Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Christopher Stillwell demonstrates how
skilled questioning can facilitate learning

Questions can take us anywhere. “Preguntando, llegamos a Roma” (asking questions, we get to Rome), or so the expression goes. In the classroom, effective use of questions can hold the key to learning, but poorly posed questions can subvert the teacher’s very goals, causing misunderstandings, confusion, and worse. Truly mastering the art of asking questions that facilitate learning could take a lifetime. Why not take a moment now to scratch the surface?

When is a question not a question?
In the field of mediation and transformational conflict resolution, the goal is to help conflicting parties tell and listen to one another’s stories. Among other things, this involves great care in the way questions are asked, and similar care can reap enhanced participation in the classroom. One of the key points regarding questions in mediation is to be cautious in the use of yes or no questions. Though yes or no questions can be useful for basic exchanges like asking for confirmation, they are generally ineffective in that they only generate very short answers, and they are risky in that they can betray an agenda when used carelessly. In the classroom, “Are there any questions?” is a fine example of an often ineffective yes or no question. Though it would appear that the teacher is turning over the floor, in many contexts it is actually quite the contrary, as when there is a sense that time is running out and the desired response is plainly, “No questions — we understand!” The pragmatic context effectively creates a barrier to questions that might slow the class momentum.

Once this subtext is established, even genuine offers to take questions can fall flat. For instance, on another occasion the teacher may make a sincere offer to hear questions about the next homework assignment. After pausing, hearing nothing, and dismissing class, the teacher then witnesses a flurry of panicked students asking one another exactly what they are expected to do before the next class. What happened? Why didn’t anyone ask? Whether the students had been programmed to be agreeable and pretend to understand or whether they were apprehensive about inconveniencing their classmates by delaying the close of class, an alternative to a yes or no question would likely prove more effective. One option would be for the teacher to carve out two minutes for students to ask questions to one another about the assignment before opening the floor to general questions.

Another insight from the field of conflict resolution can be found with regard to “why” questions. In many cases, these questions can also have an impact of shutting down the very discussion they appear to promote. This is because they put the addressee in a defensive position by demanding an explanation for thoughts or actions. The attacking tone is fairly obvious in such questions as “Why didn’t you do your homework?” But even “why” questions intended to foster deeper thinking regarding class content can come across as assaults. As an alternative, mediators tend to use the less aggressive, “Could you tell me more about that?” This is a phrase that might serve equally well in the classroom for maintaining a comfortable environment and facilitating discussion.

What do we expect?
Teachers will often find it useful to ask comprehension questions, particularly when using authentic materials like newspaper articles, songs, and movies. Because these questions will set students’ expectations for what they should be able to understand and how they should approach the material, it is important to proceed cautiously. Open questions that encourage guessing and multiple points of view can instill a tolerance for ambiguity, an invaluable disposition when dealing with the unpredictability of authentic material, but questions about minor details can have the opposite effect, creating the frustrating implication that students should be able to understand every word.

Ideally, questions can make the most challenging of material approachable by highlighting the information that students can glean from a difficult text. For instance, asking beginners to engage with the newspaper may seem like a tall order, but it all depends on the questions. Asking students to find the latest baseball scores would be a reasonable request, and such a question has the added benefit of empowering students to begin to engage with seemingly impossible material.

For students to get the full benefit of authentic material, repeated encounters are often necessary. Repetitions can seem boring to teachers, given the ease with which they understand the material, but students often have far greater tolerance for repeated encounters and the opportunities for better understanding. For advanced students who might be more inclined to keep moving on to new material, a couple of well designed questions can make a repeat viewing or reading fresh by offering a new frame through which to interpret and enjoy the material. For instance, students revisiting an art exhibit can see the work with fresh eyes if additional background information regarding the works of art is provided and students are then asked to ponder how this background is manifested in the work itself. For spoken and written texts, students can be encouraged to use a second or third pass as an opportunity for more specific language focus as they try to notice interesting examples of authentic language, from the choice of verb tenses to the linking of connected speech.

It is worth noting that, in a sense, questions provide the backbone of our entertainment. The most engrossing books, movies and television programs keep us guessing, planting questions with every closing scene and making us hungry to know what will happen next. Following their example, another idea for effective classroom practice can be discerned, as teachers can give their classes a little Hollywood magic by closing with a question to create a knowledge gap and stimulate interest, fostering anticipation of the coming lesson. For instance, a teacher might close by saying, “What is the most common mistake for English learners, and how can we avoid it? We’ll find out on Tuesday!”

Real questions
Questions posed in the classroom often provide a poor model of real-world communication. Long and Sato (1983) found that most ESL teachers’ questions are those that require students to display knowledge of the material they have learned and understood, questions for which the teacher already knows the answer. In the outside world this line of questioning is far less frequent, and questions are primarily used instead to gather unknown information.

It can be uncomfortable for teachers to steer discussion into unknown territory, but this may be one of the few ways to facilitate authentic communication between teacher and student in a language learning classroom. When a teacher asks, “How is the weather outside?” on a rainy day, the teacher can accept virtually any answer that includes the word ‘rain’ and be satisfied that a relatively successful exchange has taken place. However, when a teacher asks “What did you study in Mr. Johnson’s class today?” the outcome is presumably far less certain, in which case the exchange creates a genuine need for negotiation of meaning as the learner is compelled to communicate some sort of new information to a listener who is limited in the capacity to make inferences or provide support. Exchanges involving such genuine questions as these can become a regular part of class through a range of ‘show and tell’ activities that involve students reporting on things they have learned from independent reading and the like.

Empowering students to question
Like their teachers, students need dedicated time to become proficient in the use of questions. While the topics discussed above should be relevant to all, a more immediate concern for many language students is simply to become fluent in putting words together in a fashion in which grammar and pronunciation issues do not render communication impossible. One fun way to build fluency is with the game of questions, in which students form a circle and one student begins by making eye contact with another and asking a question. The student who was asked does not answer. Instead, this student asks another student a new question. Students are eliminated when they do anything other than ask questions on their turn, without inordinate delay. For example, student A might start with “Ready, let’s begin. Where is the restroom?” To which student B responds by asking student C “Is this your pen?” and C asks student D “What time is it?” For fun, participants can go out of their way to try to trip each other up with such questions as “Is it my turn?” “Could you repeat that?” and “Is that a spider on your sleeve?”

Practice with requests for repetition and clarification can also be quite valuable, as communication breakdowns are a regular and threatening event for second language learners. Teaching a list of common alternatives to the most basic of repair requests can counteract feelings of inadequacy by transforming such requests into opportunities to demonstrate fluency with a range of question forms. Students can benefit from developing facility with such alternatives to “What?” and “Could you repeat that?” as “Excuse me?” “(I beg your) pardon?” “(I’m) sorry?” “Could you say that again?” “I missed the last part- what did you say?” “What does ________ mean?” “You did what/went where/talked to who(m)?” and even “Huh?”

It might also be useful to draw students’ attention to the frequency with which communication breakdowns occur between native language speakers, to emphasize the fact that a need for repetition is not synonymous with inability to communicate. And if students’ enthusiasm for practicing questions wanes, it may be good to remind them that learning to ask questions well can ease their conversational burden significantly. As Dale Carnegie (1936) suggested, the key to being a good conversationalist is to “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.” How better to do so than with well-posed questions?
What do your peers think about questions?

In addition to giving students practice with questions, teachers can improve their own practice by setting aside time at professional meetings to explore ideas about effective classroom questioning techniques with their peers. A few prompts can help get things going, facilitating a robust discussion and allowing colleagues to benefit from one another’s expertise.

Activity A: Discussion
Discuss these two opinions with your partner. Which opinion do you agree with the most? For what reasons?

Opinion 1
Being forced to answer questions makes students uncomfortable. Teachers can make the classroom experience more pleasant by giving lots of examples. Questions should be limited to yes/no or limited choice questions, so that the students don’t face difficulty.

Opinion 2
Students come to school to practice using the language. Therefore, they should be given opportunities to speak. At times this may mean calling on students and demonstrating willingness to wait for an answer by allowing silence.

Activity B: Ranking
When teachers give instructions, we want to know that everything is clear for the students. How would you rank these questions in terms of effectiveness?

“Do you understand?”

“Can you give me an example of what you are supposed to do?”

“It’s easy, right?”

“Can you repeat the instructions to me?”

“Can you repeat the instructions to each other?”

“Should I give you an example?”


“If you don’t understand, could you please raise your hand?”

Questions everywhere
Questions may pave our way to Rome, but if we want to get to Carnegie Hall we need to practice. The same can be said of our use of questions. Tapping the full potential of questions to facilitate learning requires hard work in the form of practice, reflection, and exploration. But, given the impact that questions have on virtually every aspect of our lives, inside the classroom and out, isn’t it worth it? Good question.

Carnegie, D. (1936) How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc. (p. 93)
Long, M. H., & Sato, C.J. (1983) “Classroom Foreigner Talk Discourse: Forms and Functions of Teachers’ Questions” In H.W. Seliger & M.H. Long (Eds.), Classroom Oriented Research in Second Language Acquisition (pp. 268-285). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Aspects of this article have been inspired by conversations I have had the good fortune to have with professors and colleagues at Teachers College Columbia University, including John Balbi, Gabrielle Kahn, Barbara Hawkins, Danny Mallonga, and Bede McCormack.

Christopher Stillwell ([email protected]) is assistant director of the Sojo International Learning Center at Sojo University in Kumamoto, Japan. He has published numerous articles and chapters on classroom practices and professional development, and has taught adult learners of English for 16 years in such places as Spain, New York, and Japan, in addition to teaching TESOL graduate students at Teachers College Columbia University.