7 ways to extend questioning in second language classes

It’s one of the standard forms of human interaction – ask a question, give (or get) an answer. We do it thousands of times a day, but it can be deceptively simple for second language students.

The best thing to help students learn how to ask and answer questions is practice. Repetition. Lots and lots of it. It can be difficult to give enough practice without it being boring, and so I’ve worked on a range of strategies to use for exactly that purpose, which I’m sharing here.

In addition to the usefulness of these strategies, my district has recently made a shift from reporting on the learning of our junior secondary students (grades 8 and 9) with letter grades, and we now use a proficiency scale. Using the language of the scale, the top level is “extending” (the lower levels are “emerging”, “developing”, and “proficient”.) In order to get my students to the “extending” level, I took a look at my instructional strategies and realized that I could deliberately incorporate the language of the scale in what I do in the classroom. Telling my students they can extend their skills or become proficient by doing these things gives them a window into the assessment process, and also makes them aware of what they can do to lead to their own success.

Daily discussion questions

I’ve written about these before in this blog post. Working with my collaboration partner last year, we built a bank of discussion questions for each unit that we covered in our French 8 and 10 courses. The first thing we noticed was how fast our students improved in their oral interaction abilities through daily discussion. The discussion could take a number of forms, either working in partners, teachers asking students questions directly, or working in small groups in which each person would “own” a question and participants have to listen to one another’s responses in order to avoid repeating an answer that was previously given.

reinforcing grammar and syntax with questions

In the unit that my French 8 class is currently working on, the focus (the content) is on food. We are also learning the future tense and negation, and so I have integrated that into my questions. A question might be, “Qu’est-ce que tu vas manger pour le déjeuner?” (What are you going to eat for lunch?) I give them a suggested sentence starter which looks like this: “Je vais manger…” (I’m going to eat…)

We repeat the structure so that they can see how to use nearly identical questions to talk about what they will eat for breakfast, dinner, and a snack. Their answers are personal, and should reflect what they typically eat with their friends and family. Then we use nearly identical questions to talk about what they WON’T eat.

The reinforcement of the structure gives a framework that can be extended to other areas. I can change one thing about each question – it could be the person the question asks about, the content the question is focused on, etc. That new information is easier for students to understand because they know the original questions and answers, and allows for students to build a stronger base of background knowledge.

Matching questions and answers

Once students know and have practiced a bank of questions and answers, it’s important to connect oral interaction skills with written comprehension skills. I keep my discussion questions in Google docs that are organized according to units, and I provide support for the struggling learners in my classes by giving them suggested sentence starters for their answers. These questions and answers are easily converted to a reading comprehension exercise in which students match questions and answers, learning to use content, grammar and syntax clues built into the choices.

This can be extended into other similar types of activities, such as Kahoot games. My students love to play Kahoot, and can choose to work alone or with a partner to answer questions. Here’s an example of a Kahoot game I made with some of our current discussion questions for my French 8 class.

Guided writing to create new questions

Once students are familiar with some basic questions and can answer them successfully, they have a foundation on which to experiment. They use the existing questions as a starting point, and can do something like adding a more specific question word to ask about a different aspect of something.

Here’s an example. Once my students know how to ask and answer the question, “Qu’est-ce que tu vas manger pour le déjeuner?(What are you going to eat for lunch?), I can get them to use the basic structure of that question to ask something like “Where are you going to eat lunch?” “When are you going to eat lunch?” “With whom will you eat lunch?”

To get there, they identify which parts of the original question they need to keep, and which parts they need to change. I typically do this as a class discussion. They fairly quickly realize that they can get rid of the word “que” and substitute other things like “où”, “quand”, or “avec qui”, and they have a brand new question. The answers are easily adapted to fit the new question just by using the original and modifying the wording in a similar way.

Using new questions in conversation

Using the new questions they construct in guided writing exercises, students can have conversations with partners in which they ask and answer them. The reinforcement of the new structures through a guided writing exercise and then reusing that information or transferring it to oral interaction reinforces their learning and helps them see language as a tool that they can play with and mold to shape communication, rather than a set of phrases to be memorized and only used one way.

Using questions as assessment

This is fairly self explanatory, but after practicing the questions in so many different ways, students know them very well, and using the discussion questions as an exit interview for a unit just makes sense as a way to assess their learning. By that point they may even be capable of answering one or two questions with similar structure that they haven’t seen, and to show their decoding abilities in looking for familiar structures to negotiate meaning.

Using questions to introduce new content

If students are very familiar with a certain structure used in a question (such as the future tense in the example above) then I can introduce new content by keeping a similar structure and changing the content that I ask about. Doing so gives them a limited amount of new information that they have to take in or look up, and still invites them to interact with the new information in a familiar way. For example, if I want to take out the mentions of food and meals in my example above and substitute new information about leisure activities or sports, the question is still comprehensible and students know that they only have to look up a limited number of words.

COnfident learners

These strategies gives students more confidence as learners, and makes them less likely to turn to electronic forms of assistance. When they have more confidence in themselves as communicators, students are more willing to take risks, and better able to engage with new information or transfer skills from oral to written communication.

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