Assessment, Communication, Critical thinking, Differentiation, Growth mentality, literacy, Personalized Learning

The Power of 4: Building second language skills with questioning

I wanted to write this blog post to share a strategy that has worked well this year to help my students progress in their speaking skills. The big four language competencies are speaking, listening, reading and writing. Of those, speaking is the one that probably causes the most stress and anxiety for students. They have many reactions to it – some successful, some not, but as a teacher I am still learning ways to help them be effective in it.

One of the things I’ve learned is that they need to speak often. If growth is the goal, then speaking to me or to a peer in a second language can’t be a special occasion, and high stakes assessments don’t generally lead to significant growth in learning. Assessments can show the growth that has taken place in learning over time, but don’t generally promote growth in and of themselves.

I’ve been fortunate this year and last to participate in a series of learning dinners put on by my school district, and in that series we have been listening to presentations from literacyexperts Faye Brownlie and Leyton Schnellert on priority practices. In one of Faye Brownlie’s presentations from earlier this year, she mentioned an oral discussion technique that made my collaboration partner and I look at each other and say, “We need to do that!”

How it works

The strategy is simple, doesn’t take much (if any) time to teach students how to use it, but it pushes students to think critically and creatively in a conversation. If used regularly, we have found that it can lead to huge growth in language learning. It works like this – using a picture or other prompt to start a conversation, students use 4 questions (written on the board) to go around a small group and exchange ideas. Each student chooses one question for which they will start the discussion. They don’t have to memorize anything, because it’s written down (and they copy it into their notebooks). They practice answering the question in full sentences in the second language, with no English being spoken during the conversation. If they need to ask for a word or look something up, they can, but the focus is on maintaining the flow of the conversation. Students have to listen to each other to make sure they are not repeating anything that another group member has said before them. Every member of the group has to answer the question as they go around the circle, including the student who asked the question initially. They keep giving answers until they run out of things to say, and then move on to the next question.

The teacher’s role:

It’s important to circulate in the classroom during this time. This is an opportunity for students to ask for help, but also for the teacher to join in or observe what students are talking about and how deeply they may be exploring a given idea.


  • instead of using pictures, use an inquiry topic that you would like students to discuss.
  • use this strategy to introduce the theme of a unit, story, poem or novel.
  • use this strategy in another subject area to introduce a new topic or idea that you want students to explore.
  • use a Reggio approach and give students a provocation to talk about.

Linking to a skill-based curriculum

In BC, our curriculum has been redesigned to focus less on content and more on skills. I have written here and here about my use of learning maps to guide instruction and assessment, and this is one example of how I connect these guiding principles. In my French 9 class, I am using the 4 question strategy to get students talking daily about things related to the theme they are exploring in their current unit. The unit focuses on magazines, and how they reflect the interests of people who read and write them. It’s called “Original et génial”, and is published by Éditions CEC in Québec. In French 9, the core skills that students are expected to learn are:

  • asking and answering various types of questions
  • using description
  • making comparisons
  • giving explanations
  • expressing simple needs and opinions
  • narrating sequences of events

These skills can be embedded in the daily 4 discussion questions quite easily. I don’t cover all of them every day, but over time they are all addressed and students’ ability to use them will grow.

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For example, I recently used these questions:

    1. Qu’est-ce que tu vois? (What do you see?)
    2. Dans ton opinion, quel est le thème du magazine? (In your opinion, what is the theme of the magazine?)
    3. Décris les photos sur la couverture. (Describe the photos on the cover.)
    4. À qui s’adresse ce magazine, selon toi? (To whom is this magazine addressed, in your opinion?)

Question 1 asks students to look at a picture from their textbook that is quite detailed (pictured above), and there are many things they can say that they see. The scene depicts students talking in a school library, looking for ideas. It’s a scene that easily connects to their lives, and one for which they already have basic vocabulary. In this question, they are practicing the skill of identification/low level description. It’s an easy, non-threatening way to jump in to a conversation, but can keep going for quite a while.

Question 2 asks for students to interpret what they see and give their opinion about the theme of a magazine. There are several magazines pictured, and if they don’t feel comfortable talking about one they are free to choose whichever one they do know something about. They aren’t directly asked to give an explanation here, but it’s quite natural for some discussion to go there.

Question 3 asks them to practice the skill of description. Here they can go into more detail, and possibly (hopefully) connect their answers from the previous question to this one in order to justify their opinion.

Question 4 again asks for their opinion, but this time gives them an alternate phrase to use in response (dans mon opinion, selon moi), helping them to broaden the range of things they can say. It also asks them to make connections that go beyond what can be observed directly in the picture and invites connections to themselves, people they know, and everyday life.

The teacher’s role

Before giving students time to have their conversations, I go over the questions with them and make sure all students understand what they mean. We talk about possible sentence starters that can be used in response, and I encourage students to turn their notes into a personalized learning resource by adding whatever pieces of that information they feel they will need to their notes so that they can refer to it as they go. It doesn’t take long before their notes turn into a how-to manual that students care about and use often.

Building oral competency

In the following class, students will be given 4 more questions that are also focused on the unit of study. In the lesson after the one in which I included the questions above, students discussed the following 4 questions:

    1. Qui est représenté sur la couverture? (Who is represented  on the cover?)
    2. Que font ces gens? (What are these people doing?)
    3. Quel est le message du magazine? (What is the message of the magazine?)
    4. À ton avis, quelles activités aiment les lecteurs et lectrices de ce magazine? (In your opinion, what activities do the readers of this magazine like?)

There are similarities between the two sets of questions that allow students to use their ideas from the previous class and include them here. Question 1 again focuses on identification and low-level description. Question 2 can be description, but more advanced students can take it in the direction of narration, starting to include a range of verb tenses. Question 3 is closely related to the previous day’s question about the theme of the magazine, and allows students to either talk about the same magazine or try a new one. Question 4 gives a third phrase that can be used to talk about opinions, and again broadens the scope of the conversation to include everyday life and experiences.

In their next class, the following questions were on the board:

    1. Pourquoi as-tu besoin d’inspiration pour créer un magazine? (Why do you need inspiration to create a magazine?)
    2. Où peut-on aller pour trouver des exemples de magazines? (Where can you go to find examples of magazines?)
    3. As-tu vu des magazines? Où? Lesquels? (Have you seen some magazines? Where? Which ones?)
    4. Quels sont des thèmes populaires pour des magazines? (What are some popular themes for magazines?)

Question 1 asks students to give opinions and reasons, and perhaps a brief explanation. Question 2 asks them to think beyond the walls of the classroom we are in and to broaden their discussion to include other places in our community. Question 3 asks them to personalize their experience, and also asks them to use the past tense to respond with their description. Question 4 asks them to take what they have thought about in the previous two days regarding themes and messages, and to decide which might be popular and which may not be.

The teacher’s role

It’s important to circulate each time students do similar activities. This time, I might ask questions that invite students to think about the similarities and differences between a theme and a message. Because our community is very multicultural, I might also ask them to think about examples of magazines in a variety of languages.

The Growth Mentality

Each time we do similar exercises, students will be able to draw on a larger range of experience in oral language. Once they have a few days of similar conversations under their belts, they will be prepared to respond to similar questions in listening, reading and writing exercises. At the end of the unit they will be asked to engage in conversations and written tasks that will show their learning from the unit. By that time, they will have a range of vocabulary, skills and experience to draw from.

So far, my experience as a teacher is that these summative pieces of assessment are richer, more detailed, and show better comprehension of the material than what I have seen in previous years. My collaboration partner and I are using this strategy in our French 8 classes (which we are co-planning using a different set of units from the same publisher). We are seeing amazing growth in what our beginner French students are able to do, and we’re both excited to see the possibilities for growth that will come from repeated years of using this strategy.




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