Number one for English language teachers

Minimal resources: Using questions: Part 1

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Teaching notes

Alan Maley provides tips and ideas for using questions in teaching.


If we are looking for easy-to-make and low-resource teaching materials, then surely questions must come near the top of the list.


Good teaching has always been based on a dialogue between teacher and learner. And a staple element in that dialogue is questions. Good teachers know how to ask the right questions at the right time to gradually extend their learners' abilities. They know how to challenge their learners to think, while showing through their manner of questioning that they value the answers their learners give.


In this short article, I want to look at questions used in oral interactions between teachers and learners, and the kinds of questions we use alongside written texts.

Oral questions

Nunan, (1990), among others, has drawn attention to two basic kinds of questions commonly used by teachers. He calls these 'display questions' and 'referential questions'.

1. Display questions
Display questions are the kinds of question teachers ask when they want to check whether or not their students have learnt what has been taught. The teacher already knows the answers. All she wants to do is make sure the students know too, e.g. How many fingers do you have on each hand? It is hardly surprising if students sometimes find this kind of make-believe question a waste of their time. It may, however, have a value, as a way of recycling the new language, particularly in the early stages of learning it.

2. Referential questions
Referential questions are questions where the teacher does not know the answer and is genuinely interested in hearing the students' answers, e.g. Where do you buy your jeans? Such questions tend to interest students more, since they call for a degree of personal involvement.

3. Convergent questions
Another approach to questioning asks if they require convergent or divergent answers. Convergent questions have one correct answer. The aim in answering is to provide that correct answer. Answers are either right or wrong, e.g. How much does X earn every year?

4. Divergent questions
Divergent questions may have a large number of acceptable answers. Personalized, opinion-focused questions are a good example of this kind of question, e.g. How do you think this story will end? How would you solve this problem? Can you think of a similar situation from your own life?

It is interesting to observe that while all display questions are convergent, referential questions may be either convergent or divergent.

In general, students respond better to teachers who treat them like real people and who show a genuine interest in them. This implies that we should consider increasing the use of referential (real) questions and divergent questions in class.

Questions based on texts

There are at least seven types of questions we can ask about a written text.

1. Factual questions
The answer to such questions can be found, like a mirror image, in the text itself, e.g. How many times did she visit Peter?

2. Cause/effect questions
Here the answer can be found by putting together information from different parts of the text, e.g. Why did Jane break up with her boyfriend?

3. Inference questions
Here the answer cannot be found directly in the text: it has to be worked out from partial clues, by 'reading between the lines', e.g. Why did Miss Marple ask about roses?

4. Opinion questions
The answer to this kind of question requires the reader to commit herself/himself to a personal opinion about what has been read, e.g. What do you think about the way Krishnan behaved at the wedding?

5. Interpretation questions
The reader has to interpret, not simply comprehend, the information in the text, e.g. The author mentions Hannah's heart condition in the first line of the story. Why?

6. Personalized questions
Here the reader has to project herself into the shoes of a character and give a personal response, e.g. What would you have done if you had been Kes?

7. Speculative questions:
The reader has to speculate about things which are unknowable, because they are outside the text. Yet the text may well provide some indications, e.g. What do you think happens to Manuela in her new life with Marco?

Looking back at these seven question types, it is fairly clear that numbers 1–3 are those most commonly encountered in coursebook materials. They are also convergent in nature. There is an answer, right or wrong. Types 4–7 are all divergent in nature. As such, they also involve a greater degree of personal investment. One further observation is that question types 4–7 are the kind of things that proficient readers (whether native speaker or not!) tend to do when they read a text for genuine rather than pedagogical purposes. To some extent, type 3 also conforms to this pattern. It could be that such questions are more valuable pedagogically – or at least as valuable! Given the dominance of types 1–3 in materials, perhaps we should consider widening the range of questions to include more of types 4–7.

Whatever the case, it is undeniable that the world of questions is one answer to the question, How do I teach in a low-resource environment?

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Readers' comments (1)

  • This is brilliantly helpful. It's presented very clearly with good examples. This is the kind of resource that a teacher with any type of class can use straightaway to improve their teaching. Thank you!

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