English language assessment exam such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Testing System (IETLS). These types of exams have been heavily researched and fine-tuned over many years, and the questions are structured to elicit thorough responses. The designers of these questions have already done the hard work of crafting them for ELLs, so it would be wasteful to not take advantage of these already existing and valuable resources.

Technique Specifics

Deciding which questions to answer is only half of the equation. In addition to the first step, you'll need to determine both how you ask questions and how students answer questions.

Allow for Pauses

It is perfectly acceptable for students to pause before answering. Giving students a moment to comprehend the words and content of the question you ask is a natural part of language processing. If you are asking complex questions or ones that require long responses, permit students to take brief notes before answering. Notes could include key words or other cues a student can refer to when responding.

In order to keep students interested, use a mix of short and long answer questions:

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